One thing to remember is to talk to the animals. If you do, they will talk back to you. But if you don’t talk to the animals, they won’t talk back to you, then you won’t understand, and when you don’t understand you will fear, and when you fear you will destroy the animals, and if you destroy the animals, you will destroy yourself.Chief Dan George
I’ve been fortunate to travel and photograph wildlife in many wonderful places. The Galápagos Islands, Botswana, Costa Rica, to name just three. But it’s easy to forget that we have some fantastic wildlife here at home too. That’s due in part to the animals’ relative small size and the consequent challenges in finding them.
So when I heard about the British Wildlife Centre just an hour or so’s drive from home, and their dedicated photography days, it sounded like the perfect Christmas present. And luckily my husband was willing to oblige, and to join me on the trip. We had to wait until September for a variety of reasons, but was it worth the wait!
We had timed it well as the recent heatwave had broken and the weather was cool and slightly overcast. Better light for photography, and better temperatures for active animals! And talking of timing, when I checked my WP notifications as we drove to the centre and saw that Denzil had chosen ‘wild animals’ for this week’s Nature Photo challenge, I just knew I would have to share some photos from this outing rather than rehash images from those destinations further afield.
Now, I know these animals are not actually in the wild. All of them are here either as rescues or as part of breeding programmes for endangered species such as the red squirrels, polecats and Scottish wildcats. But all of them do live in the wild somewhere in the British Isles. So I’m hoping Denzil will agree they qualify *.
* And if he doesn’t, well, I couldn’t wait to share them anyway!
Note: most facts below are taken from the centre’s website and are direct quotes
Since the introduction of the grey squirrel into Britain 125 years ago, the native red squirrel has become increasingly rare. Although red squirrels were once found throughout Britain in both broad-leafed and coniferous woodland, it is the mature pine-dominated woodland of the far north of England and Scotland which is the preferred habitat, as pine cones retain their seeds longer than broad-leafed species.
In 2012 and 2013 the centre donated a colony of red squirrels to Tresco, on the Isles of Scilly. They were released into the Abbey Gardens estate, where natural foods were supplemented with feeders to ensure the best of starts. The island environment provides a safe haven, free from the grey squirrel. Less than a year after the release the red squirrels became self-sustaining, not only making their own dreys and foraging for wild food but also successfully breeding.
The harvest mouse is the smallest rodent in Europe, weighing just six grams. In Britain it is common as far north as Yorkshire, though not on higher ground.
The harvest mouse is the only British animal with a truly prehensile tail that can be used as a fifth limb.
It is the tawny owl which hoots and is our most common owl. It is found throughout Britain right up to the north of Scotland, but is not present in Ireland.
The fox is a remarkably adaptable and successful animal found … in almost every habitat. It is a success because it is willing to eat almost anything and has become particularly adept at surviving alongside man in farmland and urban areas.
[It inhabits] almost every habitat; sea cliffs, sand dunes, salt marshes, peat bogs, high mountains, woodland and particularly abundant (14%) in urban areas.
Hedgehogs are native to mainland Britain and are also found throughout northern and western Europe. [The population is] estimated to be 1 million, a decline of 50% since the 1990s, due to loss and fragmentation of habitat, road casualties and the use of slug pellets.
We learned that baby hedgehogs born here are kept away from the public and have minimal human interaction so that they can be released into the wild.
Since the extinction of the lynx (about 450-600 AD) the Scottish wildcat is Britain’s last remaining wild member of the cat family. It bears a close resemblance to the domestic tabby, but it is more striped and has a bushier, blunt-ended tail marked with thick black rings.
Now confined to the Scottish Highlands, wildcats disappeared from southern England in the 16th century; the last one recorded in northern England was shot in 1849. It is probably close to extinction in the wild, having hybridised with feral domestic cats. The centre participates in a national captive breeding studbook which aims to preserve and enhance the purity of wild cats in captivity for any future release programmes.
The badger is the largest member of the Mustelid family and Britain’s largest land carnivore. They are nocturnal, emerging at dusk in summer to spend the night foraging.
Badgers are now protected by a number of laws. The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 consolidated past legislation, which had made badger baiting and digging illegal and in addition made it an offence to damage, destroy or obstruct their setts. This protection has enabled the UK badger population to dramatically increase to the point where it is said to equal that of the red fox.
A member of the weasel family (Mustelids), stoats are found throughout mainland Britain in a variety of habitats. Their appearance is similar to the weasel, although the stoat is considerably larger and has a distinctive black tip to its tail. In the north their winter coat is white.
The weasel is the smallest member of the Mustelid family and Britain’s smallest carnivore. It is widespread and common on mainland Britain but absent from Ireland. It is common in most habitats and frenetically active both day and night as it must consume a quarter to a third of its body weight every day to survive.
I can vouch for the ‘frenetically active’ statement; these were by far the hardest animals to photograph as they rarely stopped moving for more than a second!
A member of the weasel family (Mustelids), polecats were once widespread and common throughout mainland Britain. Relentless persecution by gamekeepers up until the late 1930s resulted in extermination everywhere except for a small population in north Wales. They have since recovered and are now found throughout rural Wales, the Border counties and are spreading across to former ranges: the Midlands, South and into the South-East.
The centre is a member of the polecat studbook. Through their successful breeding program they supply polecats for a managed release program, contributing to the comeback of these masked mustelids across Britain.
The otter is a large member of the weasel family (mustelids) with an amphibious lifestyle. In the wild they are elusive, secretive animals living in undisturbed rivers, streams and estuaries.
Some of the centre’s otters did indeed prove elusive, but we were able to see and photograph two. This is Jake, an elderly otter who is deaf and partially blind, but that didn’t stop him finding the fish that the keeper used to persuade him to put in an appearance!
In the early 1960s they were on the verge of extinction due to river pollution, habitat loss and hunting. Now with full legal protection, cleaner rivers and managed habitat it is returning to former haunts, though its distribution will always be limited by the availability of fish.
This is Otto, the centre’s other male. It was the two females who remained resolutely camera-shy!
I visited the British Wildlife Centre in September 2023