The New Forest has been home to many varieties of mammal over the centuries. Lynx and wolves that once roamed the area are now extinct and Wild Boar have yet to return to these parts. The larger species of wild and domesticated mammals remain well in evidence across the Forest for everyone to see in the form of ponies, cattle and deer. However, there is also a wide variety of smaller mammals that continue to reside here alongside their larger counterparts – some more welcome than others!
In particular, the New Forest is a stronghold for bats and 13 out of the 18 UK species can be found here. Bechstein’s & Barbastelle are two of the UK’s rarest species of bat and the New Forest is an important stronghold for them. The Hampshire Bat Group undertakes a significant of research work in the New Forest and have an ongoing Bechstein’s & Barbastelle survey – further details of this and other related topics can be found on their website.
With the exception of the Grey Squirrel, most of these mammals are quite elusive or nocturnal and the following are just a sample of those that are found in the New Forest.
RED FOX (vulpes vulpes)
The fox evokes mixed emotions among people but whichever side of the argument you take, it is hard to deny that they make a very photogenic subject. Unlike many of their urban counterparts, most foxes in the New Forest remain quite wary of humans despite the fact they are no longer hunted.
The male fox is referred to as a dog, the female a vixen and their young are cubs. They mate in the winter and have a gestation period of just over 50 days, a little shorter than domesticated dogs. The mating season only lasts a few weeks, and during this period female foxes come into heat once for a short period lasting only about three days. The young arrive during early springtime when the vixen gives birth to 4 – 5 cubs. The young are born in an “earth” – also referred to as a “den” which they sometimes share with badgers if the sett is large enough.
The cubs are born blind and deaf and their fur is short and black at this stage. For the first few weeks the cubs do not leave the den and are dependent on their mother’s milk and warmth. At this stage the vixen rarely leaves the den and the male fox brings food to her. As the spring progresses the vixen will leave the cubs for progressively longer periods. Around a month after they are born the cubs start to emerge from their den to explore their surroundings. The female finishes lactating at the beginning of summer and at that stage the den is abandoned as the cubs learn to forage. By autumn the cubs are fully grown and the family group starts to disperse. They become sexually mature by their first birthday.
Outside of the breeding and cub rearing season, adult foxes tend to be solitary and males are territorial. They are omnivores and will eat a wide variety of food from fruit to small mammals – they do not pose any significant threat to the larger forest mammals. The fox is a very resourceful animal with an ability to cope in a wide variety of conditions with many now living in large urban areas and cities. However, the life expectancy of the fox is surprisingly short – 12 to 18 months in urban areas, (58% are killed on the roads) and rarely beyond 3 years in rural areas.
BADGER (meles meles)
The badger belongs to the weasel family which includes the otter, stoat, polecat, ferret and pine marten. A male badger is a boar, a female a sow and a young badger is a cub. They are nocturnal, quite elusive and spend much of their life underground during daylight periods. There is a common misconception that badgers hibernate but this is not the case although they do conserve their energy and body weight during winter months when their normal diet is less plentiful.
The following short video taken with an infra red camera provides a view of their nocturnal activities. Their keen sense of smell is clearly evident by the manner in which they constantly sniff the air. The sense of smell is the most important of the badgers senses. It is thought that the badger’s sense of smell is 700 to 800 times better than ours! This means that badgers can smell many things that we cannot. They use their sense of smell to find their way around, and to find food. Badgers can also recognise each other by smell.
Their eyesight is poor and lacking in colour vision. Whilst they cannot see details very well, they can make out shapes, and movements. Despite their small ears their hearing is quite acute and they are well able to detect quiet sounds and also determine which ones are of concern from those which are not.
Badgers live in territorial groups called clans (also referred to as social groups) consisting of a number of badgers and together they occupy and defend a territory against neighbouring badgers. These setts tend to be handed down from generation to generation. Badgers are omnivorous and will eat a wide variety of foods, although their main diet consists of earthworms – up to 200 per day. However, the poor soil conditions of the New Forest is not conducive to a plentiful supply of earthworms and as a consequence, the density of badges in the Forest is slightly lower than in other areas and they take snails and slugs to compensate for the deficiencies in their preferred diet.
Badger cubs are normally born in February and the number of cubs is usually between one and three. Cubs emerge about May after spending the first 8-10 weeks underground. Many badgers die in their first year of life. In fact, out of every three badger cubs born, two will die before they become one year old. Those cubs who survive to become adults have a good chance of living for several years. Many will go on to ages of between five and eight years old before they die. Very few wild badgers live to be 15 which they are capable of achieving in captivity.
PINE MARTEN (martes martes)
The pine marten is also a member of the weasel family. It was once found across the UK but was thought to have been hunted to extinction in England for it’s fur. It is now confined mainly to Scotland and parts of Wales but there have been regular sightings in the New Forest and road kill specimens have also confirmed their presence. In addition, in March 2016, a pine marten was recorded on camera in the New Forest by the Wild New Forest initiative – this is the first time that the animal had been captured on camera in central southern England.
Although pine martens are commonly referred to as nocturnal, they are frequently active during the day, especially in the summer months. They prefer woodland and they live in holes in trees, old squirrel dreys and even old birds’ nests. They hunt in trees and on the ground. and like to roam in broad-leaved or conifer woodlands. They find most of their food on the ground, and they hunt for small mammals, birds, insects, fungi, berries, birds’ eggs and carrion (dead animals). Pine martens generally avoid areas away from woodland or scrub, probably because other predators (especially foxes) can catch and kill them in the open.
They may live to 11 years old, but the normal lifespan is is three to four years.
If you think you may have seen one in the New Forest or come across road kill that appears to to be a Pine Marten, contact Martin Noble on 01425 402211 with as much detail as you can about appearance, location, etc.
GREY SQUIRREL (sciurus carolinensis)
Apart from its photogenic charm, the grey squirrel has little else to recommend it. Originally introduced as a novelty from North America by the Victorians it is now officially classed as vermin.
Not only do these rodents cause significant damage to woodlands, reducing both their amenity and commercial value, they also have a serious impact on woodland birds by predation of eggs and chicks. They damage trees by stripping bark, particularly near the top of trees which causes canopy collapse and the eventual death of the tree. In view of these problems, grey squirrels are now listed as one of the 100 worst invasive species globally.
In Britain it has few natural predators and has successfully adapted to British lowland conditions. It is omnivorous, breeds strongly and is an aggressive settler, equally at home in urban parks and the countryside. Grey squirrels are carriers of the squirrel pox virus for which no vaccine is presently available. The virus is deadly to red squirrels but does not affect the host.
Up until the 1940s the Red Squirrel was so abundant in the New Forest that its numbers had to be controlled but they had become extinct in the area by the 1960s as the woods were widely colonised by the Grey Squirrel. Nationally, during the 1950s the Forestry Commission offered a bounty of sixpence (2.5p) which was paid on production of a squirrel tail in an attempt to control the Grey Squirrel population but this policy was abandoned by the Government in 1958 when it was deemed to be ineffective.
Females give birth twice a year to litters of between 3 and 7 kittens. They nest in ‘dreys’, football-sized nests made from small twigs and branches high up in the tree. Some live up to 10 years in the wild although most only manage 3-4 years.