Four-legged wild life in Britain used to be much more impressive than it is now, with our great forests being freely roamed by wild boars, sabre-toothed tigers, mammoths, wild deer, dragons and so on. This came abruptly to an end at a date variously given as the end of the Middle Ages, the discovery of the gun or the beginning of the Waverly Novels. The main cause was the disappearance of our great forests, which were ravaged by greedy timber wolves, and by printers looking for enough paper for Sir Walter Scott’s prodigious output.
Of the larger animals, only the deer is left. The smaller ones have survived because nobody thought they were worth hunting, though in the absence of anything bigger they have suddenly become desirable, just as mews cottages, once stablemen’s living quarters, are now desirable middle-class homes. This, however, is slightly outside the scope of this book.
There are two distinct types of deer: Parkland Deer and Royal Stag Hunt Outrage Deer.
Parkland deer are instantly recognisable, as they pose with considerable grace and tactical skill under trees in parks so as to present their best profiles to photographers and members of the National Trust. It is not often realised that the deer are taken in by convoys of trucks each night and replaced again each morning by deer wardens; this is always done before the park is re-opened to visitors. When herds grow thin, their numbers are sometimes bolstered by lifelike but artificial silhouette imitations; there is at least one stately home in Wiltshire where all the deer are now cardboard cutouts, and very effective they are too.
Royal Stage Outrage Deer live wild on the Scottish hills, where occasionally they are culled in a burst of gunfire from members of the Royal Family, which is usually enough to crowd everyone except Ian Botham off the front pages of the nationals. Critics who object to this sort of thing should remember that all royal families, too, have over the years been culled by assassination, bombing, execution or being married to Kaiser Wilhelm, so for them it is the only way of life they know and they see nothing odd about it.
Foxes have survived the increasingly hostile countryside by moving en masse to Bristol, where they parade outrageously in an attempt to get into films made by the BBC Natural History Unit. It is almost impossible for some members of the BBC to get to work without being waylaid by foxes striking provocative poses, demonstrating their skill at unarmed combat or even waving scripts in front of their eyes. It is even reported that some over-theatrical foxes have taken to wearing eye-shadow and mincing through the outskirts of an evening. One shaken producer at the BBC swears that he was propositioned by a big butch fox the other day, but he has now gone on leave due to overwork.
Some animals normally found in the house are also found in a totally wild state, such as Alsatians on building-sites and the legendary East Anglian hamster. But the only one you are likely to see is the wild pony, an intelligent creature which fails to see the point in having a man on its back.
I was talking recently to a Dartmoor farmer who had tried to cultivate wild ponies for the purpose of pony-trekking, but with little success; his guests soon got bored with trekking long distances on foot just to look at a few wild ponies which ran away. Next year he intends to turn his land over for cultivation as that old Dartmoor speciality, a rifle range; he has written to several military leaders and has already received a favourable response from Colonel Gaddafy.
Faced with the problem of what to do with the pony population, he has decided on an intervening year of pony-hunting and pony-shooting, This will shock only people who do not know farmers well. See the section on Your Fellow Two-Legged Country-Lovers.
Camels, after being scarce for many years in Britain, are now found in many places though not as many as I would like. In their absence I tend to go for Lucky Strike.
Badgers and moles, chiefly. The convenient way of distinguishing between them is based on the supposed fact that one is large and white and the other is small and black. If we ever got to see them this might be useful but we don’t and it isn’t.
No, the main difference between them is that people feel kindly inclined towards badgers but not towards moles. Anything but. (Very odd, as badgers are surly beasts and moles totally inoffensive.) This explains the fact that when a new motorway cuts across a badger path, the authorities always have to spend an extra million pounds putting a badger tunnel under the roadway. Moles don’t get tunnels; they get sticks of dynamite put in their molehills.
This is also very odd, as moles don’t live under molehills, which are merely rubbish dumps left behind after they have dug tunnels for food collection. In fact, moles don’t really live underground at all, they just feed there. But farmers attack their feeding arrangements so fiercely that moles have nowhere left to go much, except under motorways. This, I feel convinced, is why so many of our motorways are crumbling – they are being undermined by hungry moles. If we left out food for moles instead of dynamite, we might reduce our motorway maintenance expenditure at a stroke and save all the money spent building badger tunnels.
I can see, though, that this subject may be outside the scope of the present volume.
The squashed hedgehog became a cult animal of the 1970s and early ‘80s, featuring in more cartoons than any other kind of wild life and being largely responsible for the major success of ‘Not The Nine O ’Clock News’. It seems to be on the decrease now, either because it is genuinely on the decrease, or because the survivors have learnt to use foot-bridges.
There is no point in trying to distinguish between stoats, ferrets, weasels, ermines and so on. They move too fast. With their razor-sharp teeth they can slash through a motor car tyre in five seconds or sever a petrol pipe, and are thus in my view a major factor for road safety.
Into this category come all the animals like field mice, rabbits, squirrels and frogs.
And into this one go all the others, like voles, shrews, rats and toads.
Some parts of the country have been almost entirely overrun by animals which have moved out of captivity into more spacious accommodation. They are variously referred to as coypus, pumas, llamas, vicunas and that telly gorilla, but most of them are probably only minks. It takes practice to recognise them, but any animal which brings David Attenborough to mind or which gives you the urge to say, ‘Excuse me, but haven’t I seen you on television somewhere?’ is almost certainly an escapee, unless it is Willy Rushton