Norfolk Wildlife Trust ambassador Ben Garrod tackles the hot topic of migrants
Wildlife knows no boundaries, says the Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Whatever side of the political fence you may sit on, or even if you’re blissfully apolitical, there’s no escaping the fact that a fundamental sense of being British is a hot topic in the UK right now. The idea of being ‘quintessentially British’ has been explored and challenged from various quarters, but it seems that nature herself and migration might provide us with a rather apt parable.
As a biologist, when I hear the term migrant, my thoughts are of certain insects, marine mammals and birds. We are a nation of animal lovers and birds hold a particularly special place in our hearts. A quick look at the data reveals that around 40% of the birds in the UK are migrants, here to take advantage of our mild winters and increased food availability.
Some of our most iconic, endearing and familiar birds are only here visiting. Although we do have a resident population of goldcrest for example, the numbers swell each year when they are joined by many more from across Scandinavia. That our smallest British bird can make this 700km journey was just too hard to believe for some, earning them the nickname the ‘woodcock pilot’, as people believed they could only make this journey by hitching a ride on larger woodcocks, which are also migrants.
Many of us look forward to huge, mesmerising flocks of starlings each winter but these murmurations are in fact an avian cultural melting pot, with birds flying in from as far as Eastern Europe and Russia to double the population already resident in the UK.
One of the most prominent migrants in Norfolk is the pinkfooted goose, visiting our county each autumn. Every year, around 85% of the world population descends onto local farmland and surrounding habitats, with Norfolk being the epicentre of this magnificent gathering. Despite the treacherous 5,000 km journey from Iceland and Greenland, numbers have quadrupled in the last 50 years, with an estimated 200,000 birds arriving now annually.
In addition to so many migrants, many more are
here as the result of human introductions, which may or may not be done intentionally. Both Egyptian and Canadian geese, pheasants and golden pheasants are all here as the result of being introduced, as is the little owl, even. There are even legendary (and almost entirely false) stories of purple-hazed rock stars releasing psychedelic, roseringed parakeets into the London skies, allowing these raucous parrot wannabes to become an indelible part of the British wildlife scene.
But if we really want to find the ‘most British’ bird, where do we need to look? Past the blackbird, song thrush and even the robin and up to the chilly Scottish highlands, to find the only terrestrial vertebrate species unique to the UK. The crossbill is a bird that many people may not have heard of but is the only example of a bird (or mammal, reptile or amphibian) found here and nowhere else. If we want to find the most British animal, then it’s a rather lonely group of one, I’m afraid.
What about the mammals then? The story is much the same and as well as migrants, there appear to be even more examples of introductions, where species have been introduced by humans at some point.
The earliest of these introductions appears to have been the humble house mouse, which came over with Neolithic human settlers thousands of years ago. Many of our deer, including the sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer are also introductions, as are a good proportion of the red and fallow populations.
Most people know that grey squirrels were introduced (from the USA in 1876) but fewer know that our rabbits started out over in Spain and Portugal and fewer still are aware that it was the Romans and not the Normans who brought them across. We now know that some
‘To protect this diversity of wildlife we need to work in partnership internationally’
of the earliest evidence of Roman rabbits comes from Lynford in Norfolk, where cut marks on the bones shows they were very definitely not being kept as pets.
Admittedly, the UK rabbit story does get a little more confusing because they were here around 500,000 years ago but were probably seen off by the effects of the last ice age, before being reintroduced as Roman fast food.
With at least 3,000 introduced and migratory species in the UK, it’s pretty clear that many of our most iconic and wellloved species originated in mainland Europe or indeed further afield. To protect this diversity of wildlife in Norfolk we need to work in partnership internationally. Our local wildlife, just like ourselves, needs a whole healthy planet to thrive.
With a turbulent history of land bridges, glaciations and human introductions, our British wildlife is a rich tapestry of species from all the habitable continents of the world. It doesn’t always run smoothly and there’s the occasional squabble or two but overall, we manage and are proud of our wildlife. Regardless of where it might have come from, it’s all British now.
Chinese water deer wading through flooded marsh near St Benet's Level and Thurne windmill