Phil Pickin: Discover the wildlife right under your feet

Mole 

Wildlife expert Phil Pickin urges us all to take note of the wildlife that’s right under our feet…

Sometimes wildlife can be right under your nose or, in this case, your feet. But despite that we don't often know a great deal about what's close by. Two of the most common animals to inhabit the British countryside have to be wild rabbits and moles.

I know the latter may seem an unusual subject but how often have you seen fields (or lawns) peppered with molehills? I know in my part of South Shropshire, we seem to be living through a mole epidemic with footpaths, fields and gardens looking like battlefields. This is not just unsightly but can also pose a problem for anyone walking in the area, as it’s all too easy to trip over those mounds.

However, let's not make walking into a health and safety issue, moles can also do some good, as we shall see later. So what are these elusive little creatures that we see evidence of, but rarely see in the flesh?

What do moles do?

These industrious little diggers with a three-year lifespan can tunnel an impressive 20 metres a day, and create chambers lined with dry grass within their tunnel systems. These chambers are used for resting after a hard day’s digging but are also thought to contain food stores.

Moles mostly live on earthworms with an 80g mole needing 50g of worms per day. They also eat other invertebrates they find in the soil, but earthworms make up the bulk of their diet. As for locating moles, you’ll find evidence – molehills – just about anywhere but the chances of seeing one are slim. As long as the soil is deep enough to be dug, they can live there.

What are moles good for?

Although seen as a pest, moles can be very useful. In heavy soil the tunnels help to break it up and provide drainage. Moles also eat large numbers of pests in the summer months – pests that would normally damage crops.

Although the impact of their soil heaps can be a pain, and disturbed roots on crops can cause the plant to die, it’s worth remembering the good these busy little animals can do.

Are rabbits just pests?

While seeing a mole is a very rare event, the same cannot be said of the common wild European rabbit. These endearing animals are common across the UK and can be seen during town and countryside walks. However, like moles, many think of rabbits as pests.

It’s true that wild rabbits can cause a great deal of damage to crops, and with their tendency to multiply quickly it’s easy to see how they can become a problem. But they, too, have a role to play in a diverse ecosystem.

How do you find a rabbit?

The European rabbit is one of the easiest animals to spot when you are out and about, especially on sunny days. They often graze and stretch out in front of their warrens, only darting below ground when you’ve got a wee bit too close.

A rabbit’s ears are approximately the same length as its head, and its eyes are brown. This makes it easy to differentiate it from a hare, which has lighter, amber eyes. Sit down on a hillside for a rest during your walk and you’ll undoubtedly find evidence of rabbits – their droppings.

These and the close-cropped grass prove that they are out there, probably watching you at a distance! It would be hard to find a location that rabbits don’t inhabit, other than the highlands of Scotland.

The perfect wildlife introduction for children

Despite rabbits being thought of as pests, and having a number of predators, they continue to proliferate and seem to pack a great deal into their three-year lifespan. Although mainly active at dawn and dusk, you can generally see them throughout the day, making them ideal for children to try and spot.

We need to do more to encourage the younger generation to take an active interest in the natural world, so maybe starting with the most common animals, and therefore those that are easiest to find, is the way to get the ball rolling!

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