Mammals

Wild Mammals

Badgers

  • Badger

Badgers are large nocturnal mammals with black and white striped faces. They live in family groups in fields or woodland. They dig out large burrows called setts with their powerful front paws. The setts are well organized and clean. The badgers change the bedding (straw, dry leaves or bracken) regularly. They also dig small holes away from the sett, to use as toilets. Their favourite food is earthworms, then beetles, small mammals, fruit and cereals. They even dig out and eat wasp and bee nests. You can often spot well-trodden badger paths between the sett and the family’s feeding grounds. Some badgers suffer from tuberculosis, a disease that cows can catch too.

Dormice

Dormice are secretive, nocturnal creatures who are rarely seen. They are round, with a fluffy tail and big eyes. From October to April they hibernate in cosy winter nests amongst tree roots.They spend the rest of the year climbing around in bushes, trees and undergrowth: coppiced woodland is ideal. They build their summer nests above ground, preferably in a thorny bush for protection. For nest material, they use dry leaves, moss, grass and strips of honeysuckle bark. Young dormice are ready to leave the nest when they are a month old. Dormice like to eat insects, pollen, flowers and hazelnuts. If you find a hazel shell with a neat round hole in it, that is evidence of dormice! Foxes and birds of prey, including crows and magpies, like to eat dormice. The Quantock Rangers put up nesting boxes in woodland to encourage dormice.

Field voles

Field voles like to live in places with undisturbed thick grass. Young forests are ideal, before the trees get too big. They eat grass, roots and bulbs, and make tunnel systems amongst the grass stems and fallen grass. They are noisy and fierce when defending their territory. They have 4-6 babies, and can breed from 6 weeks old. This means that their numbers can increase very quickly. However voles are the main food for barn owls and are popular with most predators, such as kestrels, foxes, snakes and cats.

Foxes

  • Fox

Foxes can adapt to living in any environment. They scavenge for food at night, catching small mammals like rabbits and voles. They also eat fruit and insects, and they will kill chickens if they can get inside the pens. Their main enemies are humans. At night, in the courting season (January and February) you can sometimes hear the strange sound of foxes calling to each other. They live in family groups and make dens for their young which are born in March. Fox cubs are very playful. In about September, the young male foxes leave the family to find a new territory.

Hares

Hares are well adapted to living in open habitats. Their large eyes and long ears warn them of danger and they can run very fast. They are energetic and enjoy leaping, chasing and ‘boxing’ each other, especially in March and April. There is an old saying: ‘as mad as a March hare’. They are herbivores, eating grass and other plants. Unfortunately many of the plants they like to eat are a nuisance to crop growers who get rid of them with weedkillers. This is one reason why hare numbers have dropped. Their other enemies are owls, foxes and buzzards.

Ponies

  • Pony

"Winter Wonderland"

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Herds of Exmoor ponies live wild on the Quantocks. They are the descendants of the ponies who lived here in the Ice Age. So they are very tough and can survive in all weathers. Their coats are well adapted, with an outer layer of wiry hair to keep them dry and a very thick under-coat for warmth. They have wide nostrils to warm the cold winter air before it goes into their lungs. Because they feed on coarse moorland grass their jaws and teeth are very strong. They use their large front teeth to bite off grass very close to the ground.

Rabbits

Rabbits were brought to Britain in the 12th century to provide meat and fur. Many medieval villages had an area set aside as a rabbit warren. Today many people see them as pests because they do a lot of damage to crops and young trees. Rabbits live in large groups called ‘colonies’ with one main leader, and they are most active at night. They dig their burrows in open grassland, or at the edges of fields. You can recognize a rabbit warren because the grass around it is nibbled very short. There will also be piles of rabbit droppings that mark the edges of their territory. Rabbits breed from 4 months old, and may have up to 20 babies in a year, so rabbit numbers can grow very quickly. But many predators kill and eat rabbits, including buzzards, foxes, stoats, badgers and man.

Red Deer

  • Red Deer

Red Deer. The Quantock Hills are famous for their wild Red Deer. You are most likely to see groups of deer at dawn and dusk, in woodland or grazing on open land. Apart from the rutting (mating) season, in September, male and female deer live in separate groups.

  • Group of red deer stags
  • Group of red deer stags

The stags (males) grow new antlers each year, and shed them in March or April. As the stags get older their antlers have more tines (branches). Antlers can grow to about 70cm long. When a stag has reached five years old it is ready to mate. At the rut, it shows off its powers by bellowing loudly, wallowing in mud and chasing off rival stags, sometimes even fighting with them. A successful stag might mate with as many as 20 hinds.

  • Red deer calf hiding in bracken

The babies (calves) are born in May or June. They hide in the bracken, well camouflaged by their white spots. The young deer stay in the family group until their second year. There is only enough food and space on the Hills for a certain number of deer. If there are too many deer, they become a nuisance to people, damaging young forestry trees or venturing onto farmland and eating crops. Sometimes they get onto roads and cause accidents. This is why their numbers need to be controlled. Traditionally this was done by hunting. Managing the deer is part of looking after the Quantocks and keeping it special.

Woodmice

  • Woodmice

Woodmice can live in all sorts of habitats. They dig burrows where they have their babies, store food, and sleep in the daytime. They are active at night time, searching for seeds, shoots and buds as well as snails and insects. Woodmice have a very good sense of smell and hearing. They are always on the alert for predators like cats and owls.

Domesticated Mammals

Sheep

  • Upland Sheep
  • Lowland Sheep

Sheep are grass-eating herd animals that were first domesticated in the Neolithic period. Their original British ancestors were small and tough, more like goats. The sheep the Romans brought in were more woolly. Over the years, farmers have brought in other types of sheep and now there are dozens of varieties. Some have been bred for their wool, their meat or their milk. Others are bred because they can survive well on cold hillsides with not much grass. Sheep naturally stay together in large flocks, where there is safety in numbers. To us they all look similar, but a ewe will only feed her own lamb, which she recognizes by smell.

Cattle

  • Friesians
  • Longhorns

Cattle. Today’s domesticated cattle are descended from the herds that lived wild on the grasslands of the world. In Britain, the earliest cows were small and tough, like modern Kerry cows. Longhorns were first bred to pull carts and ploughs. Some modern varieties, like black and white Friesians, were bred to produce large quantities of milk. Others, like Herefords, are bred for beef. Plant food is difficult to digest, so large grass-eaters like cows have an extra stomach compartment called the rumen. This is where they store lumps (called cuds) of grass which they can chew properly later. This is called ‘chewing the cud’ or ‘ruminating’. Cows don’t have biting teeth. Instead they use their long tongues to tear up grass.

Pigs

Pigs. The pigs you see today are all descended from British wild pigs and Asian pigs that were imported in the 18th century. Some white (or pink) pigs can suffer from sunburn or from the cold, and have to kept sheltered. Others are tougher. Pigs, like humans, are omnivores. This means they can eat all types of food. Most families used to keep a pig in their back yard, feeding it on scraps. When it was killed it provided them with offal, pork, ham, bacon, suet, blood, gelatine and lard.

Extinct Mammals

Aurochs

Aurochs (wild cattle) Modern cattle are descended from the wild ox or aurochs, which became extinct in Britain about 2,500 years ago. They were large animals that measuring about 1.8 m from shoulder to shoulder. In Europe the wild ox survived to modern times: the last one died in Poland in 1627.

Brown bears

Brown bears used to be common in Britain. They were popular in Roman times in wild beast shows. Farmers, however, killed bears because of the damage they did to their flocks and herds. By Medieval times there were none left in Britain.

Mammoths

Mammoths were well adapted for life in a cold climate, with their long, thick hairy coats. They lived in Britain until the end of the Ice Age and were hunted by Stone Age hunters. Sometimes these large animals got bogged down in riverside mud and couldn’t escape. They died and their bodies rotted away. Occasionally, people find still their bones or tusks when they are quarrying for sand or gravel.

Wolves

Wolves. Packs of wolves used to hunt on mountains, moorland and heath. The last wolves were killed in England in the 1550s. Modern dogs are descended from a small type of wolf which was domesticated in the Mesolithic to help with hunting.

Wild boar

Wild boar used to be common in Britain. Their numbers fell because people hunted them for food and sport. They also lost their habitat when forest were chopped down. Wild boar died out in Britain in the 17th century, but are still common in the great forests of Europe.

Mystery mammal ?

  • Mystery mammal

These creatures appear on a bench end in Crowcombe church. It’s not clear what they are, although the one on the right looks a bit like a bat. There are other strange, mythical creatures, like the green man, to be found inside and outside Quantock churches. Maybe they were imagined by the people who carved them. What do you think?