Mount Grace Priory: Best place to see stoats in Britain

Mount Grace Priory is reputed to be one of the best place to see stoats in Britain. The stoats here have starred in “Stoats in the Priory” a David Attenborough wildlife documentary (the first ever film of the elusive wild stoat in its native habitat) and also featured in his Life of Mammals television series leading to the epitaph as “the most famous pack of stoats in Britain’.

This Radio 4 Living World documentary is excellent “Along with the 40-thousand annual visitors to the 14th century Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire are some rather more elusive guests stoats. Visitors to the Carthusian monastery, founded in 1398, are often delighted by the sight of these small predators, and at the right time of year, a litter of kits. Lionel Kelleway is used to trying to spot elusive mammals, and with the help of English Heritage custodian Becky Wright, he’s taken around the stoats’ favourite dens and hunting spots.”

See also short video: The One Show: Stoats in the Priory (BBC)

The last viable colony of black rats in Britain


The Shiant Isles in the Hebrides have the dubious distinction (as of 2015) of being home to what is probably the last viable colony of black rats in Britain, which has almost become extinct in the UK due principally to pressures from the also invasive brown rat.

The RSPB is current engaged in programme to to erradicte the black rat from the Shiant Isles, where some 3,600 live – the number increasing significantly in the months when more food is available (chicks and eggs). This will hopefully  encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed on the Shiant Isles.

Charlie Elder sets out to find these unloved animals before they are erradicted, paying them a curious homage in his amusing Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals (2015).

After noting that the black rat has been with us in Britain for longer than the rabbit, he sails to the Shiants and finds his prey:

An hour passed and the light was beginning to dim, when something moving from left to right at the top of the rocks caught me by surprise: a tantalising glimpse of tail disappearing between clumps of sea pink. I held my breath. Could this be one? There are no land mammals other than black rats on the Shiants, so it had to be. Please let me see you, little fellow, I whispered to myself. I was downwind and motionless, though close enough to have been spotted. Would it dare break cover for the sake of a free meal? Nothing stirred for a while, until . . . There! It sprinted to a new hiding place well above the bait –a rat, no mistake. Several minutes went by before it appeared once more, scampering down the face of the rock and dodging behind a piece of old tarpaulin lying next to a rusty boat winch. Black rats are known for their climbing skills, nevertheless the ability to descend slippery vertical stone head-first at such speed, without falling, was extraordinary.

Later noting:

There is no record that I am aware of for the ‘longest journey in Britain to see a rat’, but I feel fairly confident that my trip from Dartmoor to the Hebrides could lay claim to the title.

Photo of “Shiant Isles” by Tony Kinghorn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Ardross wolf

ardross wolf

One of the most interesting artefacts portraying the existence of wolves in Britain was chanced upon in Ardross in the Scottish Highlands 1891 while repairing a drystone wall. One of the two carved stone slabs found depicts a wolf, while a second one shows a deer. They are considered two of the finest surviving Pictish animal symbols ever discovered, and are now displayed at Inverness Museum. Image from here

The BBC featured the stone in its series A History of the World in Objects which notes “Made in the 6th or 7th century, the craftmanship is superb, a narrow line, expertly carved with a cleanly cut v-shaped profile. It shows a magnificent wolf which looks like it’s about to leap off the stone at any moment.”

Urban otters in Newcastle

Great short documentary (Springwatch) about the return of otters to the Tyne in Newcastle

“Otters were once on the brink of extinction because of polluted water. But these days otters are making a comeback and can now even sometimes be seen in the heart of cities. Springwatch sent cameraman Jamie McPherson to Newcastle to meet Kevin O’Hara of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust and film urban otters. First to be seen was a large dog otter. Male otters can have a territory of over 12 miles so it is lucky to see one. City otters have been witnessed raiding bins and catching rats.”

England’s last wolf?

Windblown trees, Humphrey Head - - 48659

The limestone outcrop of Humphrey Head is according to legend the place where the last wolf in England was killed in the 14th century. The story goes the wolf  had come down from the fells near Coniston where it had feasted on the sheep flocks. After it attacked a child the locals chased it to the end of Humphrey Head where it was killed with pikes.

Fraser Darling’s deer studies

herd of red deer fraser

Fraser Darling’s study of the red deer population of Dundonnell, in Wester Ross between 1935 and 1959, gave a detailed picture of the reproduction, social behaviour and habitat of deer. His book “A Herd of Red Deer” transformed modern ethology and revolutionised the way that British wildlife was studied.

Describing the role of barefoot walking in Darling’s deer research, Robert Macfarlane writes in “The Old Ways”:

Darling’s unconventional methods: instead of considering the deer as reflex creatures, displaying learnt but versatile reactions to their environment, he proposed a dynamic model of the herd in which each deer’s sensed experience of its landscape shiftingly informed their way of living. Darling’s contention, in short, was that deer ‘were capable of insight’, and his insight into their insight emerged from his decision to go sympathetically barefoot.

Formby’s red squirrels

Formby squirrel
The star atraction of the National Trust Formby pinewoods are the easily spotted red squirrels,  the southernmost mainland population in Britain,  which have clung on here because grey squirrels can’t survive in pinewoods as they are unable to open pine cones.  Despite this, a 2007-08 outbreak of squirrel pox transmitted by greys wiped out some 80 percent of their numbers, leaving as few as 20 reds although the population has quickly bounced back ( 250 by 2014 – video) and the survivors appear to have developed some resistance to the deadly disease.

As of autumn 2015, the population has risen to 250 animals.