Monday 21 June 2010

Day of the scorpion as exotic fauna finds home in Britain

As soon as Yorkshire academic Dr Toni Bunnell learned about the sighting of a family of five Siberian chipmunks crossing a road in Leeds she knew Britain's ecosystem was changing for good.

Big cat stories aside, until now reports of non-indigenous wildlife roaming areas such as the North York Moors have been limited mainly to grey squirrels and infestations of American crayfish.

But today Dr Toni Bunnell, recently retired from Hull University, will present research that points to all kinds of weird and wonderful creatures getting a toe – or rather claw – hold in England's green and pleasant land.

Her study, revealing the top ten exotic animals now thriving in the UK, is based on level-headed sources such as Natural England. A

ccording to the York-based academic's findings, exotic animals can now be spotted frolicking in gardens and ponds all around the country.

They include scorpions, Brazilian aardvarks, Chinese water deer, raccoon dogs and a number of other species spotted in our own Yorkshire backyard.

Dr Bunnell says that until relatively recently, reports of exotic non-indigenous animals had been limited "to something crawling out of a banana crate in a warehouse and dying overnight".

But for a number of reasons, including climate change, species from much more distant horizons have arrived on our shores and have not only adjusted to the British winter but are positively thriving.

The Eden Wildlife Report studied official recorded sightings and population numbers for creatures introduced into the country over the last 150 years.

In Yorkshire, there have been sightings of red neck wallabies and – in West Yorkshire – the common snapping turtle from Mississippi.

The Siberian chipmunk was first spotted in North Yorkshire in 2005 – then again in Leeds last year, Dr Bunnell said.

She added: "When there's a family of five of them seen crossing the road in Leeds you can safely say they're breeding.

"More and more things are popping up. Things that once could not survive due to the temperature but are now thriving."

There are a number of explanations how the creatures arrived in Britain. One theory is that many owners of exotic pets released them into the wild when the Dangerous Animals Act came onto the statute book.

Although some scoff at the idea of panthers, pumas and other predators roaming the countryside there have been 127 reported big cat sightings in Yorkshire alone in recent years. Strange sightings are coming in from all over the country.

The largest population of exotic animals is in South-East England which has become home to between 30,000 and 50,000 ring-necked parakeets.

The same part of the country is home to around 13,000 yellow-tailed scorpions believed to have been brought to our shores in the 1860s on merchant ships and settled in and around ports. A long-established colony lives in the brickwork of a wall on the dockside in Sheerness.

More obscure animals residing in the UK include Brazilian aardvarks, with around 10 believed to be living wild in Cumbria, and the snapping turtles, which were first identified in a garden pond in 1993. There are now believed to be about 20 living in Kent, London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Adrian Wills, of digital TV's Eden Channel, which commissioned the research, said: "It's fascinating to see how Britain has become a haven for these exotic creatures." The Eden Wildlife Report was specially commissioned to celebrate the Eden Channel's great British wildlife season. The research was led by Dr Bunnell, a leading light of the Yorkshire Mammal Group, and involved collating multiple studies and websites to identify all sightings and recordings of exotic land-based and amphibious creatures using reliable data sources such as Natural England.

The research points to a healthy biodiversity going on with species such as the under-threat Chinese water deer seemingly finding a haven in the UK. But it is not entirely good news for those who enjoy the great outdoors.

Raccoon dogs have been a long-standing rabies threat, scorpions can inflict painful stings, and wild boars carry TB. On top of that, who knows what else might be hiding in the bushes or lurking in the undergrowth? It seems even science is holding its breath. Dr Bunnell added: "We are a small island but things are being brought in – and I think there a lot of things out there that we aren't even aware of yet."

By Mark Branagan

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