Environment

The comeback kids: The 5 'lost' wildlife species returning from extinction to the UK

A bunch of species are providing some good news for UK wildlife

Willow tit. Image: Tim Mason / Alamy Stock Photo

The future for many of the UK’s once abundant wildlife species is looking relatively bleak, nationally. But in a few small pockets of the country, a different story is beginning to unfold.  

Dormice

Hazel dormouse. Image: Frank Hecker / Alamy Stock Photo

In many counties in the UK, dormice have been declared completely extinct. But at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, a reintroduction programme has taken place, and their population is increasing. Before they could be reintroduced, the National Forest team collaborated with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species to create an environment where dormice could thrive.  

Studies have shown that different plants help sustain dormice for different reasons. Hazel trees provide an important food source, as does honeysuckle, which also creates a route for the tiny mammals to climb into the trees via their hanging tendrils. Bramble cover is also crucial, both for food and protection for nest sites. They also need natural wildlife corridors to travel to different areas, so the team worked with landowners to develop hedgerows linking habitats.  

Calke Abbey was chosen by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species as a suitable area for dormice thanks to the work of the National Forest who manage the land. Without these two organisations working in tandem, the dormice would not have been able to return. 

People’s Trust for Endangered Species

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Purple Emperor Butterfly  

Purple Emperor Butterfly (Apatura iris) male with wings open, against white background. Captive, UK. Image: Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Once found only in southern England, the purple emperor butterfly has started expanding its empire north over the past few years, making it all the way to north-west Leicestershire. To encourage further expansion, the National Forest has been working with Butterfly Conservation to create more suitable woodland in south Derbyshire. This includes planting sallow trees such as goat willows – an important food source for purple emperor larvae.  

To make it slightly more complicated, the sallow trees have to be planted near mature oaks, because male purple emperors prefer the high treetops, while the females prefer the shorter sallow. They are also highly territorial, chasing off rivals in elegant duels. Just one or two trees are not enough to sustain the species, they need an expansive area so each can have his kingdom.  

As exciting as seeing more of these magnificent butterflies is, there is a more sinister reason for their northward march: climate change. Mild temperatures are seeing many species of butterfly move further north, but erratic weather also disrupts the life cycles of some species, creating winners and losers, according to the annual UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme report.

Butterfly Conservation

Reed Warbler

Reed warbler. Image: Simon rowlands / Alamy

Migrating north from sub-Saharan Africa to the UK each summer, the small, unassuming reed warbler can be heard in song in the reed beds of Mersey Forest. This area, once blighted by slag heaps from the now-defunct coal industry, has seen a startling regeneration since the mines closed in the ’70s.  

The spoil from the mines and neighbouring power plant used to be tipped onto the nearby peat beds. Careful restoration of these vital carbon-catching habitats has taken place since then, transforming it from wasteland to wildlife haven. Environmental organisations planted trees and also created ponds and reed beds. These reed beds are what 15 pairs of reed warblers make their long journey for every year. It’s hoped with continued management their numbers could increase further. 

Mersey Forest

Willow Tit

Mersey Forest is also the home of the willow tit, an exceptionally rare bird which has seen a rapid decline in numbers over the past few years. It is now mostly found on reclaimed colliery sites, like Bold Forest Park, where an estimated five mating pairs live. 

Willow Tits are the only bird species, other than woodpeckers, that excavate their own nest holes, but live trees are too tough for them, so they need rotting logs for nesting. In Bold Forest Park, rotting logs have been attached to the trees by the park’s management team as there aren’t enough naturally occurring for them to live in. 

According to Dave McAleavy, Bold Forest Park Project Manager, one strategy which needs to be put in place is the managed killing of a small number of trees so they can rot, creating more nest sites. This will have the added benefit of encouraging rare fungi and lichen to develop, both vital for healthy woodland wildlife. The organisation plans to fund a PhD student to study the willow tit population in the park, to help create a better understanding of what makes the bird tick – and hopefully increase their numbers, not just in Bold Forest Park but across the UK.  

Mersey Forest

Red Squirrels

Red Squirrel. Image: Giedriius/Shutterstock

Cramlington in Northumberland is one of the few places in the UK still home to red squirrels. The estimated 500 who live in the East Cramlington Nature Reserve are protected by a group of volunteers, who spend time monitoring their population numbers, reducing the number of grey squirrels in the area and creating new ways for the reds to spread further. Recently, a rope bridge was installed, linking two parts of the reserve split by a major road. Only a few hours after it was installed, the red squirrels were making use of it.  

A tree planting project is also under way, to help expand the area where the red squirrels can live. Despite the popular image of a red squirrel with an acorn in its paws, oak trees aren’t actually the best trees for keeping red squirrel populations up and greys down. They need trees that produce smaller seeds. Pinecones from conifers are a great source of food, which grey squirrels tend to shirk. But they don’t seed every year, so a varied woodland which is home to a wide array of small seeding trees is in progress. 

Northumberland Wildlife Trust

For searchable information on conservation and rewilding projects in your area visit tcv.org.uk

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