Deer and otters move in on the foxes' lairs in the urban jungle

Britain's woodland wildlife is migrating to cities and suburbs, dividing householders. By David Randall
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The Independent Online

Otters strip garden ponds in Walsall and Newcastle of their fish. Muntjac deer are found wandering in a multi-storey car park in Oxford. Pet owners in Edinburgh claim cats and rabbits are being killed by foxes (which also dig up the pitch at Queen's Park Rangers). Roe deer eat flowers in a Southampton garden ...

Otters strip garden ponds in Walsall and Newcastle of their fish. Muntjac deer are found wandering in a multi-storey car park in Oxford. Pet owners in Edinburgh claim cats and rabbits are being killed by foxes (which also dig up the pitch at Queen's Park Rangers). Roe deer eat flowers in a Southampton garden ...

These are just a few cases from Britain's urban jungle as booming human and wildlife populations get increasingly in each other's way. Greater numbers of animals have moved into cleaner, more wildlife-friendly cities, housing development has spread into the countryside and the result is a steadily rising tide of complaints.

Yet, for every objector, there is someone who defends and encourages what others regard as most anti-social species. Britain is now polarised between those who want to cull or repel and those who defend even pigeons and gulls against any form of restriction, say pest control experts. Scarborough Council had to stop culling gulls partly because of a public campaign, and environmental health officers have even expressed concern that attempts to control "pests" might fall foul of militant animal rights activists.

This picture, of a nation increasingly divided over sharing its space with wildlife, was the main finding of our survey of conservation groups, local authorities and pest control experts. The starting point was the arrival in urban areas of many species formerly confined to the deepest countryside. Hares have been spotted in Glasgow, deer populations are up and roe live on the edge of cities, regularly forage in outer suburbs and even take up residence there, as in Gosforth, near Newcastle. Muntjac, small tusked deer about the size of a small Labrador, have spread over many parts of the country, penetrating the London borough of Haringey, turning up in garden sheds and standing outside the theatre in Northampton. Deer are in Cambridge and Sheffield, and red deer have been seen near Walsall in the Black Country.

Cleaner rivers and reduced use of pesticides mean there are now otters in more than 100 towns and cities, including London. They can be seen on the Tyne in the centre of Newcastle, and, says the Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Kevin O'Hara, are increasingly sighted in suburban gardens, living for days under sheds and feeding on fish from garden ponds. One fan regularly buys goldfish from her pet shop to supply "her" otters with their daily catch.

Otters are still seen as a picturesque and welcome novelty, and although councils do get requests to remove bats, badgers and squirrels, most complaints are about foxes which dig up and foul lawns, bite through cables and rip open rubbish bags. There are also, in Scotland and London especially, claims of rabbits and cats being killed, and even, in north London, of a child being attacked.

Foxes now face a proprietary repellent, Renardine, companies that specialise in dispersing them and calls, as in Edinburgh last month, for the local council to organise a cull. Even animal lovers recognise the problem, and one, John Bryant, a former RSPCA vice-chairman, runs a firm that humanely deters foxes, rats and mice. Most of his clients are private individuals, but he has also had calls from the Law Society in central London, schools and hospitals. He is now trying to set up a British Wildlife Deterrence Association.

The biggest urban trouble- makers are gulls, principally the herring and lesser black-backed, and feral pigeons. Cities in the south-west, such as Gloucester and Bath, have significant problems with nesting urban gulls. From Scotland to the south coast there have been reports of attacks on passers-by, and Nigel Firth of Balcombe Pest Control, which operates in the south-east, said that pigeon numbers are up by 100 per cent in the last few years, with a rise in complaints to match.

In the near future, even more of us are likely to find ourselves sharing our space with wildlife. Neil Wyatt, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, says: "Wildlife has shown itself in recent years to be more dynamic and flexible than we gave it credit for." Time, perhaps, for human beings to follow suit.

THE CITY MENAGERIE

Foxes

How many? 33,000 urban foxes in 1995. A new survey expects little change.

Where are they? Most cities in Britain, especially in older suburbs with larger gardens.

What do they eat? Mice, rats, titbits left by house-holders, leftovers in rubbish.

Fans say: Cute, vulnerable to people in red coats, damage to property can be prevented. Kill vermin.

Antis say: They kill pets, foul lawns, scatter refuse, chew cables, spread mange and scream when they mate.

Cuddly quotient: Medium. Only dedicated animal-lovers welcome them in the garden.

Badgers

How many? Unknown, but 50,000 are estimated to die on British roads every year.

Where are they? Widespread, normally rural but also in some outer suburbs. Bristol a stronghold.

What do they eat? Up to 200 worms a day, bluebell bulbs, smaller mammals, scraps.

Fans say: Cheeky, furry, fun-loving creatures that adapt well to human company.

Antis say: Spread bovine tuberculosis, undermine buildings, fair gamefor fighting dogs.

Cuddly quotient: High. Good for figurines, soft toys.

Otters

How many? Difficult to estimate. Found in five times as many places in 2002 as they were in 1979.

Where are they? In more than 100 cities, breeding in 13.

What do they eat? Mostly fish. Occasionally other small

mammals, birds, amphibians and rabbits.

Fans say: Read Henry Williamson's Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water. Then tell us otters aren't wonderful.

Antis say: Not a lot.

Cuddly quotient: High. Unless you are an eel.

Muntjac

How many? Unknown, but definitely spreading.

Where are they? Sighted in Leeds, Northampton, Sheffield, Southampton, Reading, Oxford, other cities and outer London suburbs.

What do they eat? Grass, brambles, new growth on small shrubs and other plants, including ivy.

Fans say: Unique, introduced addition to Britain's fauna.

Antis say: They strip off bark and leaves and cause road accidents. Nasty if cornered.

Cuddly quotient: Moderate. Tusks mean they are unlikely to be confused with Bambi.

Herring gull

How many? About 161,000 breeding pairs, up to 500,000 wintering. Numbers rising in cities, declining outside.

Where are they? Moving inland to breed in cities such as Bristol, Bath and Birmingham.

What do they eat? Fish - and almost everything else.

Fans say: Er ... not much.

Antis say: They attack people, are noisy and they frighten holiday-makers.

Cuddly quotient: Low, until viewed through binoculars as they wheel above the cliffs far away from town.

Anna Winston

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