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FROSTY’S RAMBLINGS The great escapes

PETER FROST asks who let the dogs out, and many other species as well

WE HAD some great excitement among birders and twitchers a week or so ago when a pair of white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) were seen in Daventry Country Park. 

This is Britain’s biggest bird of prey with a wingspan of over eight feet. It is also known as the sea eagle, which made its presence in Daventry something of a mystery as the town is about as far from the sea as you can get in Britain.

Eventually, after some close examination of the pair and their leg rings, they were discovered to be escapees, probably from a bird of prey collection. 

Falconers often train their captive birds to fly off and then return. Some birds take the chance to break for freedom hence the fairly frequent sightings of rare raptors including vultures and eagle owls over the British countryside.

Thousands of feral ring-necked parakeets now live in Britain.

Once only seen in London suburbs, the birds have now spread as far north as Manchester. They probably originated from birds released or escaped from film sets. 

A more exotic theory is they are descended from a pair released by Jimi Hendrix in Carnaby Street in the 1960s.

• In the same week the eagles were spotted and not far from Daventry Country Park, around 1,500 pupils were sent home after the Duston School in Northampton closed due to an infestation of false widow spiders (Steatoda nobilis). 

This is Britain’s most venomous spider. Its bite is similar to a wasp’s sting but some recent bites have resulted in hospitalisation.  

The Duston School closure followed a similar closure last week of Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton. 

The false widow spider is about the size of a 50p coin with distinctive cream markings on its bulbous brown body and reddish-orange legs. 

It gets its name from its similarity in appearance to the highly venomous black widow spider, which is not native to Britain. Today many people keep spiders as pets and one of the largest dealers in spiders is based in Northampton. 

The false widow spider, originated from Madeira and the Canary Islands, but can now be found throughout Europe, north Africa, west Asia and parts of North and South America. 

It first arrived in south-west England in the 1870s but has become much more numerous as our climate gets warmer and warmer.

Ralph, a 5ft-tall South American flightless bird, the rhea, escaped from his enclosure at a smallholding in Kent. It was found four days later, his owner said he only had a 50-50 chance of survival because of the shock.

• I have written a fair amount about beavers recently but even I was surprised to hear a recent count of the animal had declared there were over 6,000 — not the 1,000 previously believed — beavers living on British rivers and other waterways.

If this wasn’t enough, several newspapers publisher pictures showing three generations of beavers at a secret location on a small tributary of the River Avon. To keep the secret, it didn’t say which Avon it was.

There are five river Avons in England; three in Scotland and one in Wales. Not to mention the few more with other spellings.

I have reported some officially approved introductions but these much larger population increases can only be deliberate release or escapes of captive beavers. It is almost certainly both.

In 2008, an investigation was launched after a nine-year-old boy came face to face with an escaped cheetah — the fastest animal on Earth, capable of speeds of 70mph — walking up his drive. It had escaped from a nearby zoo.

• Whenever you mention escaped wildlife, the mink comes to mind. Most people believe Britain’s massive mink population all comes from animals who escaped from mink farms, often during severe storms, or were released into the wild when anti-fur protests and falling demand made mink farming uneconomic.

The American mink (Neogale vison) is larger and more adaptable than the European mink (Mustela lutreola) and are in size between a small cat and a ferret. 

They have a dense coat of deep brown fur, which often leads to cases of misidentification with the native otter. 

While otters are shy animals unlikely to be seen during the day, American mink will wander the waterways at all hours. Mink are also smaller and slimmer than otters, which makes it easier for them to hunt burrow-dwelling prey such as water voles.

In Britain, the water vole has been in decline since the beginning of the 20th century, due to habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. 

However this decline accelerated sharply throughout the 1960s and ’70s, coinciding with the spread of mink in the wild. 

There is no accurate estimate of just how many wild mink are to be found in Britain.

One of our most notorious escapees is the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). Introduced from the US in the ’70s to be reared in farms for restaurants and food shops, this species quickly became established in the wild. 

Accidental and intentional releases helped them spread throughout British rivers and streams, and today they threaten the survival of our native white-clawed crayfish.
  
• Wallabies can be found running wild in Britain, far from their homeland nearly 10,000 miles away. Red-necked wallabies have been present in Britain for more than a century, originally being imported for zoos and private collections. 

However they also proved to be adept escape artists who were adaptable enough to survive in the British countryside where the climate gets easier for them every year. Some were intentionally set free during the second world war. 

Wallabies continue to be recorded across Britain with occasional sightings in a garden, country lane or along motorway fringes.

The Chiltern Hills to the west of London were always popular with both wallabies and wallaby spotters. Wallabies certainly bred in the Peak District but it seems that population became extinct around 2008. 

Apart from the occasional local media article, nobody really seems to have paid much attention to them in recent years. 

A radical Scottish-based group called the Wild Beasts Trust has the aim of returning creatures such as wolves, bears, elk, boars, bison and even walruses to Britain. They tell us they are aiming to “bring back Britain’s lost mammals.”
 
• Recently North Yorkshire Police received several reports of a tiger on the loose in countryside near Tadcaster. The very dangerous animal could have been a cub bought illegally and then released. It was not the only big cat to be spotted in recent years.

The British Big Cats Society (BBCS) was set up to scientifically identify, quantify, catalogue and protect the big cats roaming the British countryside. 

It receives about 200 reports a month of big cat sightings, with the number increasing over the past years.

A squirrel monkey called SpongeBob was stolen from Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey in July, was bullied by other monkeys on his return and had to be moved to a new zoo in Battersea, south London.

• Finally lets finish with a bit of history. Come back with me to meet the greatest aristocratic accomplice to animal escapes in British history. He is Lord Walter Rothschild and he loved nothing better than to drive his carriage — pulled by three zebras and a horse — through his menagerie of live animals around his house in Tring, Hertfordshire.

There were deer in his park — not just native species but many smaller ornamental species like munjac and water deer. He had a small zoo. In 1901 he gave a tortoise weighing a quarter of a ton to the Zoological Gardens in London. I rode on that tortoise as a child before it died aged at least 150 years.

Most animals arrived at Tring by train and one Edwardian report tells of eight kangaroos escaping from a burst crate at Euston station.

His best-known escapees include muntjac deer, often be seen darting across wooded roads, and the glis-glis — or edible dormouse — a pretty little squirrel-like animal. 

I haven’t even mentioned perhaps Britain’s two most successful animal escapers. Rabbits escaped from the Romans who bred them for food, wealthy Victorian landowners brought the grey squirrel to Britain as garden and estate curiosities from 1876. 

Watch out, there will be many more escapees coming your way — that’s a promise.

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