This weekend was set to have a dry sunny day (an unusual phenomenon given the seemingly endless rain of recent weeks), so John and Natasha decided to give the New Forest Wildlife Park another whirl. I woke up on Sunday morning to the fragrant aroma of cream cheese and bacon on bagels. Mmm! After a quick nibble on somebody’s breakfast, we packed our equipment and the people donned appropriate outdoor-wear before heading west. Oh and don’t worry, I normally have a healthy protein-based breakfast but Sundays are special treat days and I’m not one to miss an opportunity!
One of my favourite things about the New Forest conservation park is the environment. Surrounded by trees and shrubs, it feels like you’re deep in the forest and I half expected one of Robin Hood’s merry men to leap out of the bushes in a pair of tights! Many of the enclosures are open for the animals to roam freely, such as the sika deer, the rabbits and the wallabies. When I say open, there are still double gates at the end of each section to ensure the animals don’t stray far. Of course, the open enclosures are only appropriate for certain creatures, not including the pack of 5 wonderful wolves we saw running around their paddock. We watched them feed and the keeper gave us a talk, telling us all about how the wolves communicate more by body language than by sound, and how much more active they are than cats (the cheek)! These beautiful creatures were once found in large numbers in this country but hundreds of years of persecution have exterminated them from our lands, a memory than lingers in the instincts of the wolves we saw making a dash for their food before putting a safe distance between themselves and the humans.
There are so many furry mammals there, like the pole-cats, badgers, water voles, ferrets and the elusive pine-martens who were particularly hard to spot. I also met some of my most impressive and resourceful cousins, the endangered Scottish wildcats (felis silvestris grampia to give them their Latin name). They resemble muscular domestic tabby cats, but with thicker coats and bushy black-and-brown ringed tails. They survived human persecution for five hundred years more than the British wolf did, and over a thousand years more than the British lynx. They are now only found in Scotland and their intelligence, patience and agility are respected by Highland farmers and gamekeepers who recount tales of the wildcat mother dying to protect her kittens from attack or dipping their paws into shallow water to scoop out fish for dinner. These misunderstood creatures have been portrayed as ferocious but, like most pussy-cats, they enjoy peace, routine, and personal space, and will only attack if they are hunting for food or feeling cornered.
The distinct whiff of dung hit my nostrils and I caught sight of the long shaggy brown coats of the bison wandering around chewing on the grass. Even bison have been affected by habitat loss and hunting over the years and are now mostly found on ranches or in areas of conservation. These particular animals are European bison and they are extinct from the wild. They might grow to 6 feet tall at the shoulder, 10 feet in length and 1,000 to 2,000 pounds in weight, but their pastimes include rutting and wallowing in mud and they stink.
You have no idea how tempted I was to arch my back, raise my hackles and mock charge sideways towards the little harvest mouse chomping on seeds and grains from a bowl in its glass-fronted pen. But I am a civilised rational feline who can operate a camera and take part in philosophical debate, so I can certainly exercise restraint over my base urges. With blunt noses, tiny black eyes and hairy ears, harvest mice are the smallest British rodent, around 5 cm long and weighing a tiny 5 to 10 grams. They have auburn brown fur with a white underside and their scientific name is micromys minutus (how cute is that!). They seemed very busy, climbing, building their nests and feeding, so we left them to it, and headed off to see the lynx cat.
I sauntered coyly towards the enclosure that contained the lynx, and my eyes narrowed with envy as I caught sight of her elegant tufty ears and thick fluffy ruff that framed her face. This Eurasian lynx is called Munchkin and she has a stimulating enclosure on a slope filled with trees, wooden climbing frames and sheltered areas. We gave each other the obligatory eye contact and subtle ear twitches communicated our understanding of each other’s situations. This solitary and secretive cat allowed us to watch her for a while before bounding up on to one of her ledges in a tree and surveying us from on high. The Eurasian lynx was an original native of the British Isles but disappeared from Western Europe due to habitat destruction and human persecution.
Next time I’ll tell you about some creatures I met who made me laugh so much. They live with their families, have whiskers and offspring called pups, and enjoying romping playfully.