Victims of the winter famine

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We tend to think about the birds most often during severe winter weather, but mammals too have a struggle to survive. Those that hibernate, such as hedgehogs, probably have the best of it as long as they have chosen the right place to sleep away the winter.

Rabbits must really struggle when the ground is icebound and snow-covered, and that is when they are at their most destructive. This is much in evidence at the moment as a walk through any woodland will reveal. With no grass available, they turn to young trees and any low branches they can reach, to gnaw the bark. If they encircle the trunk with their bark-stripping the tree will probably die.

The wily foxes seem to manage to survive more easily, as they are not dependent on any one source of food and will turn to anything for a meal. Their ingenuity was in evidence last week, when I was out on my monthly wildfowl count. On one extensive area of marsh, which is traversed by a very low, narrow, winding boardwalk, used for scientific monitoring, I watched a large dog fox using it as a shortcut to keep his feet dry.

Other animals are not so lucky and many perish on the roads as they are drawn nearer civilisation in the search for food. Recently, I have seen rabbits, roe deer, hares and badgers (picture, top of page) lying dead by the roadside, having been struck by cars.

One reader, JP from Oxton, sent me this picture of a beautiful stoat in ermine which was the victim of a road accident near the village.

She told me: “I was walking to work two weeks ago and a white stoat ran out in front of me. I was so excited as I had never seen a white stoat before. Then last week, guess who was lying in the lane dead? My lovely white stoat. It must have just been bumped by a car. It was still soft. I lifted it up and put it to the side of the road and rang my partner to come and get it to bury it the garden. I couldn’t bear to pass it by each day and see it pecked away.”

In more southern areas, stoats do not change in winter but here in the Borders we have some that do, some that do not and some that go partially white, depending on their habitat, whether lowland or upland. As you can see, this one has a small patch of brown still on its head.