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Wanted, dead or alive: the Siberian chipmunk

Friday 25 November 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard marvels at yet another wildlife escape and discusses how the "Ahhh" factor has introduced some dangerous elements into the English countryside

HEAVE a sigh of relief, dear readers, because I was going to write this week about yet another political threat to country folk - the Government is said to be considering banning North Yorkshire - but then another headline caught my eye. And this one was much more fun.

For it appears that the rural affairs department Defra has issued a "Wanted: dead or alive" fatwa on yet another animal invader to run loose on these shores, namely the Siberian chipmunk, a colourful and feisty little fella who has escaped from a country park in Hampshire.

Wanted, dead or alive: the Siberian chipmunk
Picture courtesy of: www.borealforest.org

Now I am no expert on the fauna of the Artic Circle, so I have never actually encountered a Siberian chipmunk face to face, but I have watched a good few of their American cousins at play and they really are charming little creatures.

And that, sadly, is the problem: we humans, particularly town-based humans, are much taken by cuddly little furry things and positively encourage them to take up lodgings in our green and pleasant land. And once here, they can become, at least, an infernal nuisance or, at worst, a lethal enemy of our native breeds.

It seems that 30 of these pretty rodents joined in the Great Escape down south and most of them fared badly. Eighteen have already been found dead and another eight captured or shot. But that leaves four of the critters still on the run and Defra officials are working up something of a sweat.

And, for once, they could be right. Back in 1980, seventeen chipmunks did a runner from an amusement park in Brussels and, 20 years later, there were estimated to be 20,000 at large. As the French and the Belgians say, Ooh la la!

Now Hampshire is a long way from the Yorkshire Dales and, even if they breed at that rate, it will be many years before we in Yorkshire are up to the eyeballs in foot-long cuddly things with fetching brown and black-striped coats.

But in the meantime, they could have done a great deal of damage by competing for food with native species and eating the eggs and even the chicks of nesting birds. This could wipe out thousands of field mice and voles, which in turn are the prime food source for hawks and owls.

So once again, the delicate balance of nature is threatened by the import of some pretty little creature that raised the "Ahhh" response in we animal-adoring Brits. The list of these invaders is long.

This column has regularly highlighted the dangers to native wildlife from foreigners like the mink, the grey squirrel, the muntjac deer, the American signal crayfish and the fish-eating Scandinavian duck, the goosander, all of which are thriving here in the Yorkshire Dales. But the list is far from being confined to animals.

Where I fish in the Lune Valley, the banks are now lined with Japanese knotweed. A pretty plant, this was imported by gardeners who loved its long-flowering pink and white blossoms. It is now wiping out native reeds and sedge grasses along miles and miles of riverbank, plants which were once the home to many species of native insects which, in turn, were an important food source for fish.

And another favourite fishing spot, on the banks of the River Aire only a mile from the centre of Skipton, has been invaded by giant hogweed, another foreigner imported by gardeners for its huge displays of lace-like white flowers.

It can be easily mistaken for a large specimen of the native cow parsley which lines our country lanes every summer but there is one drastic problem: anyone who touches it, particularly in hot weather, can suffer severe burns from its highly toxic sap. Young children so afflicted have been scarred for life.

As we reported in our News columns this week, Britain's leading expert on imported plant diseases - the man who tried to fight the catastrophic Dutch elm disease - is asking for greater controls on imported garden plants. So when the "Aaaah" factor takes control, whether you are a gardener or a pet lover, please think twice before unleashing yet another plague on our countryside.

Your views:

  • I keep reading the same mistakes on British websites so I wanted to set something straight. The 17 animals that were released in 1976 by the amusement park, have resulted in a population in De Panne (not Brussels) of around 200 animals that is already declining.

    The population in Brussels probably originated from a number of animals released by a pet merchand and the maximum number ever counted was 7500, not 20000. About the third population no details are known and the fourth has already gone extinct.

    No negative effects on birds have been found and negative effects on agriculture exist in Asia, but not here. There are also populations in Italy, Germany, France, Swiss, Austria and the Netherlands.

    Margo - Antwerp, Belgium

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