Wild mammals are hugely popular, charismatic species. From the cunning fox to the prickly hedgehog and the acrobatic red squirrel, a lot of people would name a mammal as their favourite UK animal. Some of them are very familiar, like grey squirrels. Others are more mysterious and hard to detect, let alone see directly, like the muntjac, an elusive small deer originally from Asia. Seeing shy or uncommon animals can be an exhilarating experience and often become cherished memories for people of all ages and from all walks of life.
It might come as a surprise, therefore, that mammals are some of our most under-recorded wildlife. Unlike birds, many of which are active in the day and are easy to see and hear, the majority of our mammals avoid humans and are largely active at night. It is clear that we know very little about the abundance and distribution of a large number of species, including very common ones such as rabbits, moles or wood mice. Because they are not immediately under threat, these species often go unrecorded. This could be a problem, as even simple records of occurrence are important in helping us to understand how species are faring and whether there might be a problem worth investigating in more detail.
We developed the University Mammal Challenge in association with A Focus on Nature to engage students across the country and generate data on University campuses. These areas often incorporate two poorly monitored habitats -suburban environments and grasslands. We recruited student volunteers via social media and by contacting University offices and staff directly. The response was overwhelming, and we ended up with 47 registered teams across 31 Universities, far exceeding our expectations. Team members range from sixth-form students (we have two registered sixth-form colleges) through to post-graduates. There were some very creative team names, of course, with Mammalian Dollar Baby, Tequila Mockingbird, This Challenge Will Be Otterly Easy, GUnicorns, and guacaMOLE among my personal favourites.
The Challenge uses two main standardised survey methods – line transects and standard walks – which we hope will be repeated each year. Beyond that, the students have free rein, and many teams are looking to use other methods such as camera traps, footprint tunnels and bat detectors. Despite the chilly conditions and academic pressures of January, many of our student teams have managed to collect a lot of excellent data so far. Squirrels and rabbits feature heavily, but our teams have also seen foxes, roe deer, shrews and the elusive muntjac, among many other species. Our teams are also taking to Twitter to showcase their survey sites, methods and observations – follow us at @MammSocStudents to see what they’re getting up to.