Saturday 7 May 2022

Part 7: Larger carnivores


European Brown Bear

Even though the mountains of the Carpathians are ideal habitat for the largest terrestrial carnivore in Europe, the Brown Bear Ursus arctos, as a result of human persecution the estimated population is less than 200 individuals. This compares with 1000 in neighbouring Slovakia and an estimated 5000 in Romania. Despite their range across the entire northern hemisphere (European Brown Bears are the same species as North Americas famous Grizzlies) in Europe bears are in serious trouble, especially in more densely populated and developed areas. They barely survive in Spain, Italy and western Europe, with the bulk of the European population in Scandinavia and European Russia. This is of course because they are potentially dangerous to humans and certainly dangerous to livestock, although European Brown Bears tend to be more vegetarian than their relatives in North America for example. In order to obtain sufficient food to sustain their massive bodies, Brown Bears need vast ranges, with females having home ranges of around 300 km2 in most parts of Europe and the larger males well over 1000km2. They will often share that range with several adults, although they are naturally solitary, but will meet at food sources such as wolf kills or productive fruit areas in the autumn.

Eurasian Wolf

By contrast, in Europe the Wolf is making something of a comeback. The Carpathians were always a stronghold, but changes in land use, a decline in persecution and – in Ukraine and Belorus- the abandonment of areas around Chernobyl have resulted in a great increase in population and a spread to many parts of western Europe where they have been extinct for many years or even centuries, In fact, there are more wolves in Europe than in the whole of the continental United states outside Alaska. In recent years they have become resident in the Netherlands and have been sighted in Belgium. The natural prey of wolves in Europe are deer for the main part, but they will also prey on wild boar and smaller animals such as hares, or even Beavers. Their kills may be scavenged by bears or become a major food source for vultures or eagles.

Carpathian Lynx

Probably the rarest of Ukraines large carnivores, the Carpathian Lynx, a subspecies of the widespread Eurasian Lynx, is thinly distributed in the forests of north west Ukraine where it is a victim of persecution, disturbance and habitat fragmentation. Unlike other lynx species, Eurasian Lynx specialise in fairly large ungulate prey with Roe deer being a favourite, although they will also take hares, birds and small rodents. Unfortunately, they will also kill sheep which has driven their persecution and extirpation from much of their former range.

Red Fox

Far morse successful is that paragon of adaptability, the Red Fox. Found everywhere in Europe, often in cities, and capable of living on almost anything animal or vegetable that is remotely edible, foxes are probably the most familiar of Europes predators. Outside of the urban environment foxes feed mainly on rodents and hares, with fruits in the autumn being also significant in the diet.

Eurasian Wild Cat

The chief threat faced by the Eurasian Wild Cat Felis sylvestris in Ukraine, as in many other places, is hybridization with domestic cats, with about 70% of the population of apparent Wild Cats in some areas being hybrids. Pure Wild Cats are mainly found in more remote areas away from human settlements, especially in western Ukraine. Their main habitat, as the scientific name suggests, is forested areas, especially deciduous woodland where they mainly prey on whatever small rodents are around, but they will also take birds and rarely larger animals such as Rose deer fawns.

Golden Jackal

Two other carnivore species are recent arrivals to the region. The great recent success story in the modern European ecosystem, the Golden Jackal Canis aureus was first reported from the Ukraine in 1998. Since then it has spread across the whole country, but is commonest in the south around Odessa and the Black Sea coast. In the last 50 years Golden Jackals have spread north from their ancient homelands in the Middle East and Southeast Europe and have spread increasingly west and north, reaching France in 2018 and Finland in 2019 . Ironically, the historic persecution of wolves may have helped this expansion, as they are intense competitors and the presence of wolves significantly reduces the numbers and activities of jackals. As wolves once more expand in Europe it will be interesting to see what happens to the jackals. In their behaviour and diet they strongly resemble the Coyote of America, another canid success that has spread rapidly in recent years away from its historic range, probably also as a result of wolf elimination.

Raccoon Dog

Finally, a controversial addition to the list of Ukraines predators is the Raccoon Dog, Nyctereutes procyonoides. This is one of Europes most successful invasive species and was originally introduced as a new animal for the fur trade. They are now a highly successful omnivore across much of Europe, especially in forested regions and wetlands, where they are voracious predators of the eggs and young of ground nesting birds. Part of the reason for their success is their adaptable diet, which changes with the seasons but is mainly vegetarian when fruits and nuts are available in the fall. They are also prolific, with 8 young or more frequent in litters. They are preyed upon by various carnivores, especially wolves, but this is insufficient to slow their spread.

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