Disappearing Acts


My Charlie is missing. Not my home-loving American tabby, who moved back to the UK with us 12 years ago, but another animal not native to these shores. The Charlie who’s gone AWOL is a skunk. Having seen plenty of these in the USA – and more to the point – smelled the traces of them in the ‘backyard’ or by the roadside – I can’t imagine why anyone would want to keep one as a pet. Yet it seems that around 2000 people in the UK do just that. Around the size of a domestic cat, the skunk is remarkable, not only for its markings which range from vivid black and white stripes to a grey/brown, but for its pong! If it feels threatened it can spray foul-smelling liquid from scent glands beneath its bushy tail. As it can spray as far ten feet, this is enough to deter all but the hungriest of predators. The Animal Welfare Act prohibits removal of the scent glands, so a pet skunk clearly needs very careful handling.

Charlie still hasn’t been apprehended. It’s been a couple of weeks now and the East Hampshire community has been keeping a look-out for the elusive skunk in the hope of reuniting him with his worried owner. The trouble is skunks are mainly nocturnal, coming out at night to hunt for rodents, worms and frogs, or snacking on berries, leaves and fungi. Nor are they averse to scavenging on carrion or rubbish; so if your bin-bags have been ransacked, this time it might not be the fox who’s to blame. Thanks to Facebook, potential sightings have been posted, although some are a little vague:
“Does it look like a very small fox and move like a ferret?”
“It may have been a cat.”

Skunks are intelligent, inquisitive animals, and Charlie has been spotted ambling beside a garden centre, checking out a golf course and (possibly) stealing eggs from a roadside stand. Unfortunately, they also have little road-sense or sense of direction, so let’s hope Charlie is a quick learner. Of course, it’s always possible that he’s hooked up with another skunk. In 2009 a colony was discovered living happily in the Forest of Dean, probably the result of a breeder throwing them out into the wild, so a Hampshire ‘gang’ is unlikely, but possible.

Some non-native species do extremely well. Victorian landowners imported North-American grey squirrels as a novelty for their parkland estates. Now there are millions of them. The grey’s ability to put on fat helps it to survive winter better than its less robust red cousin, and worse still, it’s a carrier for the squirrel pox virus which is fatal for reds. Luckily in Hampshire there’s a population of red squirrels on the Isle of Wight, but otherwise you’d have to go to the Scottish Highlands or Anglesey for a chance of seeing one. On the bright side, scientists are working on fertility control for the greys, experimenting with contraceptive-laced bait – Nutella or peanut butter have been mentioned – but there’s still a long way to go.

Meanwhile in the Rivers Itchen and Arle environmentalists face a similar problem with crayfish. The signal crayfish was introduced from Sweden in the 1970s to breed for the Scandinavian market, but its larger size and aggressive nature have caused great harm to the native species, as well as spreading the fatal crayfish plague.

But not all these ‘incomers’ are unwelcome, and some definitely bring a smile to my face. On a drizzly spring day in Kent, the suburban calm of my parents’ garden was disturbed by a sudden riot of colourful plumage descending on the bare branches. A flock of parakeets has taken up residence in the neighbourhood and seems to be thriving, despite their preference for a warmer climate.

Meanwhile, Charlie, the skunk is still on his walkabout, but I’m keeping my eyes open in case he shuffles over this way soon.

To find out more about saving the red squirrel, please see the website www.rsst.org.uk