Mammals of the British Isles: Handbook by S.Harris & D.W.Yalden ( eds ). Southampton : The Mammal Society , 2008 . 799 pp. Hardback. ISBN 978-0906282656 . £70 .

The native wildlife of Britain and Ireland is meagre compared to that of continental Europe. Natural colonization of Britain and Ireland by terrestrial species such as mammals was only feasible when Britain was joined to continental Europe. It is speculated that around 9500 BP a megaflood breached the rock dam at the Dover Strait, instituting the catastrophic drainage of an immense post-glacial lake in the southern North Sea basin and the formation of what is now the English Channel. Since then, additions to the British mainland fauna have been forced – with or without the assistance of man – to face the barrier of the sea. It is presumed that this explains the absence from Britain of the garden dormouse Eliomys quercinus, common vole Microtus arvalis, pine vole Pitymys subterraneus, beech marten Martes foina and white-toothed shrews Crocidura russula and C. leucodon, all of which occur in northern France.

The situation in the Orkneys, Shetlands, Outer Hebrides and Ireland is rather more complicated. Because of the depth of the North Channel (between Ireland and southwestern Scotland) it is unlikely that Ireland was joined to Scotland at any time in the post-glacial period. This suggests that the native land animals of Ireland immigrated during the warmer conditions of the Windermere Interstadial and managed to survive the colder conditions of the Younger Dryas some 11,000—10,000 BP. Because of the even greater depth of the North Minch between western Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, and of the Pentland Firth between northeastern Scotland and the Orkneys (and Shetlands), they were clearly never joined to the Scottish mainland, and their present mammalian fauna (with the exception of the eurasian otter Lutra lutra) has been introduced by man.

The first edition of the Handbook was published in 1964, the second in 1977, and the third in 1991; this, the fourth edition, is by far the most exhaustive and extensive.

‘We aim’, state the editors, ‘to provide a comprehensive and authoritative coverage of all wild mammals within this area’. This, with over one hundred contributors, they have undoubtedly succeeded in achieving.

The main corpus of the book is the systematic accounts of the various species, listed in current taxonomic order. These species accounts include sub-headings on nomenclature; recognition and signs (particularly those useful for identification in the field); description; relationships (taxonomic and ecological with other species, and also with man); measurements; variation (geographical ones (between European populations and British and Irish individuals and within native communities) and pelage colour and other varieties); distribution and history (both British and Irish and worldwide); habitat; social organization and behaviour; feeding; breeding; population (including size, density, age structure, survival and longevity); mortality (covering predation, persecution by man and disease); and parasites (mainly the most common ectoparasites and endoparasites and protozoans) and major diseases such as viruses and bacteria. Each species account concludes with a brief list of the more important references.

A chapter on the mammalian fauna of Britain and Ireland in perspective includes its numerical composition; contribution to the biomass; historical comparisons; trends over time; conservation status (unlike birds, mammals have no general legal protection); the effect of what legal protection does exist; biodiversity action plans for threatened species; and British and Irish mammals in the European conservation context.

An account of the history of the British and Irish fauna concentrates on the last 15,000 years, from the end of the Pleistocene to the Roman period 2,000 years ago, since fossils from this era provide evidence for the origin and history of the present-day mammalian fauna, but also outlines those of the Mesozoic, Eocene/Oligocene and Pleistocene. This chapter also discusses the origin of the current mammalian fauna (natural colonization between the end of the last glaciations and the isolation from the nearest mainland due to rising sea-levels; extinctions (both man-induced and climatic), and deliberate or accidental introductions from abroad by man).

Finally, a chapter on mammals and the law provides information on the legal protection of mammals in Britain and Ireland; international legislation derived from European Union directives and international conventions; general wildlife legislation in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and also in the Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; and specific legislation of, for example, seals, deer and badgers Meles meles. This chapter concludes with an outline of other legislation affecting mammals and mammalogists.

This book is undoubtedly the most important and informative work on British and Irish mammals for many years, and a credit to its editors (at whose commitment , dedication and work load the imagination boggles) and publisher. Although to avoid the charge of hagiography, I deliberately searched for any errors or inaccuracies, extensive use over many weeks revealed only a small number of minor blemishes.

It does, nevertheless, seem illogical to refer to, for example, the Eurasian beaver Castor fiber but simply to the ‘otter’Lutra lutra (of which, according to current taxonomy, there are some seventeen species), and for failing to comply with the British Ornithologists' Union Checklist of Birds of Britain (Dudley et al., 2006) by referring, for instance, to the northern goshawk Accipiter gentilis simply as ‘the goshawk’ (of which there are some twenty species). Although the systematic accounts include ‘all species believed to have established populations in the British Isles over the last 2000 years’, I do feel it rather incongruous to include in the main body of the book, alongside extant species, such long-extinct ones as the lynx Lynx lynx, wolf Canis lupus and brown bear Ursus arctos– even though a reasoned scientific case can be made for the reintroduction of the first two species; I would rather have found them with other lost mammals under a separate heading of Extinct Species. Similarly, I would have preferred to see such reintroduced species as the wild boar Sus scrofa and escaped domestics like the feral goat appearing under separate headings of Reintroductions and Feral Species. On the other hand, with a long-standing population on the Isle of Man of over one hundred (and smaller populations elsewhere in England and Scotland), surely the red-necked wallaby Macropus rufogriseus deserves to the included in the main section alongside the edible dormouse Glis glis and other naturalized species rather than relegated to ‘species known to have escaped, survived and bred’, such as the Asian short-clawed otter Aonyx cinereus and other ephemera? Finally, to placate Irish republicans, the designation ‘Britain and Ireland’ is nowadays generally preferred to ‘British Isles’.

These minor niggles apart, this important, well-produced and finely illustrated book will undoubtedly be the standard work in its field for many years.


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  • Dudley SP, Gee M, Kehoe C, Melling TM & the British Ornithologists' Union Records Committee. 2006. The British List: A Checklist of Birds of Britain, 7th edition. Published online: