January is one of the coldest months in many parts of Britain, and most wildlife has a hard time, especially mammals. Winter brings a lack of food, and with temperatures plummeting, energy reserves can run out quickly.
This article looks at some of the different mammals in Britain and how they survive the cold month of January.
The winter fox is quite unlike the fox from a few months previous. Foxes grow a thick coat that fluffs up against the cold, insulating their body.
Foxes are opportunistic feeders, and January can be difficult, so they have to adapt. During summer, the usual prey for a fox are rabbits, young birds, and a healthy diet of fruit, but these are more scarce in January.
Foxes can be seen scavenging more in the winter months, and if you hear an animal going through your bin, it will most likely be a red fox. If you don’t keep your garage or shed closed, you may find one in there trying to find food or keeping warm. They also feed on roadkill more in winter, but unfortunately, this leads to many fox deaths.
I see hundreds of rabbits throughout most of the year on my local walk, but I see very few in January. The cold, wet weather in Britain leads rabbits to spend a lot of their time in their burrows. The underground tunnels allow them to keep warm.
Unfortunately, it is not just the weather that makes them harder to see in winter. Starvation can be a problem for rabbits, mainly if snow or ice covers the landscape. Snow and ice cover any food and make them more vulnerable to predators.
Horseshoe bats are not easy to spot in January as they enter a state of hibernation called torpor. Torpor is different from hibernation as they may wake up if conditions change.
We have two species of horseshoe bat in the UK, Greater horseshoe and Lesser horseshoe. They can be found in winter in caves, barns, stables, and churches. Many people may discover horseshoe bats in their cellars or lofts during winter.
Chinese water deer
The Chinese water deer is one of our more unusual mammals, typically native to China and Korea. Chinese water deer in the UK make up 10% of the total population. They can be found in the Cambridgeshire fens, Norfolk Broads, and parts of Bedfordshire.
Their coat becomes longer and ragged in winter and turns grey, much different from the short russet brown fur in summer.
Looking for Chinese water deer is easier once it snows, as you can look for their tracks.
If snow covers the landscape, Roe deer have more problems than many other animals in January. Roe deer are highly territorial, and if snow covers their territory, disputes can occur. Although males are more territorial in the breeding season between March and August, seeing another male come into their area can cause fights. In winter, injuries can be deadly.
Starvation is another big problem for deer due to the lack of vegetation. Deer in territories with various terrain are more likely to make it through winter than others. Roe deer are generally nocturnal, but they can be seen more in January due to the cold weather. By grazing during the day when the sun is up, they can not only keep warm but browse on brambles and any new roots or shoots popping up.
The short-tailed vole is a food source for many predators during winter. Voles are one of the primary food sources for many birds of prey, including kestrels and owls. Mammals such as weasels and foxes will also feed on voles, especially in January when other food sources are scarce.
As the vegetation that usually hides them at other times of the year dies off, short-tailed voles have less cover. Short-tailed voles create runs through flattened grasses to give them extra cover, but in winter, their movements are a tell-tale to predators that there is a tasty snack waiting to be caught.
I went for a walk recently through the woods when the sun had gone down and came face to face with two badgers running at me. I’m still not sure who was more scared, but they didn’t seem bothered by me as they ran past.
Badgers don’t hibernate, but they stay in their setts underground for several days if the weather isn’t good. It is challenging to see badgers in January if the weather is cold, as they may only venture out of their setts to find new bedding material or use their dung pit.
January is an exciting time for badgers as the females are pregnant and getting ready for birth in February. Once the weather warms up and spring returns, you may be able to see young badgers coming outside for the first time.
The Exmoor pony is a small, wild pony that seems unfazed by the winter. In Exmoor National Park, the ponies have access to pasture and shelter to visit, which helps them in winter. However, Exmoor ponies are incredibly hardy.
They build up a fat store throughout the year ahead of the winter and grow a thick, double layer protective coat. The outer coat consists of coarse, greasy hair that helps keep water out, while the insulating undercoat keeps them warm.
Snow can often be seen collecting on the coats, called snow thatching, as the body retains heat so well that it doesn’t melt.
I recently sat on a tree stump at dusk and heard rustling from the nearby leaf litter. I knew that it was wood mice as they are always active around my area, and I often see them.
I don’t usually see them as early as they are nocturnal, but they come out of their burrows earlier in January. Starvation is extremely dangerous for such small animals, foraging for fallen nuts and seeds. If any berries are left on the bushes and shrubs, then wood mice can be seen scrambling for them.
We have many mammals in the UK and our fair share of marine mammals. Common seals can be found around the coast of mainland Britain but are most prevalent around the east coast and Scotland.
January is an excellent time to see dozens or hundreds of common seals hauling out on beaches trying to heat up.
January is a great time to see young seal pups. In Scotland and the east coast of England, pupping occurs in November and December, while in other areas such as Cornwall and Wales, it occurs as early as August. Pups can often be seen lying on the beach to generate heat.