A kingfisher perched on a branch over water

A kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). Spotting one of these beautiful birds fishing in a town or city is a sign the water quality is good. © Peter Trimming (CC BY-SA 2.0) via geograph

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Meet the neighbours: eight surprising animals living in UK towns and cities

The idea of going to watch wildlife can conjure up visions of a remote hide in pristine wilderness. But there is also an abundance of nature on our doorsteps, even in large towns and cities.

It's not just foxes, rats and pigeons, either. Discover eight surprising creatures you could meet in and around the concrete jungle.

In a densely populated country like the UK, urban areas are forming an ever-more crucial part of many animals' habitats, so it's important we do everything we can to be good neighbours.

1. Otters

An otter in a river in Thetford town centre, Norfolk, UK

Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra) can be found in rivers, canals and wetland areas in towns and cities up and down the country, even in some large metropolises like Manchester, Birmingham and London © David Tipling Photo Library/ Alamy Stock Photo

Although still a rare sight, otters have made a remarkable comeback in the UK in the last few decades. In the 1950s, populations in Britain were in troubled waters, with the species at the brink of extinction.

Improvements in water quality and bans on hunting and the use of harmful chemicals have all contributed to a welcome recovery. You can now find these majestic mustelids in pretty much every part of the country - in wetland areas, near coastlines or by rivers with grassy banks, where they raise their cubs.

If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of otters around town. They've been spotted from Cricklepit Mill in Exeter city centre to Portrack Marsh in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, and in many other urban locations in the UK, including in larger cities. They have occasionally been known to hunt their prey in quiet sections of the canal network.

Otters are notoriously difficult to observe, since these shy creatures mostly hunt at night and are semiaquatic. But their thick coats mean you have a chance of seeing them year-round, as they don't hibernate. You might have more luck finding signs of their presence like spraint (otter poo) left on prominent rocks or tree stumps on riverbanks.

Discover more about otters' presence in UK towns and cities >

2. Kingfishers

A kingfisher perched in a tree

The brightly coloured common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is a distinctive sight on the UK's urban waterways © Corine Bliek (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Even though kingfishers are well distributed across the UK, they are still an infrequent and spectacular sight, and so spotting one is a feather in any birdwatcher's cap. A good place to start is by waiting patiently at spots near canals and slow-flowing rivers, so keep a look out for a flash of colour in towns and cities with these environments, or listen out for their characteristic high-pitched whistle.

It's a good sign if a kingfisher is in the neighbourhood, as this indicates the water quality is high. With better water treatment and bans on pollutants in some cities, these birds are slowly but surely inhabiting more urban areas.

Kingfishers can struggle to find natural fishing perches in built-up places and have been seen to improvise by using shopping trollies, scrap metal and anything else they can find.

3. Adders

An adder with its distinctive zigzag pattern visible

Common European adders (Vipera berus) can be found in a variety of urban habitats © Kentish Plumber (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

You might be surprised to learn that there are adders in some UK towns and cities, especially since these shy creatures tend to steer clear of people.

The adder is Britain's only venomous snake and one of only three native species, along with the grass snake and the smooth snake. Adder bites on humans are very rare and, though often painful, are hardly ever fatal. Find out more about the risks and how to avoid them.

The best time to see adders is in March and April after they emerge from their winter hibernation. You can even find these snakes around cities like London, in some of the wilder spots: basking at woodland edges, on heathland or at brownfield sites. One of the best-known populations around the capital is at Hounslow Heath, close to Heathrow Airport. This population was introduced to the area in 2000 as part of an effort to increase the distribution of the species. 

Unfortunately though, adder populations are on the slide in Britain, with one recent study suggesting that unless current trends are reversed, they could be limited to a few isolated populations in 15-20 years. This would put these snakes at greater risk of extinction.

4. Whales

A humpback whale breaching

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been spotted near several UK cities, including in the Thames and Forth estuaries near London and Edinburgh © jdegenhardt (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Sure, these spectacular visitors are usually only passing through near our cities - perhaps for a long weekend at most - but whales are becoming an increasingly common sight around the shores of Britain and Ireland.

In the last few years, humpback whales have been seen along coastlines from the Forth to the Thames. The widely reported sightings of a beluga whale in the Thames in 2018 captured the public's imagination and was much rarer event, since this species generally only favours arctic waters.

Other reports of orcas hunting in the River Clyde in 2018 are further evidence that spotting a pod from your pad in a UK coastal town is not as unlikely as you might think.

5. Deer

A muntjac deer

The Chinese muntjac or Reeves's muntjac deer (Muntiacus reevesi) is an introduced species in the UK. It is well-adapted to urban environments like gardens and can move around easily thanks to its small size - it is only about half a metre tall. © Rory (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

The UK's deer population is thriving. At around two million individuals, it is at the highest it has been for more than 1,000 years. There are six deer species living wild in the UK. Of these, the red deer and roe deer are the only two native species.

While you might be lucky enough to encounter any of these deer in the suburbs of a town or city, one species - the muntjac deer - is particularly well adapted to urban life, although often quite secretive.

Reeves's muntjacs are small and stocky deer with a brown summer coat. They were introduced to Bedfordshire in 1894, with further releases in the early twentieth century. The population is mainly confined to southern and central England and Wales, but it is growing in numbers and distribution.

Muntjacs like overgrown gardens, scrub and woodland habitats. While they are a striking sight, these interlopers are not welcomed by everyone: they can cause significant damage to gardens and woodland, including land managed for nature conservation. Road traffic collisions are also a significant problem, with up to 74,000 deer-related road accidents reported each year.

6. Peregrine falcons

A pair of peregrine falcons on a building ledge

Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) at St John's Church in Bath, Somerset © Stewart Black (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Few species have adapted to city living so well as peregrine falcons.

These aerial hunters are making a comeback in Britain and many of them are flocking to towns and cities, with regular sightings in places such as Southampton, Exeter, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Peregrines can reach speeds of 320 kilometres per hour when diving to catch their prey. The abundance of pigeons in cities is one of the main reasons they have adapted so well to hunting in these environments.

Sites such as bridges, churches and other tall buildings have been observed as nesting places. Even the high rents in central London don't seem to ruffle these birds' feathers, with pairs spotted nesting at Battersea Power Station.

Peregrine populations declined during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to human persecution. Contamination by the agricultural chemical DDT caused a further crash in numbers in 1950s, with pesticides entering the food chain and concentrating in birds, causing eggshell thinning and other problems.

The Museum's egg collection played a pivotal role in understanding this threat. By examining peregrine eggs collected before and after the Second World War, researchers could establish that the DDT had caused eggs to become thinner, making them more likely to break. The use of DDT was banned in the UK in 1984.

Explore how peregrine falcons are now thriving in UK towns and cities >

7. Water voles

A water vole at the edge of a river

Water voles (Arvicola amphibious) are the largest species of vole in the UK © Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Water voles used to inhabit pretty much every waterway in Britain, but this species is unfortunately now the most severely declining mammal in the country. Water voles have disappeared from 94% of the sites where they once lived, mainly due to predation by non-native American mink, which escaped fur farms. From an estimated population of eight million a hundred years ago, there are now only around 132,000 individuals.

Look out for these strong swimmers at overgrown, steep banks of rivers, streams and canals, even in urban environments. They dig burrows with entrances at a series of heights, including underwater. Look out along the river edge for small piles of Tic Tac-sized cylindrical droppings in prominent locations (unlike rats, voles create latrines to mark their territory). If you sit quietly, you may be lucky and see one or hear the characteristic 'plop' of a water vole dropping into the water.

Alongside these better known habitats, water voles have also been found thriving in grasslands in Glasgow. This puzzled local officials, who were amazed to see the voles living over a kilometre away from the nearest water source. Although this behaviour is well-reported from water voles in Europe, it is quite unusual for them in the UK. The council has now set up the Glasgow Water Vole Project to better understand their new furry neighbours.

8. Bats

A common pipistrelle bat in flight

The common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) is the UK's most widely distributed bat © Rudmer Zwerver/ Shutterstock.com

If you're hanging around at dusk in a city park or back garden during the UK spring and summer, bats can be an exhilarating sight, darting and twisting through the air as they hunt insects between trees and buildings.

Pipistrelles are the most common bats in the UK, with two species making up 80% of the total bat population. They are also the most likely species to be out on the town at night, being well suited to urban environments with a varied diet and a preference for roosting in buildings.

Pipistrelles can squeeze through gaps as small as one centimetre squared and have adapted well to finding roosting opportunities in features of modern buildings as well as older or traditional buildings they are often associated with. They are also disturbed by artificial lighting far less than some other bat species.

Discover more about where to see bats in the UK and how to identify them >

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