Although less obvious than flowers and birds, many animals can be found along The Ridgeway. Foxes, badgers, deer, hare, rabbits, stoats, weasels, mice and voles are all present. Evidence of their presence can be found but they are mainly secretive and rarely seen. Molehills are evident in many areas.
Both Roe and Fallow deer are nocturnal and shy, so the best time to see them is at dusk and dawn. Roe deer are the smaller of the two (about 60cm at the shoulder) and are native to Britain. They live in small groups of 3 or 4 in woodland, but can survive in the relatively treeless downland as long as there are a few large hedges or small copses where they can lie up during the day. The bucks shed their antlers in November and grow a new set by April, ready for the rutting season in July and August. A sharp bark may tell you a Roe deer is nearby.
Fallow deer come from the Mediterranean, brought here originally by the Normans. They started to spread out into the countryside from deer parks in Victorian times. They live in large groups in woodland. About 90cm tall (at the shoulder) they are larger than Roe deer and have much larger antlers, with flattened areas towards the tips. Antlers are shed in May and re-grown by August. After the rutting season in October, Fallow deer moult from their summer reddish dappled colour to a greyish-brown winter coat.
Hares are animals of the open countryside and more common on the downland areas. Being non-social animals, apart from during the breeding season, they are usually alone. They breed above ground in small hollows, the young are born covered in fur with their eyes open and can be active immediately. ‘Mad March hares’ refers to the chasing and boxing during courting in early spring. Hares are most active at night, so the best time to see them is dawn or dusk.
Rabbits are a common sight. They tend to stay near the edges of fields and the best time to see them is dawn or dusk, especially in late summer when their numbers are at their highest. They are social animals and live in groups underground. Myxomatosis has taken a heavy toll since its introduction in 1953, but now increasing numbers of rabbits have developed immunity. Rabbits were originally introduced from Europe for meat and fur, but commercial rearing disappeared in Victorian times although the place names still survive – Streatley Warren, Kingston Warren and the numerous Warren Farms along The Ridgeway.
Stoats and Weasels are small relatives of the ferret, otter and badger. They hunt mice and voles amongst long grass and hedgerows. Stoats are twice as large (about 50cm from tip to tail) as weasels and will even tackle a hare or rabbit. Both are very active and inquisitive animals.