Meet the burrowers! There’s a whole world of wildlife living under your feet. Going underground is an essential part of survival for these mammals
Everything about moles is adapted to a life spent underground. Their powerful front legs and paws help them to dig tunnels efficiently, propelling them through the dirt in a swift swimming motion. To compensate for poor visibility, a mole’s snout is able to smell in stereo – each nostril works independently, detecting subterranean morsels like earthworms with impressive accuracy. Even the mole’s blood cells are designed with burrowing in mind – these contain special haemoglobin proteins, allowing the animal to reuse oxygen inhaled above ground. As they spend so much time underground, most people have never seen a mole in the wild. Yet almost everyone has seen a molehill. These mounds of dirt are comprised of the excess soil excavated by moles digging and repairing tunnels. Gardeners and farmers may find them a nuisance, but moles play an important role in aerating and tilling soil, making it more fertile. As such, dirt taken from molehills makes excellent potting soil.
A fox’s den
Even urban foxes need to find a place to burrow when mating season comes around. Their underground dens (known as earths) are a safe haven for newborn fox kits where they remain with their mother for two weeks while the father hunts and brings back food. As foxes have adapted to live in towns and cities, they are often restricted in terms of places to make their burrows. Many end up making their dens in people’s gardens; in flower beds, compost heaps and under garages and sheds. You may welcome the sight of cute fox kits in your garden, but avoid getting too close – foxes who lose their fear of humans often end up sneaking into homes, usually making a right old mess.
A badger’s sett
European badgers live in some of the most impressive burrows found in the animal kingdom. Their setts, which are passed on throughout generations of badger families, can be centuries old, and are sometimes large enough to accommodate multiple families. With such complex, long-lasting homes, it’s perhaps no surprise that badgers are known for their housekeeping talents. They are incredibly clean, regularly clearing out old bedding from their sleeping chambers and replacing it with fresh grass and straw. They also dig communal latrines outside, ensuring that no fellow badger stinks out the sett by defecating inside it. Burrowing prowess is also reflected in badger anatomy. Their short but strong legs are tipped with elongated claws, helping them to scoop away dirt with ease. With flexible and muscular snouts, their sensitive noses are also used for digging and probing. This can be particularly useful for sniffing out rabbits, which sometimes inhabit hard to reach chambers within the badgers’ extensive sett. Foxes are also known to take advantage of badgers’ vast underground homes. Despite being rival predators, the two species will generally tolerate one another thanks to a mutualistic relationship – badgers feed on food scraps left behind by foxes, while foxes benefit from the burrow maintenance skills of their hosts.
A water vole’s burrow
It’s not easy being a water vole. The already meagre five-month lifespan of these small, defenceless rodents is regularly cut short by a wide range of powerful predators, including cats, foxes, hawks, owls, weasels and mink. Living in such hazardous hunting grounds, water voles treasure their burrows as a safe place to hide. They excavate underground homes in the banks of rivers, ponds and streams, providing a useful escape route from predators. Being talented swimmers, water voles are also able to enter their burrows through underwater entrances. If they happen to be spotted by a predator while foraging for their favourite water-dwelling grasses and plants, water voles will make a beeline for their holes. These provide a snug haven from most predators. However, one animal, the American mink, is slender and agile enough to enter their burrows. A fast decline in water vole populations has largely been attributed to this invasive species. Farming and watercourse management have also been cited as reasons for water voles’ increasing rarity. They are currently the UK’s fastest declining mammal, although the recovery of European otters in British waters has helped somewhat. These carnivores are a useful ally against the encroaching American mink, attacking the smaller mustelids to defend their habitats.
A rabbit’s warren
Famed for their remarkable reproduction abilities, rabbits rely on their burrows as a protective environment for their blind, furless babies, known as kits. Networks of these burrows are called warrens, and each warren houses a lively and sociable colony of up to 20 rabbits. Warrens consist of multiple living chambers, connected by a maze-like network of tunnels. By burrowing in groups, rabbits are afforded a greater chance of survival. They benefit from the territorial tendencies of their neighbours: with lots of rabbits protecting their homes in the same space, nesting babies become less vulnerable to attacks from predators. And with more twitching ears and sniffling noses on the lookout for swooping owls and stealthy foxes, the chance of survival becomes significantly greater. Domestic rabbits retain their burrowing instincts, so it’s a good idea to provide pet bunnies with a special digging area: soil, sand and wood shavings can all help to satisfy this need.
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