Urbanisation is a continuing process. This means that unfortunately, pockets of land where wild animals may live and thrive are slowly but inexorably diminishing. There are species which were plentiful previous to the Second World War, but are now already extinct, while others are in danger of becoming so within our lifetime unless we preserve them carefully.
It is amazingly ironic that in order for certain Maltese fauna to survive, it can only do so at this point through the intervention of the human population, when it had been the unrelenting progress of humanity in the first place that had displaced and depopulated such endemic animals and their habitats. What’s more, it’s indisputable that once a wild species starts to be controlled through husbandry, its imminent domestication is inevitable, which is why such species lose those traits which render them wild.
At present, there are still around twenty wild mammals present on the Maltese Islands. Many of these are rarely seen, and yet, they are still a presence, albeit a silent and diminishing one. Some of the most prominent of the wild mammals found on our shores are the following:
The Algerian Hedgehog (Qanfud)
This is the only species of hedgehog found on the Maltese Islands. It is characterised by its covering of spines, which offer it protection. Each one of these spines is about 1mm thick and 25mm long. This kind of hedgehog is generally around 22.5cm long with a short tail, a pointed snout and small rounded ears. During the day, it hides under vegetation or in deep holes, while it emerges at sunset to look for insects, snails, slugs and earthworms. When it feels threatened, the hedgehog rolls into a ball, pushing its head between its front legs and pulling its hind legs to cover its nose and eyes.
Image source: Hazelmountain
The Weasel (Ballottra)
The weasel had been portrayed on the old Maltese cent coins, and yet the fact remains that very few people have actually seen one up close locally. The weasel has light brown-coloured fur on the back which becomes white on its belly. The male is generally larger than the female, and measures approximately between 13 and 30cm (tail included). The weasel is carnivorous, and usually eats mice and rats. It’s also able to climb trees and sometimes eats fledgling birds. Weasels breed in late spring or early summer. This animal is becoming very rare due to loss of habitat as more and more countryside is being developed.
Image source: Wikipedia
The Wild Rabbit (Fenek Salvaġġ)
In the past, wild rabbits were so plentiful as to be almost classified as pests. Locals hunted them assiduously for the pot, especially since the rabbit is a traditional Maltese dish. Nowadays, wild rabbits are much rarer due to unsuitable habitat. The wild rabbit is much smaller than the domesticated variety, being only some 30cm in total length. It inhabits areas with low grass, fields and garigue. It burrows and eats roots, and lives in family groups.
Image source: Source
The Sicilian Shrew (Ġurdien ta’ Geddumu Twil)
I’m sure that many of you have heard, if not read, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. A shrew is a small mouse-like mammal with a long pointed snout and small eyes. It does not exceed 10-12cm in length (including the tail) and the fur on its back is usually a light grey colour with some brownish patches, while the underside of its body is an off-white colour. It is a nocturnal species which often uses burrows dug by other mammals as shelters, but it also sometimes uses simple cracks in rocks or leaf litter. Shrews live in open shrubland and maquis, but also in some woodlands. It has highly sensitive whiskers and a good sense of smell, compensating for its poor eyesight. It feeds mainly on earthworms, but also on the carcasses of rodents and reptiles.
Image source: TheTimes