Living With Extinction
This article was first published in the Shooting Times in March 2020
In an effort to curry favour with the rebels of extinction last Christmas I forwent buying any greetings cards. Instead, I came up with the wheeze of creating home made affairs, decorated with a hand-drawn picture by my nine year old son. After a family meeting it was agreed that “reindeer in a landscape” would be the perfect subject matter for Negus junior’s artistic efforts. My wife and I left him to his art whilst we opened a bottle of sherry. A few festive glasses later we returned to survey his work. The beast he revealed looked markedly un-reindeer like. Whilst a reindeer’s legs are stolidly stumpy, like a cloven footed shetland pony, this animal had limbs like a Borzoi. Reindeer are short coupled, yet this brute stood over the ground like a drum horse. The shock of seeing the antlers he had drawn, all bulky satellite dish palmation set atop a red deer like head, made it necessary for us to refill our glasses. “That is a remarkable reindeer” I ventured, breathing Croft Original fumes over the young Landseer. “It isn’t a reindeer” came his reply “reindeer are boring, this is a megalocerus”. I am sorry to say that our friends and relations didn’t receive a handmade Christmas card, we forgot the last postal date. We do now however have a delightful line drawing of an Irish Elk, dustily curling at the edges, affixed to our fridge by a magnet.
The megalocerus or Irish Elk was a monster of a deer, slightly larger than the modern day moose. Remains of this 6 foot tall behemoth are found most commonly in Ireland, hence the name. They wandered throughout the plains of Eurasia until becoming extinct, it was originally thought, some 10,000 years ago due to starvation caused by the last ice-age. However Scientists from University College London have recently cast doubt on that theory. Megalocerus fossils discovered in the Ural Mountains, indicate that some Irish Elk survived by migrating to warmer climes in an area near the Black Sea. Dating tests upon these fossils reveal that the mega-deer existed for a further 3,000 years. The research also claims that it may not have been climate change, but stone age hunters who were responsible for their ultimate extinction 7,000 years ago. The Irish Elk was something of an evolutionary disaster. In order to grow their vast antlers, stags had to feed at an extraordinary rate. Seemingly only used for display purposes rather than fighting, their magnificent appendages -some 4 meters across- prohibited them from feeding in wooded areas. The UCL scientist’s theory is that with man by this period having perfected the art of hunting and claiming the Elk’s preferred plains feeding territory for agriculture, the giant deer’s tenure on earth was ended by humans. One can only marvel at the skill required to successfully stalk an Irish Elk on the open plain armed only with bow and flint headed arrow or spear. Which leads me to wonder if man can truly be blamed for the Irish Elk’s demise? Knowing just how difficult it is today for man to keep deer at a manageable level, despite being armed with the latest rifle and optics, it does seem questionable that our neolithic forefathers could have wiped out an entire species armed with mere sticks and stones.
One mammal for whose extinction in these Islands can be largely blamed on man is the wolf. It is thought that the wolf arrived in Britain some 50,000 years ago as they followed migrating herds of elk, deer and boar that crossed the ice/land bridge which then joined us to mainland Europe. Trapped here when the receding glacier caused us to become an island, they took up their role as an apex predator alongside man quite happily when we predominately lived as hunter gatherers. However by the year 1000 we were an agrarian nation and this coincides with the period when wolf numbers started to decline rapidly. Doubtless many myths and tales were expounded about how dangerous these creatures were, but wolves do predate readily upon sheep. For centuries much of England’s wealth depended upon the wool trade and anything that negatively impacted that was treated as a foe. Therefore with their habitat dwindling thanks to forestry clearance to make way for grazing land and a rising, wolf hating, English human population, the wolf had its back to the wall. The Saxons called January “Wolf Month” when aristocrats would set forth to hunt wolves at a time when their pelts were in the most premium condition. The Saxon wolf hunting season officially finished on March 25th, doubtless however the niceties of seasons were disregarded by livestock farming freemen if a wolf came to the fold. Following the Conquest, Norman gentry thought it far safer to leave the job of wolf hunting to servants recruited from the ranks of the conquered. Whilst highly stylised Victorian etchings portray images of heroic looking hunters of the past wrestling wolves armed with nothing but a dirk, the reality was much more mundane. Wolves were usually trapped, frequently by digging deep pits containing a carcase laid as bait atop ensnaring sticky pitch. It is a wonder that the notoriously sensitive nose of the wolf didn’t sniff out their impending doom in the pungent goo. However the tactic must have been successful because by the late middle ages the wolf in England was becoming scarce. Legend has it that the last English wolf was killed at Humphrey Head in Cumbria by the son of Sir Edgar Harrington of Wraysholme in 1390. The wolf was apparently hunted all the way from Coniston, some 23 miles away, which is a decent point by anyone’s standards. In wilder, woodier and more sparsely populated Scotland the wolf clung on, despite being as reviled north of the border as they were in England. In the reign of James 1st of Scotland an Act was passed for the destruction of wolves- wolf hunts were legislated to be conducted three times a year, between St. Mark's Day and Lammas. A wolf hunt during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, killed 5 wolves along with 360 deer, proving that big bag days are no modern invention! However it was not hunting that brought the wolf to the brink of extinction in Scotland, it was habitat loss. By the end of the 16th and early 17th century great tracts of forestry had been felled. Much of the timber went into ship building and mining activities, however some woodland was burned purely to clear out the wolves. It is widely believed that the last Scottish wolf was shot at Killiecrankie in 1680 by Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel. However tales abound of wolves still living in isolated glens up until the late 19th Century. The truth of these Victorian tales of Highland wolves is more likely down to glimpsing a rogue stray dog after one too many swigs from the laudanum bottle.
Other notable species that are no longer part of British fauna include the brown bear, (extinct by 1000 AD), the Eurasian lynx (extinct by 400 AD), the wild boar (extinct by1400 AD) and the Eurasian elk (extinct by 600 BC). All of these were widely hunted, some excessively, by man. However they were, like the Irish elk, ultimately made extinct through habitat loss. As a conservationist I spend my working day improving habitats, particularly for birds who live with extinction’s Damoclean sword held menacingly over them. It is a tragedy that 84 British bird species currently reside on the red list of “Birds of Conservation Concern”. One in five British mammals are threatened with extinction. The numbers of native insects that are classed as under threat grows annually, the same applies for our wild flowers, reptile, amphibian and marine species. Habitat loss, pollution and change in climate are the culprits. This terrible calamity is facing our flora and fauna right here and now. However with collaborative and concerted efforts by government, landowners, scientists and practical conservationists these extinctions can be halted. It is tragic that whilst so many of our fragile wildlife species teeters on the brink of extinction a clamouring high profile minority demand we reintroduce species that have been extinct for millenia. However magnificent, the lynx, wolf and bear may be, their fate has proven they are no longer suited to our crowded Islands.