Wildlife in Anglo-Saxon times

By Geoff Littlejohns, gesith

We can start this survey of wildlife in Anglo-Saxon times by mentioning some species which had lived in the British Isles in prehistoric times but for which there is no evidence by AD  450.  The Wild Horse and the Bison (or Wisent) became extinct in the British Isles at the end of the Paleolithic.  The Elk (known as ‘Moose’ in North America), a noble, wandering animal that requires a large feeding territory, has been considered to have become extinct in the Mesolithic but an elk bone from a Neolithic pit in Cambridgeshire was identified in 2018.  It was dated to around 2500BC.  Unless this animal bone was ritually significant enough to be worth importing, this bone indicates that a few Elk may have survived in Britain from the Mesolithic into the Neolithic. 

The magnificent Aurochsen, or Wild Cattle, had probably gone from these islands in the Bronze Age and our modern domestic cattle, including all the rare breeds, descend from imported stock in the Neolithic and later.  There is some debate over the survival of  Brown Bears as the Ancient Roman poet Martial made a reference to a savage ‘Caledonian Bear’ used to execute criminals in the Roman arena.  This is not strong enough evidence to support the assumption that Brown Bears were living in Scotland in Roman times as Martial may have chosen to assume that the bear came from a distant and cloudily romantic source.  To have proposed a more realistic origin for his bear in Italy or the Alps might have lessened the interest of his story.  There is no other evidence for bears in Roman Britain, but bear-lovers can live in hope that some future excavation in Scotland unearths some bear bones dateable to the Roman period.

Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany
Lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany By Aconcagua (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Lynx is a species that was long considered to have died out in Britain at the end of the Mesolithic.  Roger Lovegrove in ‘Silent Fields’ (2007) updated this belief by stating that lynx may have survived in remote areas of Scotland and Yorkshire as late as the time of the Roman occupation.  More recent radiocarbon dating of bones discovered in a North Yorkshire cave have confirmed that lynx survived in that Upland district up to the 6th century AD and so into the Anglo-Saxon era.  Lynx may have survived longer in the Lake District as a 7th century Cumbric lullaby may be referring to lynx hunting there. The eastern Grampians in the Highlands of Scotland could have been supporting a lynx population in an even later period. 

Eurasian beaver near its dam
Eurasian beaver near its dam By Klaudiusz Muchowski CC BY-SA 3.0

With Beavers we are on more secure ground as several Anglo-Saxon place-names refer to them.  The name of Beverley indicates that a clearing associated with beavers, perhaps living along the River Hull.  Bevercotes, near the River Maun, is given in the Nottinghamshire English Place-names Survey as ‘The beaver cotes or dwellings’, with the assumption that the name referred to dams or other structures built by the local beavers. Well after the Anglo-Saxon period, Giraldus Cambrensis testified that beavers were living in the Teifi riverside in west Wales in AD 1188.  This however was their only dwelling place in England and Wales, although he claimed that they also lived along an unnamed river in Scotland.  These were relicts as populations, so we may assume that the distribution of beavers in the earlier Anglo-Saxon centuries would have been wider.  In fact some surprising discoveries recently found within entries in parish records suggest that beavers might have survived for a considerable time in remote places with little attention from humans.  They might have been surviving deep in wet woodlands until the 16th century.

Wild boar
Wild boar By Jerzy Strzelecki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Similarly Wild Boar were certainly living in England through the Anglo-Saxon centuries.  Eversden in Cambridgeshire and Eversley in Hampshire, for example, derive from Eofor, the Englisc for Wild Boar.  As with beavers, mediaeval evidence for boar indicate that they must have been present in earlier centuries.  Wild Boar were still being hunted vigorously in both the Forest of Pickering and the Forest of Dean in the mid 13th century.

Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany
Wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park, Germany By Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Some sceptics have sought to throw doubt on the evidence for Wolves in Anglo-Saxon England.  That an outlaw was known as a ‘wolf’s-head’ does not necessarily prove that wolves still roamed the woods and moors of pre-Conquest England, any more than do the common names of Wulfstan, Wulfhere or Æþelwulf.  The dramatic mention of wolves in battle-poems may well be examples of poetic licence.  The names given to topographical features are more difficult to argue away. Wulf-hlið, hillside inhabited by wolves, Wulfsēað, wolf’s hole, Wulfslǣd, valley of wolves, strike me as convincing proof that wolves were common.  Nevertheless Rackham was not convinced.  He asked rhetorically;

‘who can tell which of the wolf-springs, wolf-hedges, wolf-leaps, etc. in Anglo-Saxon charters have some such metaphorical meaning and which are connected with actual wolves?’  (Rackham)

The balance of probability, however, surely lies with the likelihood that a wolf-pit or a wolf-hedge was referring to the deterrence of real wolves.  As with beavers and boar, the documented activity of wolves in mediaeval England indicates that they had survived through the earlier centuries.  Bounties were paid as rewards for the killing of wolves right up to the late thirteenth century.  The final record for wolves in mediaeval England came even later.  At Whitby in 1394-6 the monks recorded that they paid a large sum of 10s. 9d for ‘tawing 14 wolfskins’.  The wolf is a resilient animal, capable of travelling widely and so of moving, in Anglo-Saxon times, beyond the Highland zone where I presume they would have found a refuge.  Unfortunately its archaeological remains are usually impossible to distinguish from many domestic dogs.

Roe Deer
Roe Deer by LubosHouska, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

While Red Deer and Roe Deer were common in Anglo-Saxon England, the status of Fallow Deer is still debated.  It is likely that they were imported for religious rituals by the Romans, but then perished as the Roman Empire came to an end in Britain.  Fallow Deer were returned to Britain by the Normans who may have brought them in from Sicily.

Flock of Spoonbills
Flock of Spoonbills by Artemy Voikhansky, CC BY-SA 4.0

The position of bird life is less problematic.  Bird species that were forced into extinction in the historically documented era – the Crane, the Spoonbill, the Great Auk, the Great Bustard, the White-tailed Eagle and the Osprey – were victims of the invention of firearms which made killing all too easy.  In Anglo-Saxon times the technology of bow & arrow and falconry did not allow people to inflict such havoc.  So the very recent natural return of the Osprey, Crane and Spoonbill to our islands has restored to us birds that would have been familiar to our ancestors and we should welcome, also, the translocations by ecologists that have restored the Great Bustard and the White-tailed Eagle, along with further Red Kite populations to the bird life of Britain.  Sadly the Great Auk cannot be reintroduced as human destructiveness killed off the last of the entire species in the mid-Atlantic in the mid 19th century.

This impression that the bird-life of Anglo-Saxon England must have been extraordinarily rich is confirmed by the presence of many species’ names in the Englisc (language of the Anglo-Saxons) word-hoard.  The surviving literature from before AD 700 includes the Gannet, Whooper Swan, White-tailed Eagle, Crane, Quail, Whimbrel, Kittiwake, Carrion Crow, Raven, Cuckoo, Woodpigeon, Swallow, Nightingale, Robin and Chaffinch.  Subsequent writings before the Middle English of Chaucer have pushed the list of bird names to just under a hundred.  Other bird names that are not recorded in the early lists clearly have their origins in Englisc and must have been used in Anglo-Saxon times but not recorded on surviving manuscripts.  The Redshank, Redstart, Yellow Hammer and the Godwit must derive from scanca, steort, amore and wiga.  Had the name of the Redshank been coined in the Modern English period, it would be probably now called the Red-legged sandpiper and the Redstart the Redtail.

The Re-wilding Movement began in North America with the intention of restoring as far as is feasible the splendour of the bio-diversity of the North American Pleistocene.  The present Re-wilding Movement in Britain, as far as I am aware, has not declared any purpose of reviving a species list quite as it was in historic or prehistoric times.  Instead its prime aim is to revitalize our landscapes and transform them into habitats for balanced populations of large herbivores and carnivores of once native (or similar) species.  Hence bison, konik ponies or elk could fulfil a role in an English re-wilded landscape. 

This means that re-wilders are not concerned with reviving a fauna that would be a strictly Anglo-Saxon one.  Nevertheless, we as Anglo-Saxonists, may wish to welcome the current efforts of re-wilders to restore lynx, beavers, wild boar, white storks and even wolves to parts of our archipelago.  Of course we would prefer to see re-wilding that showed concern for historic provenance, as it seeks to protect, enrich or restore landscapes.  A historically-mindful approach is perhaps particularly needed when we are engaged in large-scale tree-planting, but an English landscape that is rich in balanced wildlife must be a landscape that helps bring us closer to the lived experience of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, dwelling as they did in the heart of a natural world. 

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