Friday, 14 January 2022

Part 3: A diversity of plant eaters



Large animals such as elephants and rhinos would have shaped the landscapes of ancient Britain, but the forests and fields would also have been home to many smaller animals, some of which still survive today, even if not in the UK. Sadly, the most magnificent of these is no longer with us, the gigantic "Irish" Elk. It was given the name from where its remains were first discovered, but its range extended all across Europe and Asia. So recently extinct that we have cave paintings showing its appearance in life, it stood over 2m at the shoulder and was built for speed. Apparently related to the living Fallow Deer (which is an introduced species in the UK), large stags of the Irish elk had antlers over 3.5 m across. It seems to have liked open country, but needed fairly rich and productive grassland to sustain its bulk and huge antler growth. It survived in Russia until as recently as five or six thousand years ago


.Elk (Moose for American readers) are known but remains are surprisingly uncommon. Moose prefer cooler climates and most of the sites for the Eemian are in southern England, so possibly they preferred the Highlands to the south of Britain. As the largest living deer they would have been important prey animals for the various large carnivores also present in the country at the time.

Persian Fallow Deer

Sharing the woodland and woodland edge habitat would have been the Red and Roe Deer that are the only native deer in Britain today. Joining them would have been Fallow deer, which are mostly in deer parks in this country today having been first introduced by the Romans, with more brought in by the Normans. Today the nearest truly wild Fallow deer are in Southeast Europe.


Although remains have not been found, there is a cave painting from Nottinghamshire from 12,000 years ago that appears to show an Ibex. As a mountain animal they seldom fossilise, so it is quite probable they were also found before the last glaciation as well nd survived through it until quite recently. Today various feral or semi-wild domestic Goats fulfil the same function.

Feral goat in Wales

European Bison

Remains of Bison have been retrieved from the North Sea and would probably have been present in open areas. Which species is more difficult to decide, as either the modern European Bison (or its immediate ancestor) or the Steppe Bison, the species ancestral to both the European and American Bison, are possible. Steppe Bison were even larger than their living descendants and had long horizontal horns like those of long-horned domestic cattle rather than the smaller, more vertical horns of modern Bison.

Steppe Bison mummy, Alaska

Wild horses have been part of the British landscape in both glacial and interglacial periods, and would have been present in open habitats. Horses tend to be associated in Ice Age faunas with colder habitats and they might therefore have been commoner in the north of Britain. The spread of forests, and possibly hunting by humans, seems to have resulted in the extinction of wild horse in Britain after the end of the last Ice Age. Modern native horses, even the ancient breeds such as the semi-wild Exmoor pony, are descended from domesticated horses brought to Britain around 4,000 years ago.

Exmoor Pony

In the wooded areas a key prey animal and ecosystem engineer would have been Wild Boar. These both distribute seeds, excavate the forest floor and constitute a key prey species for the various large predators that would also have been present. In Britain today the European Robin is associated with gardeners as it looks for worms as they dig their gardens. In the human-free world of Eemian Britain, they would have followed the Wild Boar for the same reason. As a woodland animal, during major ice advances they would have been greatly restricted in Europe to around the Mediterranean. Although Wild Boar became extinct in Britain a few hundred years ago, escapes from boar farms mean that several woodlands in Britain now once more hold them. However, lack of predators other than humans means that they cause a great deal of disturbance and as they can host serious diseases of pigs the pork industry does not like this situation at all.

Wild Boar

One animal common today that would definitely not have been present is the rabbit. During the Pleistocene rabbits of the modern species have been around at least half a million years, but they never naturally moved north of the Iberian peninsula and southern France and Italy.

All these herbivores would have sustained a large variety of predators and scavengers, and I will look at those next time.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Part 2: Ecosystem Engineers


Last time I started to outline the kind of animals that lived in the UK before the last Ice Age, which we can consider a baseline of what would have lived in this country when the climate last resembled that of today. Most people are familiar with the Woolly Mammoth and other ice age fauna, which in warm periods have been confined to the high Arctic and dry grasslands in central Asia. South of them and in western Europe would have been animals that preferred woodland and warmer open country. Starting with the largest, the undoubted major influence on the habitats of Britain would have been elephants.

Seriously. The Straight-Tusked Elephant survived until only 30,000 years ago and lived in the temperate forest belt across the whole of Europe and Asia as far as Japan. Closely related to, but even larger than, the living African elephants, it would have opened up the forests, pushing over and eating trees, and creating a more parkland or open grassland habitat for other animals. This would have increased the variety of forest types – closed-canopy forest would not have been the only kind of woodland to be found, instead a mosaic of open grassland, small clearings and scrub would also have been found, with dense woodland perhaps more confined to steeper slopes where elephants found the going harder.

Narrow-Nosed Rhino

In addition to elephants, another surprising addition would have been rhinoceros. In fact, two species of temperate-climate rhino would have been found in the UK or northern Europe, the open country Narrow-nosed Rhino and the more forest loving Merck’s Rhinoceros.

Merck's Rhinoceros

 Both of these were large even for rhinos, as large as the Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros. Today their closest living relative is the Critically Endangered Sumatran Rhino, which has a total surviving population as low as 80 individuals.

Sumatran Rhino

 Although not as extensive an engineer of woodlands as elephants, they would still have created trails in the woodlands and affected the structure of grasslands by grazing. Another effect would have come about from most rhinoceros’ habits of using large dung piles for marking territory and social communication – the dung beetles and other insects these would attract would certainly have affected foraging by many bats, especially those that prefer beetles or gleaning from foliage along forest trails such as the Brown Long-Eared Bat.

Brown Long-Eared Bat

Perhaps the most unexpected animal of all to find in Britain though would have been the hippopotamus. Not just closely related, but the very same species to live in Africa’s rivers today, hippos only became extinct in Europe at the close of the last Ice Age when an unusually cold period even for an Ice Age eliminated the last populations in Spain and southern France. 

River Hippo

 In Africa they tend to create trampled grasslands up to 1km from the river, which would have impacted other animals in the waterways and coming down to drink. However, shallower rivers and streams would have been avoided, which would have left room for the last of the ecosystem engineers for this post, and the only one which so far has been reintroduced to the UK, the European Beaver.

Eurasian Beaver

Although a distinct species to the beavers of North America, their habits are identical and they would have greatly impacted wet woodlands, forest streams and the general hydrology of the land. This in turn would have affected fish, amphibians, waterside animals like the Water Vole and Otter, and their activities would have affected forest type and availability of nest sites for many birds.

Beaver dam, Scotland

Beavers have only been reintroduced to the UK in recent years but they are already having a big effect on how conservation of wetland and other areas is managed, although their impact on drainage of farmland and feeding on maize crops close to water has caused some issues. They are now starting to spread through the countryside away from the known sites, and recently they showed up at Longleat wildlife park under their own volition. As Longleat is one of the few collections in the UK to hold hippos, this means that England is now the only place on earth where hippos and beavers share the same waterways as they did in the Eemian.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Former British natives and their implications for the future - Part 1

 What is natural anyway?

European Brown Bear
European Brown Bear

A big topic of discussion in conservation circles at the moment is rewilding, which could be described as the restoration of human modified habitats so that they operate as they should with minimal human intervention. However, this supposes that we can know what this looks like, and since the close of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago a very large number of keystone species have become extinct. In this series, I would like to examine the animals and habitats that would have existed in the UK in the period around 120,000 years ago during the Eemian Interglacial. As this is the best available recent geological period to use as a model for what our near future climate might look like studying this time might give us at least a few clues as to what to expect.

European Wildcat

At that time the first true modern-type humans had already been around for a long time in Africa and had begun to spread into western Asia and beyond. No one had yet entered the Americas, but people with the use of fire and complex stone technology – possibly even watercraft in some regions– had been living in Europe and Asia as well as Africa for close to a million years. However, the Neanderthals of northern Europe apparently never crossed the sea to Britain, leaving it deserted by humans while full of wildlife, making the British Isles a very useful baseline for what an environment without humans of any sort looks like.

European Lynx

At this time the climate in the UK was very similar to today, although perhaps with a more continental- type variation between summer and winter temperatures. Global temperatures were around 1 or 2 degrees higher, and global sea levels were also higher by perhaps as much as 6m. As a result, the North Sea was flooded and as the old land bridge at the Straits of Dover had broken in a previous glaciation the British Isles would have looked in outline much like today, with the exception of some low-lying areas being under water.

European Grey Wolf

As a result of all this the vegetation would also have been the same as today – Oak, Birch, Hazel, Elm, Hawthorn and so on. In the woods would have been the same Red Fox, Badgers, Red deer, Blackbirds, Blue Tits and Sparrowhawks that you might see in any British woodland today. In addition, there would have been predators that were only eliminated from the UK in historic times such as Wolves, Brown Bears and Lynx. The Aurochs, wild ancestor of domestic cattle, would have been common, as would Red and Roe deer. However, there would also have been some surprising additions, which I will outline in the next part.

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

And I am back

 To anyone who sees this, I hope you have managed to survive the last few years since I last posted and all your families are OK. I have decided to reactivate this blog and I will be adding new posts and topics that I hope will be of interest to you all. These are currently in preparation and I will be adding the first of what I hope are many from this weekend.

Until then I wish everyone a happy New Year.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Dragonflies 2: Common Darter

Territorial male Common Darter
One of the commonest dragonflies in the UK, especially in the south, is the Common Darter Sympetrum striolatum. One of at least 50 species of Sympetrum, Common Darters have a vast range extending from Western Europe across to Japan, and are often migratory. Other species of Sympetrum are found across the whole northern hemisphere, and in North America they are generally called Meadowhawks.