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.

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