After the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer humans shared the wooded landscape of what is now the northeast of England with 11 indigenous carnivorous mammals, of which only five have survived continuously to the present day. Habitat loss caused by deforestation and climate change, combined with competition from a growing human population, resulted in the extinction, either nationally, locally or temporarily, of the other six. In particular, Neolithic farmers arrived from mainland Europe around 5,000 years ago and escalated the clearance of the wild woods. They changed the wooded landscape to farmland and the subsequent loss of territory probably contributed to the extinction of the largest carnivores on what had, by then, become the small island of Britain.
Our current understanding of the dates of extinctions is unclear but it is thought that the Brown Bear Ursus arctos probably became nationally extinct no later than the Roman period, and the Lynx Lynx lynx in the 6th century (Hetherington, 2006). The Wolf Canis lupus was next; by the end of the 13th century it was probably confined to Cumbria and the Pennines along with Scotland, and sometime around the end of the 17th century it became extinct in the UK (Harris and Yalden, 2008).
The smaller carnivores persisted but they too were affected by woodland clearance, particularly the Pine Marten Martes martes and the Wild Cat Felis silvestris. By the 16th century all were considered vermin and a price was on their heads. Elizabeth I’s “Act for the Preservation of Grayne” in 1598 made it the responsibility of parish officers to pay bounty on those mammals and birds considered a threat to human resources. Polecat Mustela putorius and Fox Vulpes vulpes appeared frequently in local parish bounty lists. How well the Act succeeded in depleting carnivore numbers is unknown but there are local examples of very high numbers killed, such as the 563 Polecats killed in 24 years at the beginning of the 18th century in Houghton-le-Spring (Lovegrove, 2007). It may well be that the escalation in persecution in the 19th and early 20th centuries, due to the emergence of game preservation and shooting estates, had an inflated efficiency as it was applied to a carnivore population already depressed by woodland loss and parish bounties.
The advent of game-keeping in support of the intensive rearing of game birds for shooting almost succeeded in making the Pine Marten, Polecat and Wild Cat nationally extinct. According to Langley and Yalden (1977), they were extinct in Durham by 1900, the Wild Cat going first in 1863. Northumberland populations persisted a little longer with extinction of all three species by 1910, again the Wild Cat going first in 1853. Nationally the three species persisted with depressed populations in northwest Scotland (Wild Cat, Pine Marten) and north Wales (Polecat).
Of the carnivores which never became locally extinct, the Badger Meles meles dropped to very low numbers and the Fox and Otter Lutra lutra survived because of their role as prey species to be ritually hunted with dogs. There is evidence to show that numbers of both species were artificially maintained and even inflated in order to maintain sport. Weasel Mustela nivalis and Stoat Mustela erminea survived despite wide-spread trapping.
The First World War saw a reduction in the number of gamekeepers and estate workers; subsequent social changes reduced the influence of the landed classes on the management of the countryside, resulting in an easement in carnivore persecution. From that period to this, carnivore numbers have been in slow increase, with the exception of the Otter which suffered a temporary major reversal in fortunes during the mid 20th century as a result of poor water quality and pesticide poisoning.
Currently Badger, Fox and Otter are well distributed across the North East, as are Stoat and Weasel. The Polecat is present and increasing in numbers, as it recolonises from re-introductions in the west, and Pine Martens exist as a sparse, displaced, non-indigenous population. The Wild Cat is still missing from England and Wales, although there are rumours of an introduction into Northumberland in the 1970s. If this is true then it is likely that the released cats will have hybridised with Domestic Cats Felis catus with subsequent loss of the Wild Cat phenotype: a threat to the Wild Cat even in its remote Scottish refugia.
The 1960s and 70s saw the arrival of a new carnivore in the North East, the American Mink Neovison vison. Escapees from fur farms have colonised and are now well established on the region’s water courses.
Human attitudes to carnivores are changing, particularly for Badger and Fox which now have urban populations with which elements of the human community empathise. The Otter is perceived as a charismatic survivor despite its occasional predation on ornamental fish, and its re-colonisation of the major conurbations of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside made it a potent symbol of the success of the modern wildlife conservation movement. Badger, Otter, Polecat and Pine Marten are protected by law, but Fox, Stoat, Weasel and Mink are legally culled to support game-bird rearing, a process which in the region’s western uplands also protects important populations of breeding waders.
Both Brown Bear and Wolf have revisited England as captive animals, Brown Bear for baiting and as dancing bears (Yalden, 1999): the Bowes Museum has a photograph of a dancing bear in St John’s Chapel, Weardale taken circa 1914. The most infamous regional return was that of the Wolf, in the shape of the “Famous Allendale Wolf”, which terrorised the farmers and sheep flocks of Allendale and Hexhamshire at the turn of the 20th century. First reported in the Hexham Courant on 10 December 1904, the wolf eluded experienced big-game hunters, local fox-hound packs, armed gangs of farmers and the lure of two in-season female wolves, used as bait in a trap, before an adult male wolf was killed on the rail track by the Midland Express on 29 December, 1904, at Cumwhinton in Cumbria. The newspapers of the time reported that Captain Bains of Elm Park, Shotley Bridge had lost a male wolf in October 1904, confirmed by Captain Bains in the North Mail of 22 December that year. The question of the day was, did Captain Bains wolf harry the sheep flocks and was the wolf killed at Cumwhinton the same wolf? Reading the contemporary newspaper reports and the internet articles since, the story of the wolf takes on all the trappings of any alien animal story. There were those who denied it ever existed; it was reported to change colour from time to time; there was debate over whether there was more than one; it seemed impossible to agree on its age and even after the dead wolf was found there were those who continued to see it living. What does seem to be agreed is that after the Cumwhinton wolf’s death the sheep killing eventually stopped.
Today the pressures on the populations of Badger, Fox, Otter, Stoat, Weasel, Mink, Polecat and Pine Marten are not so much those of traditional game-keeping, although that still exists, but once again the conflict over space in a small island: a burgeoning human population requires space for houses, roads, livestock, agriculture and increasingly, recreation. Badgers, cattle and deer share bovine tuberculosis but the Badger becomes the scape-goat in the search for the solution. The ever-expanding road network kills an unknown number of carnivores, but attempts to alleviate this are few and far between. Urban extensions into traditional carnivore territories result in conflict between Badgers, gardeners and green-keepers, and when recreational fisheries are created in the countryside they are a strong temptation for the resident Otters.
Carnivores are adapting to the changing modern environment but there is still a need for robust and deliverable legislation, plans and policies favouring wildlife but most of all, people must change their attitude to sharing the world with carnivores.
Written by Terry Coult (last updated Nov 2012)