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Introduction to ungulates of the North East

Ungulates are divided between two orders: the Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates), represented in Britain solely by the domestic or semi-feral horse, and the Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates), of which there are extinct and extant northeast England representatives wild, feral and domestic.

Red Deer Cervus elaphus, Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, Elk Alces alces, Aurochs Bos primigenius and Wild Boar Sus scrofa are all represented as indigenous ungulates in the post glacial, Mesolithic fauna of northeast England. In Britain, Elk probably became extinct during the Mesolithic era possibly persisting into the Bronze Age; Aurochsen (wild cattle) are present in the Bronze Age and may have lingered to the Roman period (Harris and Yalden, 2008). The extinction of the Wild Boar is clouded by attempted re-introductions but it seems likely that extinction in the wild occurred around the end of the 13th century (Yalden, 1999). Extinction in all cases was probably exacerbated by deforestation and hunting by humans. Red and Roe Deer survived the deforestation, the Red as an emparked or feral animal; the Roe is now common in the wild, including in some urban locations.

The Neolithic period, around 5000 BP, saw the arrival of farming and agriculture spreading from the Middle East through Europe and bringing with it domestic ungulates, initially cattle (descendants of the Near Eastern form of the aurochs, Bos taurus taurus), sheep, goats and pigs, with farmed livestock supplanting wild ungulates as a primary human food source. This period saw the beginning of the long transition of Britain’s landscape from woodland to farmland, grassland, heather moorland and blanket bog (Yalden, 1999). Wild ungulates however were, and still are, exploited for food and recreational hunting. The Bronze Age residents of the Heatheryburn Cave, near Stanhope, utilised both wild and domestic ungulates for food and raw materials (Greenwell, 1894). In the 12th century the bishops of Durham organised great deer hunts (Stephens, 1907), and in the first half of the 19th century stag hounds were kennelled at Chillingham Castle and Raby Castle, for the ritual hunting of deer as sport (Whitehead, 1980). Deer are still stalked and shot across the region for sport and food.

Reindeer Rangifer tarandus probably became extinct in Britain early in the Mesolithic period due to climate change and woodland expansion (Harris and Yalden, 2008). It is not represented in the North East other than as a somewhat eccentric attempt at re-introduction. In 1786, for a bet, Sir Henry St George Liddell, of Ravensworth Castle, set off on a tour of Lapland, and when he returned he brought with him two Lap maidens, “for the amusement of his friends”, along with a small herd of Reindeer. The Lap maidens were given gifts and eventually repatriated, and the Reindeer bred in the castle grounds but died out some years later (Clark, 1981).

Wild Boar persist in local memory with two separate legends of knights who gained fame and fortune by killing ferocious boars. Sir Roger de Fery killed the boar (brawn) of Brawns Peth (path), fancifully the origin of the name Brancpeth (Ferryhill Local History Society website, 2012), and Richard Pollard killed the Pollard Brawn at Bishop Auckland (Mysterious Britain website, 2012). Although only stories they serve to illustrate how the boar was once a wild beast to be reckoned with in a pastoral society.

In the 1980s and 1990s free-range farming of Wild Boar became fashionable in the UK and they duly escaped from captivity, establishing themselves as feral populations in the south of England. Locally they are reported to have been living in Chopwell Wood in Gateshead (Goulding, 2003) and there are several local newspaper stories about escaped boar in the region. As yet there is no indication that they have become established locally. Currently one farm, in east Durham, contains American Bison Bison bison, which would make interesting escapees.

Further introductions of domestic and wild ungulates have taken place. Fallow Deer Dama dama were introduced to England by the Normans for hunting and as semi-domestic ornamental parkland animals. Feral Goats Capra hircus can still be found in the Cheviot Hills and the 20th century saw the introduction to England of the tiny Muntjac Deer Muntiacus reevesi, which is now spreading in our region.

Ungulates remain an essential resource for human exploitation; needs and fashions and how humans react to and exploit ungulates both wild and domestic is likely to contribute much to the shaping of the future landscapes of our region and of Britain.


Written by Terry Coult (last updated Nov 12)