This post describes my new book, The Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife, and lists some of the exciting findings which the book contains about the distribution of mammals in Britain and Ireland during the early modern period, 250–500 years ago.
Did the Lynx survive until the 18th century in Scotland? Up until a couple of years ago, I would have said it was deeply unlikely. In fact, I did say that. In an article published in 2017 in Archives of Natural History (‘The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in early modern Scotland’) I concluded that a sixteenth century letter praising the quality of Lynx skins from Scotland was likely to reflect a manufacturing centre focusing on the re-exportation of imported furs. But I’m not sure about that conclusion any more. A couple of years ago I found a record in a mid-18th-century travelogue which seems to refer to another surviving population of Lynxes living near Auchencairn in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. I published an analysis of this record in Mammal Communications in 2021 (‘An 18th century reference to a Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in Scotland’). In the face of this record, it seems very possible that a small population of Lynxes might possibly have survived right up to the modern period.
The discovery of this record is one small part of my Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife project. Over the last five years I have been working on a project to map the distribution of wildlife in Britain and Ireland before the industrial revolution. My sources are amateur naturalists, travellers and local historians and were written 250–500 years ago. In total I’ve found over 200 useful sources from the time period and pulled out 10,000 records into a database. In the past, faced with a question like: ‘To what extent has the distribution of Otters recovered from its 20th century decline?’, mammologists might have simply hypothesised a ‘maximum distribution’ based on habitat modelling and modern distribution. A more sophisticated answer could be informed by my Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife. I’ve collected 80 records of the Otter from between 1529 and 1772 CE. These can be shown on the map like the one I have provided here.
Of course, a map like this needs to be carefully interpreted. The map shows where the species was recorded, not necessarily where it actually lived or even where it was most common. Even for the Otter, which was a comparatively well-recorded species, many of the historical counties have been shaded with cross-hatching to show where I do not have any sources, and even in areas that were well recorded, not every naturalist mentioned Otters. This is where statistical analysis can provide some support. By comparing the number of records of Otters from each region, with the cumulative survey effort put into surveying each region during the period, it is possible to extrapolate whether any blank areas of the map are likely to reflect local absence or low abundance. In this case, the presence of records from every region, and statistical analysis, suggests that the Otter is likely to have been widespread throughout Britain and Ireland, and the gaps in the data just reflect poor recording.
The former distribution of other rarer carnivores has also been commonly commented on, and the Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife can add to this. The Wildcat, Polecat, and Pine Marten were all relatively widely reported 250–500 years ago. The early modern sources, alas, do not provide any records to corroborate or debunk the theory that the Beech Marten may have formerly been found in Britain, but there are records of martens of one variety or another living in Highland Scotland, Ulster, Connacht and Leinster in Ireland, north and west Wales, and the north, south west and Midlands of England. The Polecat is sometimes theorised to be non-native, but the early modern sources provide records suggesting the species was relatively widespread 250–500 years ago. It is recorded occasionally in north Wales, and in south and south west England, and more commonly in north England and Highland Scotland. And just 250–500 years ago, the so-called Scottish Wildcat was recorded not just in Highland Scotland but also in north-west England, north and west Wales and in Northamptonshire. Of course, these records need not surprise us. The Wildcat seems to be widespread in the medieval English hunting forests, as I have recently found, and the decline of the Wildcat, Pine Marten and Polecat mainly seems to have occurred over the last 200 years.
Perhaps more surprisingly, other species were not so widespread during the time period and have since expanded. The Rabbit is an interesting case study of this. There has traditionally been some debate about the former distribution of the Rabbit. Traditionally, some scholars have argued that the Rabbit remained confined to the coasts for some centuries after its medieval introduction, whilst others argued that Rabbits were common inland as well as on the coasts from the 16th century. The Rabbit is actually one of the best-recorded species in the early modern sources, and the records suggest that a synthesis between the two traditional positions may be possible. 250–500 years ago, the Rabbit was found inland in England, especially in south England, but seems to have been more confined to the coasts in Scotland, Wales and around the island of Ireland. This former distribution of the Rabbit may also have influenced the distribution of the Wheatear, which seems to have colonised the artificial warrens created in the early modern period. The species has since expanded. It is now widespread inland across Britain and Ireland, notwithstanding the 20th century declines due to myxomatosis.
But this is only the start to the mammal data analysed in the Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife. The Wolf was still found in Britain and Ireland in the early modern period, and the Beaver and Wild Boar were occasionally recorded here too. There are also tantalising records of Sperm Whales, and of mammal-eating Orca populations far (far!) south and east of their present range around the Northern Isles and Hebrides, as well as historical distribution maps and analysis of birds, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. But for that, you will have to read the book! – The Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife is due out from Pelagic Publishing on 18th July 2023.
Read next: Mammals in Summer, guest blog by Elen Sentier