Wolf, lynx, great auk.  Scotland's lost pre-industrial wildlife revealed

Wolf, lynx, great auk. Scotland’s lost pre-industrial wildlife revealed

This new atlas, which explores the distribution of animals through books and documents from this period provides a startling insight – and what’s even more surprising is how rich historical information is about Scotland.

In fact, says Dr. Raye, Highland Scotland, the Hebrides and the Northern Isles were the most recorded places in all of Britain and Ireland, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

This was, in part, due to Robert Sibbald of Kippes, a naturalist who helped found both the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Dr. Raye says: “In an early survey of population science,” says Dr. Raye, “Robert Sibbald sent questions to educated people (especially doctors, clergy and clergy) throughout Scotland, asking them to return descriptions of their local environmental records. The answers to these questions allow us to go some way towards exploring the wildlife of Scotland before the industrial revolution, which I have taken advantage of in my Atlas of Ancient Wildlife.”

Dr Raye, however, cautions us not to assume that before industrialization the natural world existed in a “pure, harmonious state”. The early modern period, after all, was one of unusual weather, the Little Ice Age, frequent crop failures and famine. North Sea temperatures have dropped “so much so that cod and herring fishermen fail”.

It was also the case that many species – lynx, roe deer, beaver, red squirrels, cranes, capercaillies and large auks – have been declining due to hunting. Others, like brown bears, wild boars and right whales, seem to have disappeared.

A wolf

Herald: Terry and Meg European wolves in Longleat Image: Tom Anders

The wolf, in Scotland, is an icon of species loss, and a symbol of desire and the desire to return to the apex predator. But what is the truth about its history in the last century in Scotland?

As early as 1684 Robert Sibbald was describing the Scottish wolf as once common, now extinct, and, writing for the century, Thomas Pennant acknowledged that the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680.

Dr. Raye writes: “It seems probable that in the seventeenth century the end of the wolf was a common form in Scotland.

This disappearance from the Highlands happened shortly after the loss of the wolf in the lowlands. Prior to this the barons were made liable to hunt wolves on their lands by an act of James I, and a 15th century poem by the Gaelic poet Giolla Críost Táillière celebrates the hunting of wolves in the lowlands.

In the 17th century, the only Scottish town where modern naturalists recorded wolves was Sutherland in the Strath Nave area.

The author of one of these accounts, Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, described the three forests of Sutherland as “very profitable for game, and lovely for hunting.”


Herald: Tora the Lynx at the New Forest Wildlife Park Picture: Trevor Parsons

A traveler named Richard Pococke, in 1760, wrote: “They have three times as many wild cats as common cats, after a historic visit to Kirkcudbrightshire.” “They have a yellow-red color, their breasts and sides are white. They take fowls and lambs, and give birth two at a time. I was assured that they sometimes breed in the nest of a large bird, in a place beyond the reach of the dogs; and it is said that they will attack a man who tries to take their children, but they always shoot … them and take the little ones.”

Were these animals lynxes? Raye believes this description is appropriate. Although the lynx disappeared from England in the late Middle Ages, there are enough mentions to show that they may have survived in Scotland until much later. One letter even says that the best lynx skins come from Sweden and Scotland

But the lynx, Dr Raye says, may have died out soon after.

A wild cat

Herald: Wildcat Image: The Agency

Scotland’s wild cats are on the brink of extinction – but, earlier this year, around 20 specially bred cats were released into the Highlands by conservationists.

The animals, commonly known as the Scottish wildcat, were simply called the wildcat before they disappeared from England and Wales. Its decline across Britain was rapid, beginning first in southern and central England and then in Wales, Northern England and much of Lowland Scotland in the 1990s. “In the seventeenth century in England and Wales,” Raye writes, “670 were paid to the Wildcats, and the stone of Phungela was settled.” but there were only four in the whole nineteenth century.” The primary reason for the decline, the author says, “seems to be deforestation”.

Wild boar

The Herald: The wild pig or Sus Scrofa, also known as the Wild Pig, is the Eurasian Wild Pig.

The story of the wild boar is more complex than that of many other species. Although the theory died out, writes Dr Raye, due to “excessive hunting in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages”, it does not mean that it was not in these islands at that time.

Even after these animals were no longer wild, wild boars were exported by the nobility to restock their lands for hunting. There was a fluidity between wild and domestic, with free-roaming domestic pigs that tended to be feral – for example a certain number in Orkney – and resembled the male wild boar.

Brown Bear

Herald: Eurasian brown bear at Welsh Mountain Zoo.  Photo: Shaun Wilson

What about the last bear? The bear may have left its mark on our minds, our place names and our beloved toys, but it is believed to have made its way to Ireland at the end of the Mesolithic period, and to most of Britain in the late Neolithic or Bronze Age. However, Dr Raye says, “it is likely that a small population survived in northern Britain into the Middle Ages”. In the early modern period none were found in the wild in Britain.


Herald: Signs of hope for the capercaillie.  Image: Luke Massey

The iconic capercailie is now critically endangered. Recent research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has shown that numbers in Scotland have almost halved in ten years to just 380 today. But even in the early modern period, it was on the decline. “Perhaps,” writes Dr. Raye, this may be “due to the destruction of its habitat and the cold climate of the Little Ice Age” when it was hunted.

Naturalist John Leslie wrote: “The rarest bird icapercalze, the so-called woodland horse, is often found in Ross-shire and Lochaber, and in other mountainous regions where there are no pine trees. It is smaller than a raven. It is very appealing to the taste buds of those who eat it and its very sweet taste.”

Great Auk

Now the world’s longest extinct, the great auk, was recorded in St Kilda in modern times by three sources.

Raye writes: “Archaeology suggests that the Great Auk was once common in the Isle of Man and elsewhere especially in the Outer Hebrides, as well as in the Northern Isles, Caithness, Oronsay and the Scilly Isles. Sutherland, and Isle of May, Ailsa Craig and Cos. Antrim, Donegal, Clare and Waterford.” But in the early modern period, it was lost in those places.

This species used to be called the gairfowl, and the author Martin Martin described it as “the most numerous, and the largest of all the Birds here, and above the Size of the Solan Goose…. The whole body is standing, its wings are short, it does not fly at all, it lays its egg on a dry rock, which, when it is removed, does not lay again that year.”

Dr Raye notes that the extinction of this species was initially driven by “unsustainable hunting, mainly for food, feathers and fuel by sailors and fishermen”. a collection of its rare specimens for museums and private collections.


Herald: Beavers

The beaver has returned to Scotland – a fact that can be attributed to accidental or illegal release and reintroduction. But one question is often raised, both by advocates of compensation and critics, what is its history in Scotland. It seems that by the 16th century it had declined considerably. Dr Raye says: “At the time of the writing of modern sources, beaver numbers in Britain appear to have died out.” Although sixteen documents from the period referred to the beaver, most of them described people from the past. One of the most notable records of existence, however, was around Loch Ness.


Robert Sibbald wrote: “The Walrus, or Mors,…is a wild and powerful animal, hot to the touch, and breathing strongly through its nostrils… It crawls more than it moves.” It has thick, leathery skin and thick gray hair. It grunts just like a pig, squeals or grunts in a loud and heavy voice. It has a very large head with two protruding tusks, just like an elephant. ”

The population of Walrus Sibbald wrote lived on the north shore of the Firth of Forth – and is long gone. Walruses were hunted extensively in modern times for their skins, ivory and oil. A globally endangered species, it is now rarely seen in the UK, although one, named Thor, caused quite a stir when it was spotted earlier this year.

However, modern naturalists, Dr. Raye notes, have listed it as a species often seen around Orkney and the North Sea.

A typical skate complex

Scotland is now home to one of the last remaining strongholds of the globally endangered skate, one of two species of common skate (the other being the green skate). As the name suggests these were once common. Raye writes: “During modern times, the traditional form of surfing has changed from being a commercial type spread in Britain and Ireland to the rarest Atlantic spots found in the north of the islands.” It was already extinct in the North Sea at the beginning of the twentieth century, and continued fishing pressure by fishermen and bycatch from fishing vessels has made these animals endangered.”

Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife by Lee Raye is published by Pelagic Publishing

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