When going for a walk in the British countryside today, there are few animals you could catch a glimpse of that spark genuine awe. Seeing a hare perhaps, or an otter, is a rare and wonderful treat, but neither of these species could be categorised as “large”.
A walk on the wild side
For early humans living in Britain around 50,000 years ago, however, the story was quite different. At this time, we had great rainforests and populations of megafauna (large animals) that most people would find it hard to believe inhabited this country. If you were to find yourself walking in the British countryside during the last inter-glacial period, you would stand a good chance of coming face to face with a man-eating animal that would spark not just awe, but desperate fear as well.
When Trafalgar Square was excavated for the building of Nelson’s Column, the river gravels there were found to be stuffed with the bones of hippopotamus, rhinos, elephants, hyenas and lions.
Yes, as fanciful as it might seem, elephants and rhinos once roamed the British countryside, and the shadows of these great beasts can still be seen in our ecosystem. Why is it that our deciduous trees can sprout from whatever part of their trunk or branch is broken? Why can they survive the loss of so much bark? Why are our under-canopy trees so much stronger and tougher than our canopy trees? Because they evolved to resist browsing by elephants and rhinos!
There has been a long academic battle to establish whether the rise of Homo sapiens, with their improved weapons and cooperative hunting techniques, or changes in climate, with the associated changes in vegetation and food, were chiefly responsible for the loss of these animals, now long gone from our shores. Some palaeontologists and other scientists have argued that the relatively small numbers of humans could not have wiped out these creatures without other factors being involved. Others have suggested that the numbers of humans were sufficient enough to have engaged in cooperative hunting on a wide enough scale to wipe out species.
Britain’s lost beasts
Here are just some of the species with whom early Brits shared their land:
Straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus)
With long, straight tusks that looked like spikes, the straight-tusked elephant was much larger than its relative the Asian elephant, weighing in at 13 tonnes and measuring 4 metres tall!
During the last inter-glacial period, these forest-dwelling elephants wandered in a out of Britain through Doggerland (a piece of land now submerged under the North Sea that once connected Britain to mainland Europe).
Britain lost the straight-tusked elephant for good around 120,000 years ago, following a particularly cold period. However, they continued to thrive in warmer parts of Europe for tens of thousands of years, eventually being driven to the Iberian peninsula when humans began to dominate.
Narrow-nosed rhino (Stephanorhinus hemitoechus)
This relatively unknown 6,600lb, 7ft tall herbivore grazed its way through Britain’s forests and grasslands around the same time as the straight-tusked elephant.
Their habitat stretched as far as China, but these beasts seemed to have been commonest in Britain. Masses of narrow-nosed rhinos remains have been discovered in caves along the Gower Peninsula in south Wales.
These rhinos were relatively adaptable, comfortable in warmer or colder spells, but their slow reproductive cycle meant that the species struggled to reproduce itself under pressure from hunting humans and Neanderthals.
Cave bear (Ursus spelaeus)
These huge, formidable bears were far larger than any alive today, measuring 10ft long and 5ft tall at the shoulder.
Their enormous teeth and short, strong claws made them a match for even the most fearsome predators of their era, however they were mostly herbivorous, only eating meat if it was available.
As ludicrous as it may seem, these monster bears were actively hunted by early humans, both for meat and to secure cave living space.
Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea)
Early humans might have been bold enough to hunt cave bears, but they drew the line at cave lions.
These huge carnivores were by far the most dangerous predators of their era, and would not hesitate to attack people.
At their largest, these cats could weigh as much as cave bears. Cave paintings show that they didn’t possess the majestic mane of their modern African relatives, instead having a thick, dense coat to protect them against the cold.
Sabre-toothed cat (Homotherium latidens)
The well known sabre-toothed cat, sometimes called a ‘sabre-toothed tiger,’ did not actually have much in common with tigers at all. They are in fact more closely related to today’s lions, with their long front legs and sloping back giving them a posture ideal for leaping.
Their iconic overhanging upper canines also had serrated edges, making them ideal for tearing through prey.
These cats arrived in Britain nearly 0.75 million years ago, when the climate was relatively warm. They may have gone extinct here just a few tens of thousands of years ago. In 2000, fishermen dredged up a jawbone from the North Sea, which seems to be from about 28,000 years ago.
Cave hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelaea)
Like other cave dwellers of the last inter-glacial period, cave hyenas were essentially exaggeratedly large versions of their modern day relatives. This ancient breed had its ungainly, loping gait in common with modern day hyenas, thanks to its long front legs and low-hanging head.
Primarily scavengers, cave hyenas had massive molars that could crush bone and help them hang onto the largest of prey.
Archaeologists have found more than 20,000 cave hyena teeth at Tornewton Cave in Devon, showing that clans inhabited these caves for many generations.
Giant Aurochs (Bos primigenius)
These giant, bull-like creatures were the ancestors of modern cattle. They possessed thick, curving horns, stood at 6ft tall and weighed 3 tonnes.
Taming an aurochs would have been an extremely dangerous task, and is only recorded to have happened twice – once in Europe and once in South Asia.
Aurochs were one of the few giant animals to persist in Britain after the end of the last icy period about 11,000 years ago. They continued to thrive in other parts of Europe right up to the 1600s, until persecution by humans finally drove them to extinction.
Bring back the beasts?
In recent years, many environmentalists have begun to argue that Britain’s ecosystem could benefit hugely from the reintroduction of certain megafauna.
Long after the creatures mentioned above disappeared from Britain, large predators such as wolves and lynx continued to thrive.
Research into ‘trophic cascades’ has revealed that reintroducing missing large predators (as part of a process known as ‘rewilding’ can trigger a ‘cascade’ of effects felt all the way down to the bottom of the food chain.
Perhaps the most famous example of a successful rewilding project is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in America during the 1990s.
During the 70 years that wolves were absent from the Park, the entire Yellowstone ecosystem had fallen out of balance. Coyotes ran rampant. The elk and deer population exploded, overgrazing willows and aspens. Without those trees, songbird numbers began to decline, beavers could no longer build their dams and riverbanks started to erode. Without beaver dams and the shade from trees and other plants, water temperatures were too high for cold-water fish.
After the wolves returned to prey on the elk and deer, these missing tree species very quickly started to rebound. Riverbanks stabilised. Songbirds returned, and so did beavers, now under less threat from their main predator, the coyote, whose numbers the wolves had brought under control. Eagles, foxes and badgers also began to flourish.
Environmentalist George Monbiot has argued that Britain’s hugely depleted ecosystem could benefit from the reintroduction of certain large species, such as wolves and lynx.
As an example, the Scottish Highlands are kept largely bereft of diverse wildlife by uncontrolled deer populations, which overgraze land, meaning trees don’t grow and habitats don’t develop.
To combat this, Monbiot and others have suggested reintroducing lynx and wolves to the Highlands:
“The lynx is a specialist roe deer predator, which is handy in a country whose deer population has boomed in recent years,” Monbiot wrote in a 2015 Guardian article.
“In Britain, we have huge numbers of wild and domestic herbivores and no carnivores at all. The biggest terrestrial carnivore we have in Britain is the badger, which is hardly going to control deer. We desperately need fewer herbivores and more forest with some carnivores if we want to see diverse living systems flourish.”
The sorry truth is that Britain was placed “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world” by the IPBES State of Nature Report in 2016, so while nobody is suggesting reintroducing lions or bears to Britain, the positive impact of bringing back some of our lost megafauna could be huge.