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NOSTALGIA: Wild cats and plague rats roamed the land
Roger Bingham reflects on some extinct animals which once roamed South Lakeland.
DINOSAURS belong to geology and woolly mammoths to prehistory but some creatures, now extinct in Lakeland, were recorded in historic times.
Thus, Thomas Machell noted at Holme, in 1690, ‘foul and clean marts, and wild cats – too many all over’.
Wild cats were also common at Cowan Bridge, Selside, Tearnside, Barbon and, along with rats, at Middleton.
At Witherslack and Arnside cats and marts were accompanied by wild goats.
Records of payments for catching vermin consistently appear in Church Wardens’ Accounts.
In 1670, Kirkby Lonsdale wardens paid 4d a piece for 12 brocks or badgers at Middleton alone. At Heversham in 1609 2s 4d was paid for ‘4 catts and 2 brocks’ and in 1805, 2s 6d for 14 foulmarts (pine marten). Around Catt-gill, Ullswater, 12 ‘catts’ were killed at Whitsuntide in 1759.
But by 1796 they had disappeared in south Westmorland and the last Cumbrian wild cat was killed near Brough in 1872.
In 1810 a foulmart attacked a Carnforth man but a century later the species had largely disappeared except, it was claimed, on Whitbarrow Scar.
The rats mentioned by Machell were probably the notorious plague-bearing black rats; but they were later eradicated by the incursion of brown rats and were last seen near Barrow in 1879.
The Furness area’s most famous ‘extinct’ animal, ‘The Last Wolf’, traditionally killed on Humphrey Head, is a myth embroidered in Victorian times.
Nevertheless, a wolf’s skeleton found, in c1860, at Helsfell was believed to be genuine while excavations at The Dog Hole on Haverbrack, Beetham, produced the bones of five wolves in 1912 and three in 1959.
Documentary evidence supports the local existence of Wild Boar and, therefore, of the fable that Bernard Gilpin of Kentmere Hall ‘slew the wilde Boore rageing in the mountaynes adjoyning’ and, also, of competing claims that the last Wild Boar was killed either at Crook or, at Wild Boar Fell, Kirkby Stephen.
Furthermore, Heversham’s name might stem from ‘eofor’ the Angle-Saxon word for a boar.
Arguably, the most amazing evidence of extinct creatures were fragments of Brown Bears discovered in 1844 among ‘debris of bones, claws and teeth’ in a limestone cavern on Arnside Knott.
Subsequently, other ‘ursine remains at Helsfell were considered to be identical with those found at Arnside’.
Recently, badgers, virtually absent for decades, have made a comeback while feral boar are now living out in the wild.
Perhaps, if bears could be reintroduced, they might emulate their grisly American cousins and become popular, if risky, tourist attractions
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