13 of the UKs Extinct and Lost Species
Published: May 27, 2021Biodiversity is a term thrown around a lot by conservationist and conservation charities like Wild Planet Trust, but what does it actually mean? Well biodiversity reflects the number, variety and variability of living things. It includes diversity within species, between species and among ecosystems.
When humans change an ecosystem like when farming for crops using pesticides, this can change have knock on effects, as in this example, pesticide run off damaging the surrounding water supply and ecosystems. For years, human kind has impacted the world, changing things as we please with little regard (until now) for how these changes might affect biodiversity. In this list we’ll look at some of the animals effected by us, both directly and indirectly, most of which you no longer see on the British Iles.
Well… this first one is a given, these Pleistocene behemoths roamed the country for thousands of years. Believe it or not this species of mammoth was one of the last in a line of mammoth species, beginning with Mammuthus subplanifrons in the early Pliocene. The woolly variety that we all know of and love lived during the Pleistocene until its extinction in the Holocene epoch. Our early ancestors are said to have hunted these giants and that in combination with a changing ice age climate led to their disappearance 11,000 years ago. If you’re interested in seeing woolly mammoth remains pretty close by, at Kents Cavern in Torquay, tell them we sent you.
Pelicans once lived throughout Europe. Here in the UK, the most recent evidence of these large birds, was a bone found near Glastonbury, Somerset. We house Dalmatian pelicans at Paignton Zoo on our lake exhibit opposite the restaurant. Their wingspan is just shy of that of the wandering albatross. There are some places in the UK where these birds could potentially thrive again, however, their breeding is strongly affected by disturbances. This is perhaps the reason why we haven’t seen them return of their own accord thus far.
These fish are well renowned for their size and how they taste, and up until 80 years ago you could have seen shoals of Bluefin in our coastal waters, feeding on migrating herring and mackerel. Did you know that, for many years, the world record tuna caught on rod and line was hooked of off the Scarborough coast in 1933? Big game fishing by the masses who descended on the town to fish every summer most likely contributed to the tuna’s demise, as did overharvesting of the fish the tuna ate. Today they appear very rarely off our coasts, but would be likely to return if there was a reduction in fishing pressure in UK waters. For more information click here.
Magnificent grey whales used to feed in Britain’s estuaries and bays up to 400 years ago, when they were hunted to extinction off our coasts. The only remaining populations today are found in the Pacific Ocean, where whale watching instead of hunting now thrives. Logistically speaking, if we were ever to try and reintroduce this species in the UK the only feasible way would be to transport these whales via airlift over thousands of miles. Which is highly unlikely.
Following the last ice age lynx were widespread across the UK, in fact, we have evidence of them at Paignton Zoo, where a lynx skeleton was excavated from a cave on site (more about the Paignton Zoo caves here: https://youtu.be/wL9uIk0cg2I). They are a specialist hunter that would prey on roe deer, arctic hares, lemmings and voles. The most recent evidence of lynx in Britain reveal that they still inhabited ranges in the north 1,550 years ago. Medieval Britain saw massive deforestation across the countryside which led to declining deer populations and nowhere for these ambush predators to hide. This combined with persecution caused the lynx to disappear from our shores. The lasting impact of this sees soaring deer population across parts of the UK, deer that in turn over graze and damage woodland ecosystems without a natural predator to control populations and keep groups on the move.
The Eurasian beaver is becoming more of a success story – their populations are now on the rise, and have been brought out of the endangered category. They were once considered vermin in the UK, they were hunted to near extinction 400 years ago for their fur and meat. Encouragingly, in the last decade the giant rodents have been reintroduced into locations including Devon and Scotland. Some farmers' unions have said that they’re a nuisance, as they damage their farms. However, their reintroduction has brought benefits too, such as creating wetlands that encourage other wildlife (like some on this list) to potentially thrive. For more information click here.
Wild boars are an extremely important ecological engineers in Britain. By digging up the woodland floor, they help increase the diversity of the plants that can grow there. They dig up bracken rhizomes, allowing tree seedlings to rise through what would otherwise be an impenetrable mat. Their wallows are an ideal habitat for water-loving plants, insects and amphibians. The wild boar that have escaped from farms and roam free in several parts of the countryside, are threatened by the government’s policy of allowing landowners to decide whether or not they should be allowed to survive.
Nothing conjures up more controversy than the reintroduction of a predator. Believe it or not, Grey wolves once roamed free across the UK, eventually going extinct through hunting and persecution in the 17th century. The last certain record of a wolf killed is from 1621 in Sunderland. The wolf’s reputation for ferocity is undeserved: they go to great lengths to avoid human contact. They do, however, go for livestock, part of the reason for their persecution in the past, so if a reintroduction were to take place measures would need to be taken to protect farmed animals or compensate effected farmers. No matter which side of the fence you sit on the reintroduction idea, wolves are critical to the restoration of wild ecosystems, the BBC have a fantastic short video on this subject: https://bbc.in/3htiTag. Don’t feel like watching that? No worries, put simply: elk overgrazed causing damage, wolves preyed upon elk and this had two effects 1. Elk populations are controlled naturally 2. Elk start to move around. The knock on effect of the reintroduction meant that overgrazed areas could recover, trees grew which stabilised riverbanks in turn providing habitat for more animals which would then go on to restore further parts of the ecosystem under them. Wolves are awesome.
Cranes were once among the most common breeding birds on British wetlands. They persisted here until the 16th century, when they were hunted to extinction on our shores. They have spontaneously returned to the Norfolk Broads, and have been reintroduced to sites Somerset.
Preliminary findings from Ireland show, where resurgent pine martens appear to have rolled back the grey squirrel population, they have allowed red squirrels to recolonise much of their old territory. Following this, there has been a surge of interest in restoring the species in Britain. While they persist in parts of Scotland, numbering up to 3,500 individuals, in England and Wales there are only tiny relict populations, whose expansion is limited by habitat fragmentation, and man-made barriers like urban areas and roads. For more information click here.
The goshawk was driven to extinction in the UK during the 19th century. It is thought this was mainly due to gamekeepers, but there are some small numbers clinging on as a result of deliberate releases and escapes from falconers. Like the pine marten, these birds hunt grey squirrels and would be an effective way of naturally controlling the numbers of the invasive species.
The heron of the night... Whilst sounding like a vintage horror movie antagonist, the night heron last bred here in the 16th or 17th century. Its nocturnal feeding habits are speculated to an important factor in shaping wetland ecosystems.
No doubt if you’ve heard tell of a big fish or ‘river monster’ you’ve also heard that whatever ‘it’ is, it’s probably a sturgeon. In fact, there is speculation that the lock ness monster or ‘Nessy’ is a sturgeon, considering it these fish can grow to 18 feet long. It was once a common fish in Britain and migrated through most of our river systems, however, the damming and wiering of rivers in which it breeds, overfishing and pollution have all lead to its demise in the UK. The last European breeding population of Atlantic sturgeon is in the Gironde-Garonne-Dordogne basin in France.
So what can you do to help prevent this list getting longer? Put simply, make good, educated choices. Choices that help to protect the environment, buying locally source produce, biking to and from places like work and protecting your green spaces. Do anything you can or may already do to combat larger issues like climate change and habitat destruction, these global problems still affect us here in the UK. Another thing that you can do, is to educate yourself when potential reintroduction plans crop up. Get all the facts and make an informed decision when the opportunity comes to vote/lobby for these actions.
Blog by: Oliver Newotn-Browne - Digital Content Production Assistant
Title image - Wikipedia (edited)
Main body images - Wikipedia (edited)