Alluring though our lost megafauna are, it’s not all about big beasts. The alternating presence – or absence – of small mammal remains in caves is integral to the ‘high resolution’ picture sought by cave palaeontologist Professor Danielle Schreve in her research, which is concerned with measuring the impact of abrupt climate change on mammalian species. By looking back at the way things have come and gone over the millennia we can form a picture of what we all face in the future.
Of these less sizeable critters, can there be a more bewitching embodiment of the British countryside than our original Easter Bunny, the brown hare? You’d think not. However, within a geological timeframe, the brown (or European) hare is a relative newcomer; a migrant for which there is solid evidence for it being here by the Iron Age (around 3,000 years ago) – but not much before.
By contrast the mountain hare, having been around at least 300,000 years ago, seems a rather more enduring fixture. From Lynx Cave we have not only Mountain Hare but also Arctic Lemming and Root Vole, all of which are cold climate species long gone from the hills of Clwyd.
This coming and going raises interesting questions of the terms ‘native’ and ‘indigenous’. At what point does a creature – or indeed a person – become (or cease) to be ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’? Or, conversely, ‘alien’? Are the mountain hares that have been recently reintroduced to the Peak District after a hiatus of millennia ‘indigenous’, ‘reintroduced’ or ‘alien’ to this landscape? What of the hyaena, which was already here when people first arrived half million years ago and only disappeared around 30,000 years ago? Is it still indigenous? Or the beaver, part of our Pliocene fauna (so here two and a half million years ago), around till the sixteenth century and now back – to the great ire of many Welsh and Scottish landowners and anglers who regard them as ‘vermin’.
We too have come and gone, but we alone appear to have (fairly recently) awarded ourselves the power to judge who belongs – and who does not.