This post is a bit of a beast (pardon the pun :D). As someone who deals with bones and such in the LHE, I am often asked about the provenance or availability of all kinds of animals in the Saxon period. After the Bamburgh show and being asked the same questions again, I thought I would just put together all my assorted notes and post something here as well in the hope that it will be helpful to someone, somewhere.
If I ever get the time (and inclination) this may become something a bit more in depth, but for now this at least gives a broad outline of the availability of some species.
Availability of select wild animals in Britain during the Early Medieval
As now, during the Early Medieval the people of Britain hunted the myriad of wildlife found throughout the countryside. Some of these were killed for their skins, some for the food they provided and a few for both.
A number of these animals (such as red deer) are well known from antiquity in this country and are clearly native (that is, they appeared in this country since the last glaciation without the aid of humans), whereas others have been more recently introduced by humans e.g. rabbits, pheasants & fallow deer.
Additionally, utilization of wild resources can vary quite significantly from site to site. The larger settlements that tend to be excavated such as York, Southampton and Winchester would be more dependent on beef and mutton and less reliant on hunting for food. Therefore the archaeological record from such places generally would show little in the way of hunting evidence when compared with rural settlements. This fact is especially noted at Lincoln and Southampton, where the lack of apparent hunting for food can be contrasted against the increased hunting of the more rural Ramsbury site. Thus, even though the majority of urban assemblages show little to no evidence of partridge, pheasant etc that does not mean that they were not eaten, just that they were not common in that particularly settlement. As has always been the case, the more isolated a settlement, the more likely it is to supplement its diet with (or rely upon) the hunting of wild animals for foods.
Conversely, the large settlements will often have more in the way of archaeological evidence for the use of animals for skins. This is because they would often be traded into the cities or brought there in a raw or partially prepared state ready for tanning, meaning that the assemblages of toes and wrist/ankle bones that are indicative of skin processing tend to be concentrated in urban areas rather than the outlying areas.
The various animals discussed here can be broadly split into three groups; the natives that maintained a presence in Britain until at least after the Early Medieval, the natives that became extinct during the period, and finally the introductions made just before or during that may have been available as a resource.
The animals in this group are native to Britain and will have been available to a greater or lesser extent throughout the Early Medieval. In addition to the species listed many other animals were hunted such as badgers, foxes, squirrels, small cetaceans (porpoises and dolphins), swans and various small songbirds.
Ducks – There are too many native species of duck to list them all here, but most of them have been hunted and eaten at one time or another. Sites such as Southampton and York both have evidence of mallard and teal, while Southampton also has wigeon, and York has tufted duck.
Beaver (Castor fiber) – Despite not becoming entirely extinct in Scotland until probably sometime in the 16th century, English beaver populations were already in decline by the Saxon period and extinct by the 12th century. This meant that they were scarce but not unknown during the Early Medieval, particularly in the North. Skeletal evidence of beaver is known from York and Ramsbury, as well as the various finds of beaver tooth pendants.
Red (Lagopus lagopus scotica) & Black (Tetrao tetrix) Grouse – Both species of grouse have a long history in Britain and are known archaeologically from at least the Iron Age. As with all game birds, Saxon evidence is scarce but has been found at York and Durham.
Brown (Lepus europaeus) & Mountain (Lepus timidus) Hare – The brown hare (unlike the mountain hare) is not an indigenous species to the British Isles and was probably introduced about 4000 years ago and thrived as Neolithic/Bronze Age peoples cleared the forests and provided it with ideal habitats. By the Iron Age it was well established and would have been common during the Early Medieval. Mountain hares will have been more common in the North than they would be in the South of the country. Along with roe deer, hare was eaten throughout the Early Medieval at sites such as York.
|Fig 1 a border image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing a hound pursuing a hare|
Otter (Lutra lutra) – Though declining in numbers today, in the past otters were common throughout Britain. As with the other mustelids, they were hunted for pelts rather than meat, evidence of such having been found at Buckquoy, Iona and York. Documentary evidence for otters is supplied by Bede and his interpretation of St Cuthbert and the sea animals.
Stoat/Weasel/Polecat/Pine Marten – These small mustelids were all hunted in the past for their skins. The stoat in particular would have been sought after when wearing its winter coat (ermine). A number of sites during the Early Medieval show evidence of these all being hunted. Notable by its absence is the mink – while seen on the continent, European mink appear to have never been present in the British Isles.
Grey (Perdix perdix) & Red Legged (Alectoris rufa) Partridge – Grey partridge has a long history in Britain and its remains are not uncommon in sites from the Roman period through to the Medieval. However, the red legged partridge is a much more recent introduction to Britain, having been brought over as a shooting bird in 1673.
Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) – The ptarmigan is probably a native species of Britain, though its habitat dictates that populations are (and will always have been) restricted to highland areas. This means that its presence further south than Scotland would be very unusual at any time in the past and the lack of archaeological evidence for it supports this.
Red (Cervus elaphus) & Roe (Capreolus capreolus) Deer – Whilst these are two very different species of deer, for the purposes of this article they are so similar as to be worth putting together. They are the only two species of deer native to the British Isles (all others are imports from one time or another) and their remains are found on sites throughout the Saxon period as well as their antlers and bones being used for a variety of craft purposes.
Fig 2 A border scene from the Bayeux tapestry showing the hunting of deer with hounds
Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) – Even though archaeological evidence for wolves is scant, documentary sources suggest that in addition to being present, wolves were plentiful in Britain in the Saxon period. Assorted references are made to various laws concerning them (or their hunting) and they are not thought to have become extinct until sometime after the 13th century.
Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) – The wild boar was found throughout Britain during the Early Medieval and probably did not become extinct in England until the 13th century. It was not always a commonly hunted animal as can be seen from the surprising lack of it at West Stow despite the size of the assemblage. However it has been found at other sites such as York.
Fig 3 11th century depiction of either a boar hunt or tending pigs in a forest
Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) – While it seems an odd addition to this list, woodcock has been hunted in the British Isles for a considerable amount of time, with examples known from Roman & Romano-British sites. Evidence for Saxon consumption can be found at Southampton and London.
This group of animals was still present in Britain when the Romans left, but populations were already small and they became extinct during the Early Medieval.
Lynx (Lynx lynx) – Until recently the lynx was thought to have been extinct by the Saxon period, but new research has shown that both skeletal evidence and documentary sources suggest that it was present in Britain until at least the start of the 7th century, though by this time it was most likely in serious decline and not common.
Bear (Ursus arctos) – Brown bears were once common in England, but probably became extinct sometime just after the Roman period, as there is little to no evidence to support the idea of a wild bear population living in England within the last 1500 years. The latest example is a single vertebrae from the 5th-6th century. Sites such as West Stow have produced various bear bones, but they are mostly associated with the lower legs and feet i.e. the bones that would be left attached to imported skins.
|Fig 4 a border scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting a warrior engaged in baiting a chained bear.|
Non Native Introductions
These are animals that were either introduced by the Romans and may have been present in the wild after the 5th century (albeit in decreased numbers), or creatures that are reintroduced towards the end of the period or just after by the Normans.
Fallow Deer (Dama dama) – Fallow deer were first introduced into Britain by the Romans. However, these were most likely isolated pockets and if not enclosed, they were certainly not extensively introduced with the aim of colonisation. There is much discussion regarding the extent to which the species survived after the Romans abandoned Britain, and until the Normans introduced the fallow deer as a wild breeding population, they would be rare but not totally unknown. However the overall evidence for pre-conquest fallow deer is very weak.
Pheasant (Phasianaus colchius) – As a non-native species, it is possible that the pheasant was introduced in Britain by the Romans. As with other imported species such as fallow deer and rabbits, the pheasant failed to gain a strong foothold on the British Isles after the Romans left as the paucity of Saxon period remains demonstrates. Two sites that have produced pheasant bones are York and Lincoln. Definitive documentary evidence for pheasants does not appear until the late 11th century, prior to this, references in Saxon manuscripts are thought to refer to capercailie. However, despite the “common” pheasant now being widespread through the country, early examples are likely to have been from a mix of different species and would not necessarily correspond with a modern pheasant.
Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) – Despite persistent rumours that the Romans brought rabbits to England and then left warrens that quickly established a wild population, there is no evidence (either archaeological or documentary) to support this. There is no Anglo-Saxon word for rabbit and the earliest documentary evidence is from the late 12th century. This is also borne out by the evidence from sites such as Southampton where despite through investigation not a single Early Medieval rabbit bone has been found. While they may have been present on the continent, there is no reason to believe that any wild populations of rabbits existed in Britain prior to the Norman conquest.
The wildlife of Britain would have been a great deal more varied during the Saxon period than it is today, and much more of it would have been used as a resource. At the start of the period it would have still been possible to see bear and lynx roaming in certain areas and possibly even some remaining Roman introductions such as fallow deer.
Throughout the Early Medieval the sight of wolves, boar and even beavers would not have been entirely unusual. Indeed, a living (or sport) could even be made from the hunting of such creatures. Additionally there would be the ever present red and roe deer, along with partridge and grouse.
Finally, towards the end of the 11th century there would be increasing amounts of pheasant and fallow deer found in parks, and possibly even some rabbits (no doubt already looking at escaping into the wild from the warrens and breeding like, well, rabbits!)
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 (Sykes, Woods and the Wild, 2011a, p. 334)
 (Dobney, Jaques, & Irving, 1996, p. 56) & (Bourdillon, 1994, p. 122)
 (Bourdillon & Coy, 1980, p. 118)
 (O’Connor, 2004, p. 437)
 (Conroy & Kitchener, 1996, p. 1)
 (Halley & Rosell, 2003, p. 95)
 (Rackham, 1986, p. 34)
 (O’Connor, 1991, p. 255)
 (Sykes, Woods and the Wild, 2011a, p. 333)
 (Meaney, 1981, pp. 136-137)
 (Brown & Grice, 2010, pp. 30-31)
 (Renfrew, 2005, p. 52), (Cunliffe, 2005, p. 418) & (Harrison, 1987, pp. 100-101)
 (O’Connor, 2004, p. 437)
 (Carver, 1979)
 (Cowan, 2004, p. 6)
 (O’Connor, 1989a, p. 21)
 (Fairnell, 2003, pp. 38-39 & appendix:otter)
 (Colgrave, 1985, p. 319)
 (Fairnell, 2003, pp. 33-38)
 (Coy, 1989, p. 34)
 (Buczacki, 2002, p. 263)
 (Brown & Grice, 2010, p. 31)
 (MacGregor, 1985, p. 34)
 (Bourdillon & Coy, 1980, pp. 113-114) & (Sykes, 2010, p. 21)
 (Lovegrove, 2007, pp. 20-21)
 (Yalden, 1999, p. 166)
 (Sykes, Woods and the Wild, 2011a, p. 329)
 (O’Connor, 1991, p. 255) & (O’Connor, 1989b, p. 153)
 (Grimm, 2008, p. 11)
 (Bourdillon & Coy, 1980, p. 118)
 (Rielly, Pipe, & Davis, 2012, p. 141)
 (Hetherington, Lord, & Jacobi, 2006)
 (Sykes, Woods and the Wild, 2011a, p. 331)
 (Sykes, Woods and the Wild, 2011a, p. 332)
 (Chapman & Chapman, 1975, pp. 47-48)
 (Bendrey, 2003, p. 15)
 (Sykes & Carden, 2011b, p. 156)
 (Poole, 2010, p. 159)
 (O’Connor, 1991, p. 261)
 (Dobney, Jaques, & Irving, 1996, p. 20)
 (Poole, 2010, p. 159)
 (Buczacki, 2002, p. 490)
 (Bourdillon & Coy, 1980, p. 114)