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Availability of select wild animals in Britain during the

Early Medieval period
David Constantine (Northumbria)
As now, during the Early Medieval period (defined for this article as approximately the 6 th-11th
centuries AD), 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 food1. 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 site2. 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.

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Surviving Natives

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 Southampton3 and York4 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 16 th century5, English beaver populations were already in decline by the Anglo-
Saxon period and extinct by the 12th century6. This meant that they were scarce but not unknown
during the Early Medieval, particularly in the North 7. Skeletal evidence of beaver is known from
York8 and Ramsbury9, as well as the various finds of beaver tooth pendants 10.

Red (Lagopus lagopus scotica) & Black (Tetrao tetrix) Grouse – Both species of grouse have a
long history in Britain11 and are known archaeologically from at least the Iron Age 12. As with all
game birds, Anglo-Saxon evidence is scarce but has been found at York13 and Durham14.

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 habitats15. 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 York16.

Fig 1 (left) a border image from the

Bayeux Tapestry showing a hound
pursuing a hare

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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 17. Documentary evidence for
otters is supplied by Bede and his interpretation of St Cuthbert and the sea animals 18.

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
hunted19. 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 Medieval20. However, the red legged partridge is a much more recent introduction to Britain,
having been brought over as a shooting bird in 167321.

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 22.

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 23 (all others are imports from one
time or another) and their remains are found on sites throughout the Anglo-Saxon period24 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 Anglo-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 13 th century25.

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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 century26. 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 assemblage27. However it has been found at other sites such as York 28.

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 sites29. Evidence for Anglo-Saxon consumption can be found at
Southampton30 and London31.

Declining Natives

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 Anglo-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 7 th century32, 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 century33. 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 skins34.

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Fig 4 (left) 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 colonisation35. There is much discussion regarding the
extent to which the species survived after the Romans abandoned Britain 36, 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 37.

Pheasant (Phasianaus colchius) – As a non-native species, it is possible that the pheasant was
introduced in Britain by the Romans 38. 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 Anglo-Saxon period remains demonstrates. Two sites that have produced pheasant
bones are York39 and Lincoln40. Definitive documentary evidence for pheasants does not appear
until the late 11th century, prior to this, references in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are thought to
refer to capercailie 41. 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 century42. 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 43. While they may have been present on the

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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 Anglo-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

Finally, towards the end of the 11 th 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)

Written for the members of the “The Vikings!” re-enactment society (
Copyright 2013 David Constantine. Revision 1 (17/06/13)