Species mentioned: Eleven, but most importantly the BEAR (U. arctos).
Source: ‘Naw Helwriaeth’ (the Nine Huntings). A secret book written by a gentleman to explain to other gentlemen which wild animals are the most fun to hunt down and/or eat if you’re bored.
Date of source: Sixteenth-seventeenth century Welsh text, and therefore NOT a good insight into pre-Conquest times.
Highlights: Even though a grizzly is mentioned among all the other animals in this text, this doesn’t mean that brown bears managed to survive in hiding until 1600, or even 1000 AD.
‘Naw Helwriaeth’ is a late Welsh hunting text which lists eleven top species to hunt. The text is most often mentioned in combination with the brown bear or ambiguously named ‘black climber’ (M. martes; M. putorius?), but the text also contains a number of other species:
Bears and black climbers are ‘hunts to the bay’ along with wildcats (F. silvestris) red squirrels (S. vulgaris) and cocks-of-the-wood (Tetrao tetrix? S. rusticola?). There are also three common hunts: red harts (male C. elaphus), bees (A. mellifera), salmon (S. salar). Finally there are three of the cry; foxes (V. vulpes), hares (Lepus europeaus) and roe bucks (male C. capreolus).
One of the reasons the text is so frequently mentioned is because of the common assertion that it is an Old Welsh text which can give us insight into the state of the environment of Britain before the Norman Conquest (e.g. Dent 1974; Yalden, 1999; Sykes, 2006). Unfortunately this is completely false, and Welsh scholars have known for eighty years now that the text is actually of sixteenth or seventeenth century provenance (Peate, 1934).
Here’s what the text says about the bear (Anon. trans. 1987):
Why is it said that the bear is one of the three hunts to the bay? Because it is the best venison in the world. When it is killed, it is not much chased because it can move but slowly and then it need only be baited and barked at and at last killed. And for this reason it is called one of the three hunts to the bay.
It’s easy to see why scholars accepted this account so easily. It seems very matter of fact and gives details about how bears are caught. The word used here ‘arth’ is unambiguous and although brown bears are able to move fast enough to catch elk (moose; A. alces) on short sprints in North America (Naughton, 2012, p.413), they are unable to maintain a chase like red deer or even foxes can. That’s why they’re labelled as hunts to the bay instead of hunts of the cry, but this is also emphasised in the text.
So could this text mean that brown bears lasted in Britain until the sixteenth century? Unfortunately not. Historical accounts from this time provide so many references to different large mammal species that we know which were present. By omission we can also draw conclusions about which species were already locally extinct, although this only works for the large mammal species (Raye, 2014). Archaeologically the last reliable evidence for the brown bear in Britain comes from Kinsey Cave in North Yorkshire (c.420-610 A.D.). There have been other finds from after this period but these probably reflect the medieval craze for bear baiting (Hammon, 2010; Yalden, 1999, pp.115-6).
It’s much more likely that this text represents the tradition of bear hunting as received from somewhere in continental Europe where bears could still be found. The ‘Naw Helwriaeth’ borrows from a variety of other hunting texts and hunting traditions from abroad (Linnard, 1984). At this point brown bears were still widespread across continental Europe and they did not become rare across most mountainous areas in Europe until later on (Breitenmoser, 1998).
Clearly the presence of the bear in a sixteenth-seventeenth century hunting text is no reflection of its presence in early medieval Britain. The bear in ‘Naw Helwriaeth’ more probably represents a borrowing from the continental hunting tradition. The reference is a red herring.
The reason I’m writing about it anyway is that literary scholarship is often either ignored or inaccessible to historians and zooarchaeologists looking at the environment through history. Some contemporary dialogue on this text is published in Welsh which makes it inaccessible to international scholars. It’s still widely believed that the bear survived until the tenth century in Britain. This idea is held up by a framework of rusty ideas: There are texts like ‘Naw Helwriaeth’ which do not really support the idea at all, and archaeological remains which have been misdated or are from imported bears. If this blog post helps dismantle that framework it has done as much good as any of my posts about positive sightings. Rusty frameworks are dangerous things to base ideas on.
The date of extinction in turn helps inform future policy. As an animal extirpated from the country due to anthropogenic forces, the bear is a candidate for reintroduction. I have to believe that there is room for potentially-dangerous countries even in a hyper-developed country. The rate of development is not slowing down. If there is no room in Britain today, where in the world will there be any room in 500 years’ time?
But if an area of Britain is ever to be made ready for bears it is important that we are looking at the correct reference frame. The state of deforestation and population pressure in the tenth century was radically different from that of the first, or even the fifth. Let’s make sure we get it right.
Anon. (1987) The Nine Huntings / Y Naw Helwriaeth. Nature in Wales 6: 70-2.
Breitenmoser U (1998) Large predators in the Alps: the fall and rise of man’s competitors. Biological Conservation 83: 279-89.
Dent A (1974) Lost Beasts of Britain. Harrap, London.
Hammon A (2010) The Brown Bear. pp.95-103. In: O’Connor, T& Sykes, N. ed. Extinctions and Invasions. Windgather Press, Oxford.
Linnard W (1984) The Nine Huntings: A Re-examination of Y Naw Helwriaeth. Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 31: 119-32.
Naughton D (2012) The Natural History of Canadian Mammals. University of Toronto Press.
Peate I (1934) Nine Huntings. Antiquity 8: 73-80
Raye L (2014) The Early Extinction of the Beaver (Castor fiber) in Britain. Historical Biology.
Sykes N (2006) The impact of the Normans on hunting practices in England. 162-175 in: Woolgar C, D Serjeantson and T Waldron ed. Food in Medieval England. Oxford University Press.
Yalden D (1999) The History of British Mammals. Poyser Natural History, London.