Species: Beaver (Castor fiber)
Source: My paper looks at an exhaustive list of reliable historical documents, selected depending on their reference to other wild species of mammal.
Date: The texts range from c.1200-1607 in south Britain and 1526-1684 in Scotland. Beavers are only found in those at the start of each period.
Highlights: If beavers were still around in south Britain after 1300 and Scotland after 1600 they must have suddenly started hiding-out.
It’s been a year now since I published my ideas about the extinction date of beavers in Britain in a peer reviewed article in a scientific journal called Historical Biology.
My article argues that beavers went extinct in the medieval period. It was written to criticise the recent opinion (see: Coles, 2010; Manning et al., 2014) that beavers may have lived on, invisibly, in southern Britain until the early modern period (the sixteenth-eighteenth century).
The paper has two parts. First of all I criticise the evidence for a late extinction date, and then I test the theory from an objective standpoint.
Starting from the beginning, the paper argues that the early modern evidence is unreliable for a few reasons in particular:
- Some of the evidence is reliant on early writers copying information from source to source without confirming that information.
- Some of the evidence is reliant on poor historical interpretation. Texts are misdated, unreliable artwork and folklore is relied upon and no allowance is given for the importation of beaver goods.
- Some of the evidence comes from the use of the Welsh term ‘afanc’. However, this term originally referred to water monsters and did not come to mean beaver in Welsh until the sixteenth century.
The second part of the paper finds an exhaustive list of reliable historical documents which talk about other large wild mammals like the pine marten, otter, wild boar and wolf.
The beaver is just as common as some of these other animals in the earliest texts (pre-1300 A.D.) in south Britain, and until 1600 A.D. in Scotland. However, after 1300 A.D. in south Britain and after 1600 A.D. in Scotland, the beaver disappears, whilst all the other species which do not become extinct become more commonly mentioned in the reliable historical texts.
A statistical test indicates that this discrepancy is not by chance. Something caused the beaver to stop being referenced in texts. The beaver was not an exceptionally low-profile animal at the beginning of the period, so there is no reason to suggest it should be by the end. I suggest the only probable explanation is that the beaver became extinct by 1300 in south Britain and by 1600 in Scotland.
BUT WHY NOW?
But why am I only talking about this a year on? The timing is important because Historical Biology is a “green open-access” journal. Green open-access means that after a one year “embargo period” I am allowed to share a version of the text with everyone for free. The official version of the paper can only be seen by people who belong to institutions which subscribe to Historical Biology, but everyone is allowed to see the “pre-print” version. – This is the final version of the text before it is edited into its published form. Basically the page numbers, Bibliography and tables look a bit different, but the text is exactly the same.
Beavers have just finished their trial period in Scotland, and an officially tolerated population is now under observation in Devon. It increasingly looks like beavers are back in Britain to stay, and that means it’s now more important than ever to work out what went wrong last time!
Finally, it’s only fair to point out that since I published this paper, more archaeological evidence (Manning et al, 2014) has come to light proving the existence of a beaver around 1370-1390 A.D. on the English-Scottish border (Manning et al., 2014). Today I interpret this as being a “Scottish beaver” (my model has beavers surviving in Scotland until 1600) but this finding remains a cautionary footnote.
Overall I remain convinced of my theory but I would love to hear other opinions on this matter! You can find a contact address on my “about me” page.
Coles B (2010) The European beaver. Sykes B, O’Connor T (eds) Extinctions and invasions: a social history of British fauna. The Windgather Press, Oxford: p. 104–115.
Manning AD, Coles BJ, Lunn AG, Halley DJ, Ashmole P & Fallon SJ (2014) New Evidence of late survival of beaver in Britain. The Holocene 24(12):1849-1855.
Raye L (2015) The Early Extinction Date of the Beaver (Castor fiber) in Britain. Historical Biology 27(8): 1029-1041.