What wildlife would our ancestors have seen in their garden 500 years ago?

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31 July 2020
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What wildlife might our ancestors have seen fifty years ago, in the 1920s or even the 16th century?

In the 20th century alone, around 500 species worldwide are known to have gone extinct, largely due to the destruction of natural habitats and ongoing human degradation. 

Kaleidoscope have analysed a variety of online sources to establish a list of wildlife and plants that would have previously been found in British gardens but are now considered extinct in Britain and in some cases worldwide.   

Imagine seeing a Great Auk or Great Bustard in your home town...

50 years ago

The research revealed a number of species have been classified as extinct in the last five decades, including the European tree frog, which died out in 1986 and the Black-backed Meadow Ant which experts suggest went extinct just two years later in 1988.  

The Burbot, the only freshwater species of cod, was previously found in rivers and ponds across Eastern England but was deemed extinct in the 1970s due to extensive agriculture and metallic pollution. Plans however were recently announced to reintroduce the river bottom-dwelling fish back into UK waters.  

Up until 1985, locals in the South West of England may have been lucky enough to spot a Greater Mouse-eared Bat, but whilst there is still one solitary male known to live in a railway tunnel in West Sussex the bat is now classified as extinct.  

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100 years ago

Whilst still found in several European countries including France and Spain, the Chlorochroa Juniperina officially went extinct in the UK back in 1925, following the decline in its host the juniper plant.   

Other species known to have died out in the last century include the Kentish Plover, a small bird that was once an established breeder along the Kent and Sussex coastlines. Whilst they too can still be found in other European countries, their regular breeding in the UK came to an end in 1931 due to tourism in the local area.  

Keen gardeners might be able to recognise the key features of the now extinct Spiranthes Aestivalis plant, which comes from the Orchidaceae family, otherwise known as the Orchid. This beautiful flower is sadly in steep decline across Europe, with the plant also now extinct in Holland and Belgium.  

500 years ago

500 years ago, the UK garden as we know it wouldn’t have existed but what wildlife might have roamed outside people’s houses and the farmland they owned?  

Prior to the 1800s, the Great Bustard was most commonly found roaming the farmlands of the South of England, but in 1832 the last known bird in Britain was shot and the species was confirmed as extinct in the UK. Whilst Portugal and Spain are now known to have 60% of the worlds remaining population, an attempt to reintroduce the bird into Britain has seen a small population of 40 birds, that live on Salisbury Plain.  

Before the 1830s people living in the North West might have seen the Euclemensia Woodiella, otherwise known as the Manchester moth. Specimens of the yellow and brown moth were collected from Kersal Moor in Salford in 1829, but the species has not been found in Britain since.  

Whilst not found in a typical garden setting, for people living along Scottish coastline and the more isolated offshore islands, the sight of a Great Auk coming ashore to breed would have been a rare treat to behold. The flightless bird was deemed extinct in Great Britain in 1840 when the last known Auk was captured and killed, however the species was classified as officially extinct in 1844.  

Whilst it might be hard to imagine, 500 years ago, people living in the more remote parts of the British Isles prior to 1680 may have lived alongside the Eurasian Wolf. Whilst extinct for the most part in Western Europe, large populations of wolves can still be found to the east, with Russia home to 30,000.  

To find out more about life was like for our ancestors, read Family Tree magazine - helping genealogist for over 30 years!