Whilst in Macclesfield Local Studies library today I came across a book by Roger Stephens called The Boom of the Bitterbump - The Folk-history of Cheshire`s Wildlife (now out of print), which is packed full of really interesting information on the folklore and historical records of (mainly) Cheshire`s wildlife from ancient times to almost the present day - the book was published in 2003. I am going to run this blog over at least two parts, such is the quality of the information. There is only one serious problem I have come across - the index is incorrect, the page references are all out of sync. For example, `Wallaby, Red Necked, 11 is incorrect, it should be page 56.
I will start with extracts from Chapter 8 `Frem Folk`, which gives an interesting review of the arrival of some birds and mammals in Cheshire. The headings above each paragraph are mine (Rich)
The arrival of the grey squirrel and little owl.
1876 Before that date, all our squirrels had russet fur and tufted ears…But in 1876, something happened which would change all that. It was at Henbury Hall, near Macclesfield [my home town,-R] that the rot set in for the red squirrel. Here, for their novelty value, Thomas Brocklehurst released two pairs of eastern grey squirrels from America - the first authenticated record in Britain [what about Woburn?-R] …They built dreys in the trees of the estate and began to breed, reproducing more quickly than the reds* …By the end of the decade, another stranger had been seen and heard, this time on the other side of the county; little owls were breeding on the Eaton Estate. This eight-inch owl is found all over Europe and Asia. In ancient Greece it was sacred to the Goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene, but the wisdom of introducing it to Britain soon came into question. To the farmer, it was useful mercenary in the war against mice and voles, but gamekeepers claimed that it also helped itself to game chicks and wild birds.(1)
“Unofficially, however, a Chester man told me recently, with great conviction, that he saw a red squirrel in his garden in 2002!”*(2)
1880s. Around this time, conspicuous white blobs began to pop up on the hillsides above Longendale in the north-east of the county. Some 50 mountain hares had been brought south from Perthshire and released a few miles north of the Cheshire border…In Spring, ramblers were amused to find that, instead of running away at their approach, these hars sat tight amid the green bracken,relying on their winter pelage for..er…camouflage. Were it not for the relentless persecution of buzzards and hill foxes at the time, they would have been picked off the hillsides like snowberries but, with no predators, they soon multiplied and spread southward and eastward. In March 1893, a gamekeeper counted 50 from one spot. (3)
Wallabies, hamsters, dormice.
World War II Another unfamiliar mammal was hopping about in the eastern hills, this time, an Australian visitor. Some red-necked wallabies had escaped from a private collection in the Peak District and had formed Britain`s first breeding colony. They were not expected to survive their first winter. By now, grey squirrels had become a familiar sign in woods where they had not been seen before. One north Cheshire gamekeeper shot one and took it to a museum, as a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. Laugh if you like, but remember that the giraffe was once called a cameleopard due to the same mistake! The varying amounts of russet in their fur led others to believe that, like the newly-arrived American GIs, they interbred with the native species. Not so, but they were certainly over-active, over-competitive and over here (4)…[we now jump to the 1960s-R] “It was around this time [c.1962-R] that a friend of mine swears he saw a little party of hamsters foraging about in the grass at Aldford. Suprisingly, feral hamsters have been seen, on and off, since about 1960, but usually in more urban areas. In their real home, the steppes of eastern Europe and Asia, they live on tree bark, buds, seeds and green plants, so here`s another potential pest. Make that two, because some chipmunks were liberated in Cheshire in the mid-60s! (5) ...An Eccleston man told me recently [i.e c.2003-R] that, one day, back in the 80s, he found a very odd-looking mammal in his shed. Like the gamekeeper, half a century earlier, he described it as a cross (in this case,half-rat half-squirrel) but, afterwards, he looked it up and found it to be an edible dormouse
A species which first escaped from captivity about a century ago. They are well established in the Chilterns, where they have a reputation for raiding lofts and sheds in search of apples. Are they on the move? (6)
Finally, an early grey squirrel in Wales?
Stephens mentions records of a grey squirrels (“the size of polecats”) in “Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire in the 1830s and “a very fine stuffed specimen of the Welsh grey squirrel in the possession of a gentlemen residing in Chester; it was shot near Llandisilio Hall, Denbighshire, in October 1828.” (7) [Some 48 years BEFORE the grey was supposedly first brought into this country I mean Britain., which to my understanding means England, Scotland and Wales]. The source of Stephens`s record was the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine of 1830. I am attempting to contact Stephens via his publisher.
1 R.Stephens The Boom of the Bitterbump (2003) pp54-55
2 Ibid p.17
3 Ibid p.55
4 Ibid p.56-
5 Ibid p.57
6 Ibid p.58
7 Ibid p.59
U2 A Kind of Homecoming
And you know its time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning
Lights in the distance
And you hunger for the time
Time to heal,desire time,
And your earth moves beneath
your own dream landscape
On borderland we run….