Attitudes Towards the House Sparrow in Victorian Britain

On Wednesday evening the Leeds Animal Studies Network (https://leedsanimalstudiesnetwork.wordpress.com/) met for the latest installment of its seminar series. For those of us intrigued by animal history, the Network’s seminars have offered some great topics: from beagle colonies to the role of elephants in the timber industry of colonial Burma.

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Male and female house sparrows. From Thomas G. Gentry, The House Sparrow at Home and Abroad (Philadelphia, 1878). Available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

But the latest seminar featured my own (freshly published!) research on the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) in 19thc Britain. During this time, sparrows were generally perceived as “pests” or “vermin” which consumed farmer’s crops and damaged orchards. This attitude was summed up by the complaints of a farmer named Charles Newman, who wrote to his local newspaper in 1861 to protest against bird conservation. Newman, a self-proclaimed “practical farmer,” had little patience for those who wished to preserve sparrows:

“No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

Newman was by no means alone in his hatred of sparrows, or as he termed them, “flying mice.” Arable farmers and horticulturalists regularly trapped, poisoned or shot sparrows on their land. Yet others thought that sparrows were not destructive, but useful. In 1862 the Royal Agricultural Society of England and Wales  stated that insectivorous birds like sparrows consumed as much animal [insect] as vegetable matter, acting as ‘‘faithful protectors’’ of ‘‘cultivation in general.” Some naturalists feared that destroying sparrows would upset the delicate balance of nature. As early as 1841, a letter to The Quarterly Journal of Agriculture told the tale of a horticulturalist who had exterminated sparrows in his fruit orchard, only to suffer ‘‘myriads of caterpillars, green and black-marked ugly things,’’ which stripped whole bushes of their leaves.

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The English sparrow in the USA. From William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds Vol.1 (London, 1843): 474-478. 

The idea of using sparrows as a form of biological control against harmful insects was enacted across the globe. Sparrows were introduced to both Australia and the United States by acclimatisation societies during the 1860s. Yet attitudes towards the sparrow in both countries quickly turned sour. In 1878 an article in The Derby Mercury charted the rapid reversal of Australian opinion:

“For ten or fifteen years, perhaps, the Australian gardeners and farmers and the sparrows got on exceedingly well together. The busy little birds faithfully performed all that was expected of them, and the land was well nigh rid of grub and caterpillar. Presently, however, there gradually arose a feeling of uneasiness as to the increase and multiplication of the imported blessing.”

In the face of such failures, the acclimatisation movement declined. Natural history also suffered a decline during the latter half of the 19thc (https://holmesmatthew.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/the-decline-of-natural-history-rise-of-biology-in-19thc-britain/). Economic ornithology, described as ‘‘the study of the inter-relation of birds and agriculture’’ by the President of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1892, took over the issue of whether sparrows were harmful or beneficial for agriculture. British economic ornithologists followed the lead of their American counterparts by condemning sparrows for consuming cereal crops. Following the outbreak of the First World War, sparrows were therefore persecuted on a systematic basis.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the sparrow in 19thc Britain, or how matters of social and scientific consequence were decided during this time, my paper “The Sparrow Question: Social and Scientific Accord in Britain, 1850–1900” has just been published by the Journal of the History of Biology. It is Open Access and you can read or download it from the journal’s website at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10739-016-9455-6. Or you can read it and my other publications on my Academia page: http://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes.

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A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 

 

Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…

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In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (https://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes):

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

History & Philosophy of Monsters: HPS in 20 Objects Lecture Series, University of Leeds

On the 16th February, the ‘History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects’ lecture series held its second event, featuring monsters. PhD student Laura Sellers introduced a large audience to a member of the Museum of HPS’s wet specimen collection: a two-headed shark (spiny dogfish, or Squalus acanthias). The spiny dogfish is an intriguing animal in its own right. Possessing two spines, when attacked the dogfish is able to flex its back to allow one to protrude as a venomous spike. Yet it was the two heads of this specimen (the result of gene overexpression) under examination.

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The two-headed fish (right) and a one-eyed piglet (left). The two heads of the fish are the result of gene overexpression. The one eye of the piglet results from gene underexpression.

Emeritus fellow Dr. Jon Hodge began his lecture with an important caveat. Historians of science have long sought to overcome a temptation to tell history as a story of the triumph of modernity over traditional ways of thinking. Yet a tension runs throughout the Western history of monsters, namely between nature as studied by science and nature as interpreted as the art of god by religious traditions.

So how has the emergence of monsters been explained throughout history? Aristotle (384-322BC) viewed all natural objects as a synthesis of form and matter. Form usually imposed itself upon matter, for example turning an acorn into an oak rather than a beech tree. Monsters occurred when matter deviated from form.

Nearly two millennia later, René Descartes (1596-1650) applied his mechanical view of nature – consisting of matter plus laws of motion – to life. Rare movements accounted for the development of monsters. Yet only a generation later, the mechanical view of nature was considered inadequate to explain life: contemporaries instead turned to the divine. A popular idea was the so-called “box-within-a-box” theory; the idea that god had created all forms of life at the first moment of creation, with later forms hidden within the first plants and animals.

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The “box within a box” theory was illustrated with a comparison to nesting dolls. Image from http://legomenon.com/russian-matryoshka-nesting-dolls-meaning.html

In the early nineteenth century this theory was confronted by French morphologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). Geoffrey experimented with animal embryos – shaking, heating or prodding them – and observed the emergence of monstrous characteristics. External influences could apparently change animals from one generation to the next.

Subsequent years saw monsters fall in and out of scientific fashion. Charles Darwin did not discuss monsters as a means of variability (1809-1882). But from the 1880s-1920s biology took a laboratory turn and adopted saltationism. Richard Goldschmidt (1878-1958) devised the theory of “hopeful monsters”: or viable deviations with an evolutionary future. Yet Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), one of the founders of the modern synthesis, thought Goldschmidt harkened back to traditional, discredited views from Plato and Aristotle. Taking a difference stance (1941-2002) was Stephen Jay Gould, who championed Geoffroy. Monsters have lived on into what we think as of modern science.

Simply put, all this reveals that straightforward, traditional to modern narratives don’t hold up. History is complex and scepticism of simple stories is part and parcel of the historians’ trade.

A video of the full lecture can be accessed at https://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/20objects/object-2-two-headed-fish/

This and other posts by students reviewing the lecture can be found at: https://museumofhstm.wordpress.com/

The Decline of Natural History & Rise of Biology in 19thc Britain

For the past few weeks, the history and philosophy of biology (HPBio) reading group here at the University of Leeds has been tackling a series of readings on a contentious historical issue: how biology came into existence and what it replaced.

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E. Donovan, 1805 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Various Subjects of Natural History. Second edition. Plate 2, Figures 5-9.

Natural history: Consisting of field observation, collection and classification, natural history consisted a grand civic and scientific project in Victorian society. Clubs and societies, with associated journals and museums sprang up across nineteenth-century Britain. Natural history was (at least in theory) open to all comers, from both genders and any social class. The field remained remarkably stable for a long period, in terms of the practices and equipment utilised. Historian of natural history David Allen remarks that in entomology, basic field equipment used in the 1950s such as the collecting tin and the vasculum were indistinguishable from their mid-eighteenth century counterparts (Allen. 1998: 362).

Its decline: Allen (1998) goes on to claim that natural history suddenly lost its preeminence in the late-nineteenth century. A rising class of professional scientists – largely based in universities – turned against amateurish natural history in favor of a new experimental biology, often based in the laboratory. These professionals derided practitioners of natural history as ‘bug-hunters’ while the latter returned fire by labeling laboratory biologists ‘worm slicers’ (Allen, 1998: 366). Attempts by naturalists to reintegrate themselves in British science were unsuccessful. In ecology, amateur naturalists initially found a role for their taxonomic expertise in biological surveys. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, ecology adopted a physiological approach, pushing out the naturalists. Ecology remains ‘dauntingly technical’, especially following its adoption of statistics (Allen, 1998: 367).

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John Richardson, 1837. Fauna boreali-americana. Volume 4.

Biology: The word biology is generally perceived to have been coined early in the nineteenth century. Joseph Caron (1988: 247) locates the emergence of a distinct science of biology in England between the 1850s and 1890s. Here, scientists such as T.H. Huxley proposed a new synthetic and general perspective on living beings and life in general (Caron, 1988: 247). These calls were backed up by action, with figures such as J.D. Hooker working to have ‘biology’ adopted at the university level. As it lacked a distinct research programme, Caron (1988: 253) describes English biology during this period as a publicist science par excellence. Controlling university teaching and examination allowed the subject to flourish – a point both Allen and Caron agree upon.

Our reading:

Allen, D.E., ‘On parallel lines: natural history and biology from the late Victorian period’, Archives of Natural History 25 (1998): 361-371

Caron, J.A., ‘Biology’ in the life sciences: a historiographical contribution’, History of Science 26 (1988): 223-268

Johnson, K., ‘Natural history as stamp collecting: a brief history’, Archives of Natural History 34 (2007): 244-258

 

 

Coming in from the cold: nineteenth-century exploration and science in the Canadian Arctic

This short essay originally appeared on the UK Polar Network (UKPN) Social Sciences blog: http://socialsciences.polarnetwork.org/blog/coming-in-from-the-cold-nineteenth-century-exploration-and-science-in-the-canadian-arctic

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British discoveries in the “Arctic Regions,” 1818-1826. From John Franklin’s Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1825, 1826 and 1827 (London, 1828).

With the threat of climate change looming, the Polar Regions have never seemed so pertinent to our everyday lives. Yet historians have long considered such environments influential beyond their borders in a myriad of ways. For instance, nineteenth-century Arctic exploration and scientific work relate to broader themes of state power and expertise. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences, examining the formation of imagined landscapes and scientific knowledge is revelatory of both past and present human self-conception.

By the early nineteenth century, the appointment of a naturalist to collect and catalogue specimens had become routine in British exploration – a trend characterised by historians as part of an imperialist drive to classify, quantify and comprehend the universe. The expedition acted as a simultaneous harbinger of empire and research tool (Sörlin, 2000, p. 51; MacLeod, 2009, p. 45). Understanding a region’s fauna and flora can be seen as a form of resource assessment. Browne (1996, pp. 313-314) considered the collection of natural history specimens and their return to British soil representative of “the whole culture of imperial enterprise.”

The hostile environment of the Canadian Arctic was of great interest to Britain’s government and scientific institutions. When John Franklin’s (1786-1847) first expedition began preparations for its journey in 1818, with the ostensible aim of surveying the coastline east of the Coppermine River, a naturalist was practically a prerequisite. This role was fulfilled by John Richardson (1787-1865), a Scottish surgeon. Richardson was commanded by the British Admiralty to collect specimens of plants, minerals and birds. Naval surgeons of the period often received their training at Edinburgh University, home to renowned natural history facilities (Browne, 1996, p. 307).

Yet in an era before the word “scientist” had even been coined, “professional” came with unwanted connotations. A professional was someone who investigated the natural world without a suitable aristocratic background or financial base (Allen, 2009, pp. 15-16). Yet imperial ambitions require expertise. Sending naval personnel to far-flung corners of the globe was one means of acquiring informed experts, without associating with those who found professional employment in scientific work. As one historian (Allen, 2009, p. 17) described the situation:

The nearest thing to a paper qualification for a post in the life sciences was a medical degree and the nearest thing to postgraduate training was a journey to little-known parts of the world as the naturalist attached to a voyage or expedition, perhaps as a surgeon on a naval vessel.

Naval surgeons collected specimens which became Crown property, or published field observations with the aid of Admiralty funding (Browne, 1996, p. 310). Richardson’s zoological specimens from Franklin’s first expedition were deposited in the Edinburgh university museum and the British museum (1). Upon his return to England in 1822, Richardson found himself courted by the Linnean Society and private clubs (2). Fame and entry into the scientific establishment came in spite of repeated failings during the expedition, which faced starvation on numerous occasions. Hardship imposed by the Arctic environment warped the scientific goals imposed by the Admiralty, as Richardson was forced to abandon the specimens he had collected during the summer months (Levere, 1993, p. 108). Meanwhile Franklin manipulated Richardson’s natural-historical remit for non-scientific purposes. Upon his party experiencing a shortage of grog, Franklin wrote to the one of his officers, George Back:

Some of the mighty strong [liquor] would not only be equally acceptable to the Canadians and Indians but is necessary for preserving any specimens which the Doctor [Richardson] may have which require Such means of preservation. Ours is not sufficiently strong for that purpose, and if you have not already got a Supply, I must request you to demand two galleons from each house at Great Slave Lake, and if they demur, a statement of the reason for this demand [specimen preservation] will procure their compliance (3).

In fact Richardson only carried a few jars for preserving specimens. A tax on glass meant that British naturalists did not favour preservation in alcohol until 1845 (Larsen, 1996, p. 360). Despite harsh conditions, Richardson attempted to continue his natural history work. In lean times and during a heavy gale, he ventured down to the coast off Cape Barrow in an attempt to identify fragments of seaweed. Collection practices were shaped by external factors, including the Arctic environment itself.

Cultural and scientific beliefs were also imposed upon the Arctic by British expeditions. Exploring the geology of the Barren Lands, Richardson framed his findings in Wernerian terms, supporting existing theories of a dynamic earth (Zeller, 2000, p. 88). In other areas of knowledge, naturalists were not so forthcoming, gripped by a fear of generalising systems and theorisation (Barber, 1980, pp. 64-65). In his later career, Richardson adapted biogeographical models to represent Arctic flora, based upon the reports of other travellers, particularly fur traders (Zeller, 2000, p. 89).

From the biography of a single nineteenth-century naturalist, a plethora of historical attitudes towards the Arctic are exposed. The Canadian Arctic may have been geographically “peripheral” to centres of European power, but engaged states, science and society. In the case of natural history, the Arctic was an untapped resource, place of training for future experts and testing ground for scientific theories. Two centuries on, these same values are still attached to the Polar Regions.

NOTES

1. GELL MS, LETTER #8, Franklin, “Letter to John Richardson, 24 July 1823.”

2. GELL MS, LETTER # 4, Franklin, “Letter to Richardson, 24 October 1822.”

3. SPRI MS 395/70/4, Franklin, “Letter to George Back, 31 January 1821.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, David E., “Amateurs and Professionals,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 15-33.

Barber, Lynn, The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980).

Brown, Janet, “Biogeography and empire,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305-321.

Larsen, Anne, “Equipment for the Field,” in Nicholas Jardine, James A. Secord and Emma C. Spary (eds.), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 358-377.

Levere, Trevor H., Science and the Canadian Arctic: A Century of Exploration 1818-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

MacLeod, Roy, “Discovery and Exploration,” in Peter J. Bowler and John V. Pickstone (eds.), The Cambridge History of Science: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, Vol. 6. (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 34-59.

Sörlin, Sverker, “Ordering the World for Europe: Science as Intelligence and Information as Seen from the Northern Periphery,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 51-69.

Zeller, Suzanne, “The Colonial World as Geological Metaphor: Strata(gems) of Empire in Victorian Canada,” Osiris 2nd Series 15 (2000), pp. 85-107.

Mountain Hares in Orkney: What is an Indigenous Species?

Difficulties of defining what constitutes an “indigenous” species persist in conservation today, with rigorous definitions of “alien” and “native” remaining elusive. An evolving and fragmentary knowledge surrounding natural history has proved a challenging issue for such definitions. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, scientific writings on the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) demonstrated this point. Mountain hare habitat in Britain has largely been confined to the uplands of Scotland since the Mesolithic. Prior to this confinement, archaeological evidence suggests that the distribution of the mountain hare was much wider, favored by a cooler climate. Nineteenth-century writers faced difficulties in drawing such firm conclusions, in no small part due to a lack of fossil evidence. Even today, mapping their former extent in ancient times is fraught with difficulty.

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Photographs of Orkney. On the left, the island of Copinsay. On the right, the north end of Stack and Skerry. Both photographs were taken by W. Norrie and are found in Buckley and Harvie-Brown’s Vertebrate Fauna (1891), p. 34 and p. 48.

Incomplete data led to great confusion as the remains of mountain hares were reportedly unearthed in the remains of “Picts’ houses” on the Orkney islands (an archipelago in northern Scotland). Scottish naturalist John Alexander Harvie-Brown (who we previously encountered commenting on capercaillie reintroductions) had teamed up with ornithologist Thomas Edward Buckley to produce a series on the fauna of Scotland. In 1891, Buckley and Harvie-Brown’s A Vertebrate Fauna of the Orkney Isles was published. The work drew on earlier reports of archaeological finds by a J.G. Moodie Heddle, who suggested a lengthy history of the mountain hare in Orkney, perhaps dating to even earlier than the merging of the islands with the mainland Pictish kingdom in 565 AD.

Was this finding cause to rewrite the natural history of the mountain hare and the Orkney islands (which had long been considered bereft of mammalia). By the early decades of the twentieth-century, this had seemingly ceased to be the case. Moodie Heddle published his own work, entitled Orkney and Shetland in 1920, which contained no mention of mountain hare remains being found in the region. It seems he had changed his mind on his archaeological findings, or else had been misquoted by Harvie-Brown and Buckley. Damage had already been done, with the third volume of J.G. Millais’s, The Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland (1906) citing Moodie Heddle as proof for the antiquity of the mountain hare in Orkney.

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A mountain hare, from Harry Johnson’s British Mammals (1903) , p. 218. Drawn by Johnson, this illustration was based on a specimen held by the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

In the opinion of Harvie-Brown and Buckley, mountain hare populations in Orkney had existed during the sixteenth century. This assertion came from John Bellenden, Archdeacon of Moray, whose Descripto Orchadiarum (1529) described “white hares” being caught by dogs (a passage originally written in Latin). The use of such sources (and even medieval place names) was not unusual for naturalists seeking to uncover the historical distribution of species. Similarly, W.B. Baikie and R. Heddle’s Naturalis Orcaden Historisis (1848) was reliant upon two seventeenth-century writers for their information.

The first came from Scottish physician Robert Sibbald’s Scotia Illustrata (1684), which described “white” or “snow-coloured” hares on Orkney. Another account came from a Mathew Mackaile, who visited Orkney at the close of the seventeenth century. Mackailie, the owner of an apothecary in Aberdeen, was informed by locals that about eighty years before his visit, “either white or black hares” had inhabited the mountains of Choye. The uncertainty over the colour of the hares may either imply inaccuracy, or reflect the seasonal moulting of mountain hares.

What can be known is that a single “re-introduction” of mountain hares to Orkney occurred in the late nineteenth century, which Harvie-Brown and Buckley described in some detail:

“The White [mountain] Hare has since been re-introduced to into Gairsay [one of the Orkney islands] by Col. Balfour (about 1875). There were ten or a dozen turned down; but some of these were found to have had their legs broken on arrival, and may possibly have died. The rest, however, throve, and were often seen by the then tenants, two brothers by the name of Harcus, who never disturbed them during their tenancy, which ended about 1884. These hares turned white in winter.”

This nineteenth-century reintroduction does beg the question of how far back does a species needs to have existed in a geographical region to be considered indigenous. A few centuries? Millennia? Or into prehistory? Even positing an accurate date can prove problematic, furthering the difficulties involved in this decision.

Further Reading:

Baikie W.B. & R., Heddle, Naturalis Orcaden Historisis (Edinburgh, 1848).

Buckley, T.E. & J.A., Harvie-Brown, A Vertebrate Fauna of the Orkney Islands (Edinburgh, 1891).

Millais, J.G., The Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 3 (London, 1906).

Moodie Heddle, J.G.F., Orkney and Shetland (Edinburgh, 1920).