In these last few weeks of lockdown I’ve sought solace in my garden, and in exploring the wildlife that it hosts. You may have read about the lockdown garden I created with my children and the help of our neighbours throughout our time of quarantine (if you missed it, you can catch up here), and as I’ve enjoyed spotting all the insects, birds and small mammals that visit, I’ve often wondered what a UK garden might have locked like in the past.
In this insightful guest blog post, we look at the UK’s extinct creatures, and what we might have found outside our front doors up to 500 years ago — with the help of an eye-catching infographic shared at the end of this post.
UK gardens of yesteryear
In the average garden, wildlife can survive and thrive throughout the four seasons. From blackbirds to the occasional urban fox, our green spaces are often abundant with nature.
But how has this changed over time? In the 20th century alone, 500 species worldwide are known to have gone extinct due to the destruction of natural habitats and ongoing human degradation. New research from Kaleidoscope reveals what wildlife and plants would have previously been found in British gardens but are now considered extinct.
From 50 years to 500 years ago, take a look at some of the visitors you could have spotted:
In the garden 50 years ago:
Even 50 years ago our gardens and the wildlife could have looked different. Our research revealed that a number of species have been classified as extinct in the last five decades. Amphibians like the European Tree Frog displayed a considerable decline and extinction in the UK, caused by a loss of breeding habitats, pollution and climate changes. Sadly, this species died out in 1986, with the Black-backed Meadow Ant following this just 2 years later.
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.
In the garden 100 years ago:
The Norfolk Damselfly was last recorded from the Norfolk Broads several decades ago, and is now considered extinct in the UK. However, it is still widespread elsewhere on the European continent.
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. Like the Damselfly, they can still be sighted in other European countries, but sadly regular breeding came to an end in the UK 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.
In the garden 500 years ago:
Prior to the 1800s, the Great Bustard was commonly found roaming the farmlands of the South of England. This iconic species of the Wiltshire landscape became nationally extinct when the last bird was shot in 1832.
Whilst not a typical garden setting, for people living along the Scottish coastline the sight of a Great Auk coming ashore to breed wouldn’t have been unusual. These flightless birds were deemed extinct in the UK in 1840 when the last known Auk was captured and killed.
The Eurasian wolf was leaner than its Grey cousin, and would have prowled remote expanses of the British Isles prior to 1680. Whilst they are now extinct in most parts of Western Europe, large populations of the species can still be found in Russia with a population of 30,000.
Our gardens today:
With us spending more time at home this year, it’s a perfect opportunity to explore the wildlife currently in your garden. Whilst its sadly no longer possible to have any encounters with the Great Auk or Eurasian wolf, there is still an incredible variety of birds, plants and animals to discover. Nature photography and painting are great ways to embrace some of the natural wonders that are still here with us today.
About the author:
Alistair Ferguson is a lifestyle writer who enjoys covering content that aims to highlight the wonders of the natural world and the importance of sustainability. He has written about a range of topics including seasonal eating, meal preparation and forageable beauty products.