Things Change

During the last Devensian ice age, for around 50,000 years the Quantocks sat a little south of a vast wall of ice, sitting roughly where Bristol is now. The leading edge of this ice sheet lay roughly along a diagonal line between Cardiff and Bristol, and then north east to what is today York. This was the edge of the ice sheet that covered most of the ground from that point up to the North Pole.

At this time the ice sheets covering Scotland were several kilometres thick and the Quantocks just south of the ice were an Arctic tundra like landscape. We know from the vast amount of skeletal remains found in caves in Cheddar Gorge, easily seen from the high ground on Quantock, that our hills would have been inhabited at this time by Woolly Mamoth Mammuthus primigenus, Woolly Rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis, Steppe Bison Bison priscus, Musk Ox Ovibos moschatus, Arctic Fox Vulpes lagopus Brown Bear Ursus arctos, Lynx Lynx lynx, Wolf Canis lupus, Wolverine Gulo gulo, Arctic Lemming Dicrostonyx torquatus, Saiga Antelope Saiga tatanica and Reindeer Rangifer tarandus. As temperatures rose most of these animals migrated north, with some eventually becoming extinct, and they were probably last seen on what we now call Quantock Common between 14,000 and11,000 years ago.

One other mammal that must have been a regular hunter on Quantock in these very cold times is the Spotted Hyena Crocuta crocuta. Now only found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, Spotted Hyena bones have been found in large quantities in cave deposits at Cheddar Gorge and in many other cave deposits in southern England. 

Maybe not in quite the same league as Woolly Mammoths and Spotted Hyenas living on Quantock, and this time an addition and not a loss, is the miraculous appearance of Cattle Egrets on fields close to Broomfield in October 2023. Going back a little over a hundred years ago Cattle Egrets were confined to Africa and a couple of spots in southern Spain. But then in the mid 1950’s they started to slowly move north, eventually arriving on England’s south coast in 2007 and on the Somerset Levels and Moors in 2008 when two pairs nested and raised young. Having travelled to the southern tip of Spain in 1969 to see the then ultra rare Cattle Egrets and to now have them on the Quantocks is really something! They will surely find the grazing livestock up on the open heathland very soon, keep an eye out for them this summer. 

Written by Nigel Phillips

There will be lots more information about pre-historic and modern wildlife on Quantock in the Friends of Quantocks sponsored book “The Nature Of Quantock” by Nigel Phillips, to be published autumn 2024.