The fauna of Anglo-Saxon England was plentiful and varied, and included some animals that have since been made extinct in this country. The vast areas of uninhabited forests, heaths and fells were home to many creatures, in addition to the other wild creatures that inhabited the towns and villages including the domestic animals.
The animals that were kept domestically were much the same as today, sheep, pigs, cattle, goats and a few horses. These animals were generally smaller than their modern counterparts, particularly pigs which would have been dark skinned relatively long legged hairy animals similar to those kept today by some Central European peasant communities. Cattle were not unlike the Dexter breed, about 1-1.2m at the shoulder, lean and long legged. Sheep were also small and slim, like slightly larger versions of the Soay in the early period and becoming more like the smallest modern breeds by the end of the period. Sheep probably had more variety in the colour of their fleeces and nearly all would have had horns. Goats were also shorter versions of the feral goats of today and horses would have been much like modern Dales ponies or Icelandic Horses, not usually more than about 14 hands high.
More varied varieties of hens and geese were kept for their meat and eggs. They may also have kept domestic ducks although it is difficult to tell the bones of a domestic duck from those of a large wild duck.
Cats and dogs were also kept. The largest dogs were about the size of a Labrador or Alsatian and would have been used for hunting or as guard dogs. Other types of dogs were smaller, about the size of a modern collie. The value of a dog depended not only on the type of dog, but who it belonged to. Most dogs would have been mongrels of one sort or another, however the various traits of certain types of dog were already highly valued. In appearance, the dogs took a number of forms; retriever sized long muzzled hounds, heavily built greyhounds, border collies, alsatian crosses and some forms of 'lap dog', probably small mongrels. Cats were much the same as modern non pedigree cats. Bones of wildcats have also been found, probably having been hunted for their skins along side domestic cat skeletons that attest to the use of these cats purely for their fur. There are 'pagan' rites for healing that demand cat skin gloves. Cats also feature in the divorce laws of the period, with the divorced man being able to keep one cat and the divorced wife the rest - no doubt there was still some argument as to who got the best mouser, and who had the cutest lap cat. Dogs were carefully bred and tended whilst cats had less care and attention since many kitten bones have been found whereas very few puppy bones have turned up.
Rats and mice also shared the peoples houses; the mice were the same as the modern house mouse, but the rats were the slightly smaller black rats, not the brown rats of modern cities. There were also many frogs (their bones turn up in houses, rubbish pits, back-yards and almost anywhere else as a result of trying to find places warm and damp enough for the winter). Wood-mice and shrews lived in the quieter parts of town along with foxes, stoats and weasles.
Large amounts of rubbish in the streets and round buildings attracted scavenging birds such as gulls, buzzards, ravens and red kites when things were quiet. There were even a few white tailed eagles on the most scattered of settlements near the hills and coasts. Smaller birds such as pigeons, thrushes, jackdaws, robins and sparrows would also have been seen on a regular basis. The eaves and thatch of the houses would have supplied nesting sites for many birds such as wrens, swallows and martins, and also for bats in the older less well tended buildings.
The rubbish also attracted beetles, flies, centipedes and millipedes. The timber buildings suffered from woodworm and supplied an ideal location for woodlice, spiders and wasps. Most people probably had a flea or two, bed-bugs etc; but probably got used to it and groomed each other to rid themselves of such friends.
Outside the city walls, the fields would have supported birds such as starlings, rooks and crows, just as you can see today but in greater abundance. They would also be home to mice and voles and would have supported other unwanted creatures to the farmer such as hares. The advent of the Rabbit had yet to arrive. Interestingly enough, rabbits had come to Britain with the Romans, as can be seen from the bones in their rubbish pits. With the recall of the roman legions and the slow decay in the way of life that the Romans instituted, the rabbits disappear from the archaeological record. They are then re-introduced by the Normans from Spain, who farmed them in structures of earth called pillow mounds. Around these were wattle fences, and men to guard them. The guardians were there not to prevent them from escaping but to stop locals from helping themselves. It seems that the rabbit needs certain circumstances to survive, and one of these is a reduction in the population of predators, and open heath to live in. With the Normans cossetting their rabbits, and the slow clearance and demise of local predators, the rabbits future in Britain was assured.
The forests were home to red deer, roe deer (but not fallow, they didn't arrive until the Normans), wild boar, wolves, a few bears, foxes, badgers and various small woodland creatures such as hedgehogs, martens and squirrels. Hollow trees would have been home to bats and owls. Forest birds included pigeons, jays, wood-peckers, sparrow hawks and goshawks. Other familiar woodland birds would also have been seen. Swarms of bees and wasps would also have nested in the forest.
Moors and heaths would have supported populations of wild horses and cattle, hares, wild goats and smaller creatures like voles, snakes and lizards. Birds such as grouse, crows, quail, partridge, nightjars, cuckoos, shrikes, larks, pipits, merlins, harriers, kestrels and buzzards would all have been seen.
Ravens and eagles nested in the hills along with peregrine falcons. The hills were also home to wolves, wild goats, wildcats and wild sheep. Many small creatures such as snakes, lizards, weasels and stoats would also live in the hills, and bats would have lived in cliff caves.
The rivers, streams and lakes brimmed with fish. Otters and a few beavers swam in their waters, all being very wary of man as he trapped them. There were many water fowl such as ducks, geese, swans, heron, cranes, plovers, snipe and curlew, many of which would have been occasionally hunted for their meat. Osprey and fish eagles would also have been seen on the areas near the coasts. Around the rocky shores sea birds such as gulls, terns, cormorants, gannets and puffins nested in the cliffs and dunes. Seals, porpoises and whales swam in the sea along with many kinds of sea-fish. Shellfish such as oysters, mussels, cockles, winkles, whelks and crabs were collected for food from the estuaries and sea-shores.
The issue of hunting is not as simple as it may first seem. Coastal communities would have made the most of sea bird eggs, sea weed, shellfish and other fauna that could be gathered. Obviously fish were caught, either trapped or hooked, and these activities are forms of hunting. In addition to fish, sea birds were also hunted and hooked. However, as you examine the more urban communities become, the less hunting for food is a part of the way of life for the people. From the middens, the bones of wild animals make up only a small percentage of the total bone waste created by butchering farm animals. The reasons for this are plain. Hunting is haphazard, even for the best of hunters, whereas farming is almost completely reliable. Most people could not afford the time and expense to go hunting and the larger animals needed a team of men to hunt, with the consequences of an accident being severe, especially with regards to hunting boar.
Original article by Roland Williamson 2000