The Zoologist/4th series, vol 2 (1898)/Issue 685/The Mammalia of Great Yarmouth and its Immediate Neighbourhood

The Mammalia of Great Yarmouth and its Immediate Neighbourhood  (1898) 
by Arthur Henry Patterson

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 2, issue 685 (July, 1898), p. 299–310


By Arthur Patterson.

Great Yarmouth, the second town in importance in Norfolk, and celebrated the world over for its Herring fishery and "bloater cure," stands on a peninsula; it is bounded on the east by the North Sea, and on the west by the River Yare, from which it derives its name. It is situated in lat. 52° 36' 40" north, and long. 1° 44' 22" east. From London it is 108 miles in a direct line, and south-east from Norwich nineteen miles "as the crow flies."

Southwards to Lowestoft extends a long line of cliffs, averaging 30 ft. in height, "composed principally of disrupted crag, sand, and clay, beneath which has occasionally been laid bare a stratum of blue clay, the wreck of the Lias."[1] In these cliffs the remains of the Mammoth, and on one occasion the skull of a Beaver, have been met with.

Northward runs a long range of low sandhills, which, like the cliffs southwards, have been and are suffering severely from the encroachments of heavy tides; as recently as Nov. 29th, 1897, the sea broke through immediately north of Winterton, drowning a number of Rabbits on the warren. Owing to want of sufficient care in keeping up the sandhills, and encouraging the growth of the marrum grass (Ammophila arundinacea), Agropyrum junceum, the sand-sedge (Carex arenaria), all of which are indigenous to the locality, they are become no longer a sturdy barrier against the wild ravings of the rough North Sea. The North and South Denes are less conspicuous undulations of blown sand held together by the creeping roots of the rest-harrow (Ononis spinus), the sea-purslane (Arenaria peploides), and others. Within the past few years the furze, which came quite up to the town boundary upon the North Denes, has been all but exterminated, and the sand-dunes levelled for golfing and building purposes.

To the west of the town lies a great alluvial level, once the bed of the Garienis Ostium. Dyked and drained, this large area forms most valuable marshland, affording pasturage for many herds of cattle. The famous Broads are remains of this fine estuary. Breydon, another portion of it, five miles long and one in width, at the juncture of the Yare, Waveney, and Bure, remains a great salt-water tidal basin; its northern point reaches the town quays. "By the improved banking of the rivers" a large tract that was once under water has been reclaimed, and the drainage and cultivation following have, in the course of years, produced great changes in the natural productions of the district. The country a few miles northward becomes more hilly and wooded, as it does southward of Breydon. There is, however, nothing deserving of the name of a wood, except at Fritton, within the ten mile radius included in this paper.

Very pithily and concisely the Pagets (referring to the various classes of the local fauna) remark:—"In none of them have the changes described as taken place, in consequence of cultivation, been so much felt as in the Mammalia, nearly all of which, with the exception of the few species which it is a matter of profit to preserve, are either totally exterminated, or in rapid progress towards being so." To the few exceptions referred to may be added such as from their amazing fecundity, and the gradual extirpation of their natural enemies, are becoming a pest and a scourge to cultivation itself; the Field Vole and the Brown Rat are instances in proof. And so long as the lesser birds of prey and the Weasel family are so incessantly persecuted, will this evil continue and increase.

Lubbock[2] makes mention of a species of Dog—the black curly-coated Retriever—as "very common here, though not entirely peculiar to the county—the Yarmouth Water-Dog, as they are generally termed in other parts of England." The sagacity of this species is referred to in the case of one kept many years ago at a drainage mill adjoining Breydon. It regularly searched the flint-stone "walls" in winter for wounded wildfowl, which usually seek some nook or cranny. "When the wind was north-east, and many Ducks in the country,[3] he sometimes carried home eight or nine fowl of various kinds in the same morning." How he evaded scrutiny and interference, and picked up his trail after each home-going, are interesting matters of detail. An animal of the same breed was kept in the seventies by the late G. Overend, a famous collector of local birds; it exhibited some remarkable traits, fetching newspapers, and exchanging them with various friends of his master, and other notable things. It is still fairly common in the locality, but has been superseded by the Spaniel by the very few gunners who follow up shooting along the "walls" and on the marshes.

With regard to the species mentioned in the following list, our knowledge of the Chiroptera may be mentioned as yet being in an unsatisfactory state; but few sportsmen, save novices, ever trouble themselves to bring down such mean game; and, as their habits make observation an awkward and at best but a casual matter, one or two other species than those enumerated may really be frequenting the neighbourhood, but are as yet awaiting detection. Amongst the Insectivora, the "Oared Shrew"[4] has not yet been observed in the locality. All the Mustelidæ, with the exception perhaps of the Weasel, are yearly becoming scarcer. The Phocidæ, on the other hand, are more frequent in their visits. Opportunities for observing the Cetacea have always been and will remain difficult and casual. The Rodentia have become restricted, or have increased, according to the circumstances which affect their natural economy.

At present the list comprises the following:—1. Chiroptera (four).2. Insectivora (four).3. Carnivora and Pinnipedia (ten).4. Rodentia (twelve).5. Cetacea (eight). Of these two carnivores and one rodent are now extinct, one rodent may be referred to as a subspecies, and one Phocidæ as doubtful.

The first list of Yarmouth Mammalia was published in 1834 by the Brothers Paget, in their 'Sketch of the Natural History of Great Yarmouth,' a much less perfect one being published in 1863, by Dr. B.T. Lowne, under the title of 'A Popular Natural History of Great Yarmouth.' Various records have been made of locally occurring species in the volumes of the 'Transactions' of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society. In March, 1896, the Yarmouth Section of that Society published a list of the species compiled by the present writer.

The following abbreviations will indicate the status of the several species and explain the references:—C. common; F. frequent; F.C. fairly common; R.R. rather rare; R. rare; A. accidental; E. extinct; [], doubtful; Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc, 'Transactions' published by the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society.

Long-eared Bat (Plecotus auritus). R.—Have seen and identified examples only on two occasions. One was picked up in the town dead, having in its flight struck the gable of a house and killed itself.

Noctule or Great Bat (Vesperugo noctula). F.C.—Several may be seen at one time any summer's evening in the vicinity of water, the Bure being a favourite haunt. Occasionally are very noisy. Will answer to a good mimicry of their shrill notes, and fly close to the performer. Having on one occasion a slightly wounded specimen shrieking in my pocket, its companions came so near that I could feel the "whisk" of their "wings." Its prey is the Cockchafer (Melolontha vulgaris), and the Watchman Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius) by preference, whose hard wing-cases it may be heard scrunching.

Pipistrelle (V. pipistrellus). C—Abounds in old houses, outhouses, and churches. I have seen it flitting about in church during evening service. On several occasions have seen examples flying about in the centre of the town at noonday. Discovered two skulls in the "pellet" of an Owl near Yarmouth in August, 1896.

Parti-coloured Bat (V. discolor). A.—Reference is made to an example taken from the rigging of a vessel lying in Yarmouth Roads in the year 1834 (vide Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. 1873–74, p. 80).

Hedgehog (Erinaceus europæus). C—Local prejudice is still strong against this useful vermin destroyer. I have a suspicion it is not so common as formerly. A friend in whose possession a female produced young was gratified in seeing her rear her progeny. I have signally failed in tempting a mother even to notice her offspring.

Mole (Talpa europæa). C.—Undoubtedly on the increase on the marsh-lands, and indeed elsewhere, now that Weasels are being so ruthlessly exterminated. On dry uplands have observed it tunnelling near the surface in strawberry-beds, eagerly pursuing the Strawberry Beetle (Harpalus ruficornis), which in the daytime remains quiescent about a couple of inches below the surface. I have observed examples swimming in the Bure. Cream-coloured Moles are not rare. "A large rusty-white variety was common at Oby" (vide Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. 1870–71, p. 74). Mr. Last Farman records a Mole with two snouts found at Haddiscoe. He has also found maize in Mole-heaps far from habitations; also "pints of worms tied in knots" therein.

Common Shrew (Sorex vulgaris). C.—More often found dead than seen alive. In a barrow-load of Owl-pellets I examined at Tunstall, in August, 1896, I found as many skeletons of Shrews as Field Mice (Mus sylvaticus). Local, "Ranny"; "Shrewmouse."

Water Shrew (Crossopus fodiens). F.C.—"Marsh ditchbanks; rather rare" (Pagets). More numerous than is generally supposed. Its timidity of disposition and retiring habits make it exceedingly difficult of observation; and even when unaware of one's presence its movements are not easily distinguished, as it worms itself amongst the luxuriant herbage at the ditch-sides. Mostly its tiny bullet-like "plump" into the water is the only indication of its proximity. The variety known as the "Oared Shrew" I have not met with here.

Fox (Vulpes vulgaris). A.—"Now (1834) very seldom seen" (Pagets). Undoubtedly the indigenous local race is extinct. Its occurrence as a straggler is of very rare occurrence. One seen at Haddiscoe, about twelve years ago, crossing the river (L. Farman).

Pine Marten (Mustela martes). E.—The Pagets, referring to the Marten as Viverra foina, speak of it as "formerly at Herringfleet and Toft; now extremely rare." Has probably been extinct in this neighbourhood for half a century.

Weasel (M. vulgaris). C.—Notwithstanding incessant persecution is still fairly common. It is no unusual thing to see strings of carcases hanging to warren-fences and gamekeepers' "corners." The Pagets' remark still holds good: "Occasionally seen in the town." On two occasions I have observed it drop from hay-waggons passing along the streets. Have seen it on the marshes assiduously hunting for Field Mice. Local, "Mousehunter."

Stoat (M. erminea). F.—Still fairly frequent on Rabbit-warrens and in game-preserves. White and blotched examples are occasionally found in winter.

Polecat (M. putorius). R.—"Not uncommon about farmyards" (Pagets). This remark does not hold good to-day. Rapidly verging on extinction in Norfolk, it is seldom if ever seen now within the ten-mile radius.

Otter (Lutra vulgaris). F.C.—In the Pagets' list this species is referred to as "now seldom seen on any of the Broads where it was once not uncommon." Scarcely a winter passes but one or more are killed; it is astonishing that any remain considering the relentless persecution it is subjected to. Is undoubtedly less rare than is generally supposed; its cautious movements and secretive disposition, combined with the great range of its habitat, enabling the species to defy speedy extirpation. I have kept as pets several from the Broad district; one was a huge savage animal that came to grief through its love for duck-flesh. Another example became so tame as to run loose about the house, and play on the hearthrug with the children. Two, over which I had supervision when in Ireland, were keen on Barcelona nuts thrown to them by the public. The Tench is a favourite prey of the local race.

Badger (Meles taxus). E.—Writing in 1834, the Pagets remark:—"Thirty years ago these were common, especially about Bradwell and Browston, but they are entirely exterminated." Is undoubtedly extinct in East Norfolk. One or two "escapes" have been killed in my recollection. I have kept several in confinement, finding them generally very untractable, differing greatly in this respect from Vulpes vulgaris and Lutra vulgaris, which in my possession have even exhibited traits of strong affection.

Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). F.C.—In Fritton Woods, and neighbouring woody districts. A few dead specimens brought to market every winter.

Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). E.—The only evidence I have of its claim to this list is its presence on Pagets' list:

"Occasionally seen in small woods." But I have no knowledge of its occurrence in this part of Norfolk in the present day.

Harvest Mouse (Mus minutus). F.C.—Though not included in Pagets' list, has an undoubted claim to figure in our own. Nests are occasionally found at Haddiscoe; Mr. L. Farman reports finding them in "quantity in the bottom of barley-stacks." Specimens have been procured alive from that locality.

Long-tailed Field Mouse (M. sylvaticus). F.C.—Have met with this species occasionally on the North Denes. Have seen a dead one dug out of the "run" of a hunted Stoat, and seen it actually pursued by the Weasel. It appears to be of a very retiring disposition.

Common Mouse (M. musculus). C.—Far too common. Whilst a local baker was hunting down a stray Rat, he discovered its lair. He was surprised to find several freshly-killed mice in it. The inference is that the Rat had caught these for food. There is a common local saying that "where you find Mice you are free from Rats."

Black Rat (M. rattus). C.—"This species still remains here, though its numbers are gradually decreasing; it is now seldom found, except in the ceilings and upper stories of old buildings" (Pagets). "Probably extinct in this county" (Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. 1883–84, p. 674). Than at the present moment the Black Rat was never more numerous at Yarmouth. I have known it from boyhood, and in succeeding years have frequently met with examples, generally dead and mutilated, in the Rows, thrown out from malt- and other warehouses. In 1895 it again forced itself into notice by the apparent increase, although, peculiarly enough, it seemed to flourish in the south-western corner of the town, Regent Street forming a margin to its northward distribution.[5] Putting a premium on every specimen brought to me, I received over a hundred examples within a few months. Two were examined by Mr. Eagle Clarke, of Edinburgh, who wrote, March 5th, 1896:—"The Rats you send me are most undoubtedly the old English species, Mus rattus, and their occurrence in abundance in Yarmouth is an interesting fact. M. rattus and M. alexandrinus are considered to be races of the same species, the black rattus being the form found in temperate regions, and the brown alexandrinus the tropical one." In summer the Black Rats become troublesome in private houses, warehouses, and stores, and in sail-lofts are keen upon the Russian tallow used there. From one loft I received a whole family of half-grown rattus with a white spot in the centre of the chest. As the malting season returns they seem to again concentrate their forces in the maltings. In 1895, having heard of certain smacks being infested with them, I made arrangements with the "watchers," who "smoked" each vessel as it came into port, to secure specimens. After a day and a night's burning of pepper in the vessel, all apertures being closed by boards and mud, the hatches were taken off. I have seen them lying in all conceivable places, the largest generally being near to the stove. From one I had the pick of forty Rats. Amongst them were two or three M. alexandrinus. Vide Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. vol. vi.

[Var. Mus alexandrinus.—This variety is a duplicate in size and build of the preceding. It is by no means common; I have had less than a dozen examples in all. Most of these came from one large smacks' store-house. The general colour was grey, becoming dirty white below, and inclining to a decided brown upon the backs of some. Gradations from M. decumanus to M. rattus are not found, nor are any of the physical characteristics of M. decumanus observed in this.]

Brown Rat (M. decumanus). C.—"Grey" would be preferable to "Brown." Will undoubtedly increase in proportion to the extirpation of the Mustelidæ. It is a pity gamekeepers do not turn their attention to it rather than to its bonâ fide enemies, the Stoat, Owl, &c. Abounds on Breydon and the river "walls"; it here assumes a semi-aquatic life.

Common Field Vole (Microtus agrestis). C.—Unquestionably on the increase. Abundant on some marshes. Is the favourite prey of the Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus).

Water Vole (M. amphibius). C.—Found at almost every ditch-side. "The fact that the Water Vole is somewhat carnivorously inclined, or rather is piscivorous, I am fully satisfied, having observed them on several occasions devouring small fish left on a 'rond' beside my house-boat when moored in Kendall Dyke. They simply cleared the flesh from the bones. The late Sir E. Newton, in a letter some time previous, suggested the number of broken fresh-water Mussel shells (Anodonta cygnæa) as being the work of Voles. On Sept. 12th, 1896, I examined a number at Lound, when I was led to the conclusion that the animals were actually responsible. One valve only was broken, and that always on one particular side, presumably the easier side broken. The excrement of Voles lay against every little batch of broken mollusc."[6] On one occasion I actually observed a Vole in the daytime endeavouring to drag a Mussel up the bank, and have since received a communication from West Norfolk which clearly pointed out the Vole as partial to Crayfish. Four white examples were killed at Haddiscoe in 1892 (L. Farman).

Hare (Lepus timidus). F.C.—Becoming yearly scarcer. I frequently observed this species on the marshes before it was excluded from the game list. Appears, however, to be rather more numerous this year than for some time past. In 1887 Mr. Last Farman shot one at Haddiscoe, almost white in colour, weighing eleven pounds. A mottled Hare caught at Horsey, Nov. 28th, 1896.

Rabbit (L. cuniculus). C.—Abundant on the adjacent warrens. Prior to 1880 was frequent on the North Denes, but with the advent of rail and golfers, and the destruction of the furze, it disappeared. Prior to that date, in spring, young bucks not infrequently wandered to within the town boundary; and in the early eighties several made themselves notorious by locating in the cemetery, from which, for the sake of decency, it was found necessary to dislodge them. An earless example was taken in the neighbourhood two years ago, and is now in the Yarmouth Museum.

Common Seal (Phoca vitulina). R.R.—Sir Thomas Browne[7] mentions the killing of a Seal at Surlingham Ferry, "having continued in the river for divers months before." At that time the Salmon was undoubtedly no stranger to the Norfolk rivers. "One [Seal] weighing fourteen stone killed, March, 1822" (Pagets). Of late years Seals appear to have increased in the Wash, where they are comparatively safe from molestation, and even the fishermen look upon them with no unfriendly feelings. Almost yearly during the past decade I have one or more records of occurrences, having drifted hither during heavy tides. In 1896 a coastguardsman killed a specimen sleeping on the beach with his sword-stick. Several have been shot. On Nov. 3rd, 1891, a Seal seized a codling fast to a line against the Yarmouth jetty. Two hooks fastened to it; in endeavouring to land it on the beach the "snoods" broke, and the animal got away.

Grey Seal (Halichærus gryphus). R.—Two were killed in the Wash in 1881, where the species undoubtedly occurs occasionally. A young female, drifting into the neighbourhood, came up the river, and was shot on Breydon, Nov. 28th, 1882; it is now in the Norwich Museum. I feel certain another was killed in December, 1897, which I did not see.

[Walrus (Trichechus rosmarus).?.—The claim for this species to be included in the local list is doubtful. "Although now confined to the icy seas of the Arctic Circle, the Walrus was probably not uncommon on our shores in times long past. The skull is said to have been found in the peat near Ely."[8] On May 1st, 1893, the fore part of a Walrus skull with one tusk in place was dredged up in a shrimper's trawl off Yarmouth. The tusk, 11 in. long, has since been halved lengthwise, and has the appearance of dirty marble. There are a few barnacles still attached to the skull.]

Atlantic Right Whale (Balæna biscayensis). A.—Under the name of B. mysticetus, the Pagets refer to "a small one taken near Yarmouth, July 8th, 1784." It is highly improbable that this species has ever occurred here, and the Whale referred to was doubtless the Atlantic Right Whale (B. biscayensis). Formerly several Yarmouth vessels were engaged in the Whale fishery, and there yet remain several jaw-bones of this animal fixed in various parts of the town, one or two being built in gable walls, and two are to be seen planted as arches in gardens. One standing in the gas-house premises was there when the South Denes were yet unenclosed; it was the custom for those who rambled thither on Sundays to pass through it. Several aged inhabitants still boast of having done so.

Common Rorqual (Balænoptera musculus). A.—As B. physalis the Pagets refer to this species as having "several times been taken in the Herring-nets." An example was stranded on Winterton beach, Jan. 12th, 1857, and was killed by the fishermen, who, in conjunction with two or three townspeople, exhibited about twenty tons of the carcase on the Church Plain, Yarmouth. The skull is preserved in the Museum of the College of Surgeons. Another at Happisburgh, March 1st, 1875.

Lesser Rorqual (B. rostrata). R.—A full-grown example, thirty feet in length, found its way into Yarmouth harbour on June 8th, 1891. It was attacked by several boats' crews, and, after an exciting hunt, during which the animal received severe wounds, mostly self-inflicted, it succumbed. It was drawn into the lifeboat shed and exhibited, afterwards being preserved and taken on tour to various parts of the country. On Dec. 8th, 1896, an adult dead specimen was stranded on Gorleston beach, where it became very speedily a most unwelcome and unsavoury object, and had to be buried in sections.

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus). A.—The basal portion of the skull of a Sperm Whale stands in the north-west doorway of St. Nicholas Church. It was long known as the "Devil's Seat." "In the churchwardens' accounts for 1606 there is a charge of 8s. for painting this chair, which clearly proves its antiquity."[9] There remains little doubt, although the date is uncertain, that this example was killed in the latter part of the sixteenth century.

Beaked or Bottle-head Whale (Hyperoödon rostratum). R.—As Delphinus bidens the Pagets refer to "a large one caught in a Herring-net, November, 1816. A smaller specimen about twenty years before."

Grampus (Orca gladiator). R.R.—The Pagets refer to occurrences as follow:—"A specimen weighing 4 cwt. and 11 ft. long found alive on the beach, July 21st, 1823; another, 16 ft. long, caught about 1694,[10] according to Sir Thomas Browne." Another brought into Yarmouth June 25th, 1867; weight 14 cwt. An example, 7 ft. 6 in. long, taken into Lowestoft harbour on Nov. 12th, 1894; seven days after another of exactly the same dimensions brought into Yarmouth by a Herring-boat.

Porpoise (Phocæna communis). C.—Frequently seen in the fishery grounds, and not seldom observed when passing through the Roads in summer. Has been seen up-river, and been stranded on Breydon mud-flats. "Two fœtal young ones were taken from a Porpoise at Yarmouth on Dec. 7th, 1881," Southwell (Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. iii. p. 672). A very large shoal passed through the Roads, Jan. 11th, 1890. An example 39 in. long stranded July 18th, 1891; the teeth were barely through the gums.

White-beaked Dolphin (Delphinus albirostris). F.—This species, which "was first recorded from Norfolk" (Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. iii. p. 672), has several times been observed, and taken since. Six are recorded prior to 1885. I have met with the following:—Example 7ft., Gorleston, April 17th, 1890; another, 4 ft. 8 in., on South Beach, April 19th, 1891 (the Gulls had been busy at it); one, 7 ft. 4 in., went through the bridge to Breydon, Aug. 30th, 1891; it had forty-four teeth in the upper jaw, forty-eight below. Several got aground in shallow water at the Caister "patch," Sept. 16th, 1891; they struggled over a considerable area into deeper water. One brought in alive, June 13th, 1894; length, 8 ft. 6 in.; was exhibited alive on the Marine Parade, but ordered off by police. It was killed in a fish-house, and found to be a gravid female; the young contained was 3 ft. 6 in., the short snout was not beyond the arch of the "forehead," which was exceedingly convex. It was apparently within a day or two of birth. Most of the examples examined were females. Local, "Scoulter."

The Common Dolphin (D. delphis) has not as yet been detected here.

  1. C.J. and James Paget, 'A Sketch of the Natural History of Great Yarmouth,' p. iv. 1834.
  2. 'Fauna of Norfolk,' p. 4 in 1845 edition.
  3. These good old gunning times are now but matters of tradition, the drainage of the marshes, increased traffic, and greater scarcity of wildfowl considerably accounting for the local decrease.
  4. A variety of Crossopus fodiens.
  5. I have recently known several killed north of Regent Street.
  6. See the writer's note in Trans. Norf. and Nor. Nat. Soc. vol. vi. p. 293.
  7. Sir Thomas Browne's Works, Wilkins' edit. iii. p. 325.
  8. Southwell, 'Seals and Whales of the British Seas,' p. 35.
  9. Southwell, 'Seals and Whales of the British Seas,' p. 87.
  10. As Sir T. Browne wrote apparently in the year 1662, and says "four years ago," this capture would take place 1658; in Wilkins's edit. iii. pp. 325 and 326, second paragraph.

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