Source: The Guardian Unlimited
Nature swiftly responds when we stop trying to control it. This is our big chance to reverse man’s terrible destructive impact
Until modern humans arrived, every continent except Antarctica possessed a megafauna. In the Americas, alongside mastodons, mammoths, four-tusked and spiral-tusked elephants, there was a beaver the size of a black bear: eight feet from nose to tail. There were giant bison weighing two tonnes, which carried horns seven feet across.
The short-faced bear stood 13ft in its hind socks. One hypothesis maintains that its astonishing size and shocking armoury of teeth and claws are the hallmarks of a specialist scavenger: it specialised in driving giant lions and sabretooth cats off their prey. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens) had a wingspan of 26ft. Sabretooth salmon nine feet long migrated up Pacific coast rivers.
During the previous interglacial period, Britain and Europe contained much of the megafauna we now associate with the tropics: forest elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions and hyenas. The elephants, rhinos and hippos were driven into southern Europe by the ice, then exterminated about 40,000 years ago when modern humans arrived. Lions and hyenas persisted: lions hunted reindeer across the frozen wastes of Britain until 11,000 years ago. The distribution of these animals has little to do with temperature: only where they co-evolved with humans and learned to fear them did they survive.
Most of the deciduous trees in Europe can resprout wherever the trunk is broken. They can survive the extreme punishment – hacking, splitting, trampling – inflicted when a hedge is laid. Understorey trees such as holly, box and yew have much tougher roots and branches than canopy trees, despite carrying less weight. Our trees, in other words, bear strong signs of adaptation to elephants. Blackthorn, which possesses very long spines, seems over-engineered to deter browsing by deer; but not, perhaps, rhinoceros.
All this has been forgotten, even by professional ecologists. Read any paper on elephants and trees in east Africa and it will tell you that many species have adapted to “hedge” in response to elephant attack. Yet, during a three-day literature search in the Bodleian library, all I could find on elephant adaptation in Europe was a throwaway sentence in one scientific paper. The elephant in the forest is the elephant in the room: the huge and obvious fact that everyone has overlooked.
Since then much of Europe, especially Britain, has lost most of its mesofauna as well: bison, moose, boar, wolf, bear, lynx, wolverine – even, in most parts, wildcat, beavers and capercaillie. These losses, paradoxically, have often been locked in by conservation policy.