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Britain’s moorland marsupials

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I wrote a while ago (PJ, 21 June 2008, p761) about the deliberate extermination from Britain of a feral pest, the South American coypu. And now I write about a more endearing mammal that has also become extinct in the wild — the red-necked wallaby, Macropus rufogriseus.

In my youth in Staffordshire I would sometimes wander the hills of the Peak District, keeping an eye out for these creatures. I never saw one — not surprisingly, because the species is mainly nocturnal.

This medium-sized macropod became established in the Roaches area of the Staffordshire Moorlands, between Leek and Buxton, after the escape (or wilful release) of five animals from a private zoo at Roaches Hall at the outbreak of the 1939–45 war.

One might think that a species originating from sunny Australia would have trouble surviving a Peak District winter, but the red-necked wallaby is a hardy creature, living at up to 1,200m in its native Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. The escapees survived and bred and the population slowly increased, despite setbacks in the harsh winters of 1947 and 1963.

Gradually the Peak numbers rose to a peak number of around 50 to 60 in the early 1960s. But the population then began to decline and it seems that the wild British wallaby had become extinct by the turn of the 20th century.

Over the years there have been reports of feral wallabies in various other parts of Britain, but no other wild population has bred successfully for as long as the Peak District animals.

(I exclude from my definition of “wild” the 500 or so red-necked wallabies that live free within the grounds of Whipsnade Zoo and the small colony deliberately established on an island in Loch Lomond in 1975.)

A minor mystery is that the Peak District fugitives were apparently accompanied by various other menagerie mammals, but it is not clear what they were. According to the BBC’s website, there were a few deer and one yak, which was quickly recaptured. But other sources refer to a nilgai antelope and up to three yaks, with reports of one of the latter surviving until 1951.

There are even accounts of rock climbers in the Roaches coming face to face with a brown bear. Had I known about that at the time, I might have spent less time roaming the hills.

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