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The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland
A Study in Faunal Evolution by James Ritchie (1920)



There be many strange things, but the strangest of them all is MAN.., Earth, Mother Earth, is from everlasting to everlasting...but Man fretteth and wearieth her; for he putteth his horse to harness, and his ploughs go to and fro in the furrow, even as the seasons come round. He spreadeth his snares for the silly birds; he gathereth the fishes of the sea in the meshes of his nets. Man surpassing in wisdom. By craft he over-reacheth the wild beast upon the mountain, and putteth to his yoke the long-maned steed, and the strength of the great bison.

SINCE Man came to his own upon the earth, he has exercised with little restraint the power of his new wisdom over all created things. So widely and deeply has his influence spread during the hundreds of thousands of years of his wanderings, that it is wellnigh impossible to gauge its effects or to distinguish them amidst the workings of Nature as a whole. Change is apparent in the interrelationships of the plants and of the animals of a country with the passing of years; but who can say that here the heavy touch of Man alone has fallen, and that there only are subtle traces of wild Nature, wrought out through cyclic changes, alternations of climate, and through the processes of natural evolution in living things? The complications due to the action of contemporaneous natural agencies, together with the difficulties of obtaining evidence regarding the earlier periods of Man’s existence make the ultimate analysis of Man’s influence on Nature no simple task.


In some respects Scotland is particularly well fitted for our study, mainly owing to its geographical situation and geological history. In the first place man arrived at a comparatively late date within its borders. There is no evidence that the country was inhabited by the human race until long after the period of rude stone implements, the Old Stone Age, when man was already established in South Britain and in the majority of the European countries in the same latitude. H is influence in Scotland, therefore, is limited to the New or Polished Stone Period and succeeding ages, distant enough though the first may seem to our modern historical view.

In the second place, Scotland has undergone, and in comparatively recent geological times, an experience unlike that of neighbouring countries. During the Great Ice Age, it was completely buried beneath a continuous ice-sheet, some 3000 feet thick, which effectually blotted out its earlier plants and animals. The Scottish flora and fauna are therefore recent acquisitions due to the immigration of living things when the ice-sheets were dwindling or after they had entirely disappeared. Further, owing to the fact that Scotland has for long been bounded on three sides by a broad sea, the fauna with which Nature stocked her at the close of the Ice Age has remained isolated, suffering, it is true, fluctuations which Nature has ordained or man has induced, but unaffected by that constant immigration and emigration—except in a few cases of the more mobile creatures, such as birds— to which continental countries are constantly liable.

The original post-glacial fauna of Scotland may be likened to a limited capital upon which man has traded. So far as he has been satisfied with the natural interest of the capital, the capital has remained as it was in the beginning1, but this has seldom been the case. Often he has trenched upon it, and at times so deep have been his overdrafts that some items of the account have been seriously diminished or exhausted. At other times he has added afresh to the old capital, but in a new currency of his own introduction. Could we but assess the original animal capital which the Neolithic invaders of Scotland had at their disposal, a great step would be made towards gaining a basis from which to compute the influence of man upon the animal life.

In the third place, from its small size Scotland gains advantages in such a study; and this partly because the fauna of a small country is more compact, and its changes, as a rule, are more readily marked ; and partly because Scotland’s few degrees of latitude eliminate the possibility of temperature barriers, one of the most important and far-reaching of the climatic influences which complicate the fluctuations of animal life in continental areas.

And lastly, since the study of Nature gained a firm foothold, Scotland has possessed a succession of observers and recorders, such as few countries of similar size and population can claim, naturalists whose labours form a solid foundation for the accurate estimation of the later changes in animal life!


To enquire into the doings of man is to investigate History, and the historical method enters largely into this natural history study. The foundation of our enquiry must be such records as the past has left us. The chronicled history of Scotland begins with the advent of the Romans on their northward progress through these islands in the first century of our era, but since, at that time and for many centuries thereafter, the records of even the great political events, of the doings of man with man, are vague and unsatisfactory, it need hardly be said that the dealings of man with animals seldom encumber the written page.

Even in the “ historic period ” therefore, the beaten tracks of historical knowledge have to be forsaken, and appeal has to be made to the relics man has left in his long-forsaken homes, to the casual pictures he has carved, often with hand and eye of wonderful skill, to the tales of travellers, many from foreign lands, who described the features of Scottish animal life which struck their fancy as differing from those familiar to them, and to the records of unusually outstanding natural phenomena which, on occasion, our own political historians of former days condescended to notice.

But even the sparse and slender guide-posts of early chronicled history fail us in the ages (seven thousand years or more) which intervened between the coming of man to Scotland and the Christian era. Glimpses of this long-forgotten past can be gained only by piecing together the evidences left by animals and man himself, from bones and relics discovered by systematic excavation or by lucky chance in beds of marl, in the layers of peat-bogs, in the deposits of caves, in the kitchen-middens or refuse food-heaps of the. early inhabitants, and in the structures built by man for defence, or for interment of his hallowed dead.

Pictures of Scottish animal life in successive ages having been gleaned from these varied sources, simple comparison of one with another and with the fauna as it is known to-day will reveal the vast changes which have taken place. Yet still a problem lies before us—that of sifting from the totality of change the effects due to the influence of man as distinct from the inevitable changes wrought by time in all Nature, animate and inanimate. In working out this problem reference will be made on occasion in the following pages to outstanding cases in other lands which help to illustrate man’s influence and to explain the effects of his dominance in Scotland.


Man has been described from one point of view as an instrument of destruction and from another as a creative agent. The truth of the matter as regards his relations with Nature is that he is neither all in all a destroyer nor a creator, but exercises his powers mainly as a transformer and a supplanter. Wherever he places his foot, wild vegetation withers and dies out, and he replaces it by new growths to his own liking, sometimes transformed by his genius for his own use. Where he pitches his tents and builds his cities, wild animals disappear, and woodlands and valleys where they sported are wrested from their prior owners and given over to the art of agriculture and to animals of man s own choosing, as well as to a host of camp-followers, which attach themselves to his domestication whether he will or no. Intentionally and unintentionally, directly and indirectly, man transforms and supplants both animal and vegetable life. Some animals he deliberately destroys, some he deliberately introduces, and the characters of some he deliberately transforms by careful selection and judicious interbreeding. Other animals find his presence uncongenial and gradually dwindle in numbers or disappear, while others are encouraged by his activities to increase in numbers, sometimes even to his own confounding.

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