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Lots of books tell us about Celtic warriors and Druids and some show us many of the
artefacts that have survived two thousand years and which we can now look at in
Museums. But perhaps one part of the living history aspect that is still with us are the
animals that the Iron Age people would have known. Even now, in the first half of the
21st century if we are lucky, we can still see some of the animals that the Iron Age
people took for granted. Though today many are now on endangered lists, their
future for the next 2000 years with regret is uncertain.
So what kind of animals can we see today that were common sights in the Iron Age?
All through the earlier Bronze Age, as early farmers began to replace the hunter
gatherer lifestyles, Sheep have been very useful creatures to domesticate. Not only
does their wool give you warm clothing; they provide meat to eat and bone to carve.
You can even make soap from the lanolin in their wool. By the Iron Age in Europe,
there were different breeds of sheep. The Mouflon in particular would have been a
common sight in Gaul and Europe.
The Soay sheep are named after the Island of Soay off the coast of Scotland. This
breed of sheep is arguably the oldest in the British Isles and there would have been
many of them in the Iron Age landscape. A small sheep, often confused by people
who have never seen them before for a goat, the Soay roam free and it is practically
impossible to fence them in. Their wool is very fine which adds strength to the
suggestion that the woollen cloaks and clothes woven in Britain was very fine and the
Romans appreciated its quality.
The Manx Loaghtan comes from the Isle of Man between the coast of Ireland and
United Kingdom. During the Iron Age, flocks of these sheep could even be found in
the north west of Britain. The strange name is Manx Gaelic and refers to the colour of
the sheep naming them ‘Brown as a mouse’. As late as the 1800’s this breed of
sheep was available in white and black also, however it is the brown from which its
name derives that is left. One of the most recognizable characteristics of the Manx
Loaghtan is the four or sometimes six horns found on the males. Though like the
Soay sheep, both Ewes (females) and Rams (males) grow horns. The Ewe’s horns
We lost the original Ancient British Cow centuries ago. But today, Dexter cattle are
the closest surviving breed to the Iron Age cattle.
A chieftain based much of his wealth on how many head of cattle the tribe owned.
Undoubtedly, these cattle were used for labour either as a team for the Ard or for
heavy lifting and pulling of sleds. It would be the 1700’s in Europe and North America
before horses began to replace oxen and cattle as regular draft animals
Measuring on average no more than 14 hands high, it is generally agreed that the
Exmoor pony is the oldest native breed still available in Britain. They are tenacious
and rugged and can still be seen wild in parts of South Wales and Cornwall.
However another ancient breed of horse is also still with us, unfortunately now on
the critical list of endangered, the Eriskay Pony is a little smaller than the Exmoor at
13.5 hands, but just as wild as the hills of Scotland from which it is said to have been
in use by the Ancient Britons and later the Picts and Vikings. In the 1970’s only 20
Eriskay ponies were left, but thanks to the Eriskay Pony Society, there are now 420
Pigs & Wild boar
The original ancestor of the Berkshire pig was brown in colour with black patches.
The sow gives a lot of milk which means its piglets gain weight easily. They are great
outdoor pigs and easy to look after. Excellent for Iron Age farms.
The wild boar is the icon animal of the Iron Age, more so than the horse for the
amount of times it is represented in artwork, carvings and mythology of the Iron Age
Celts. From 18 months to two years old, the boars start to grow their tusks.
The male can grow to almost 500lbs in weight and although they are very domestic
and family oriented animals in the company of their sows and piglets, they can be
ferocious when roused or surprised by people out for a walk in the forest..
That’s probably why the warriors liked to spike their hair with a lime wash to resemble
this brave fearsome animal.
In the Iron Age, as now, the Badger is a solitary animal preferring to come out at
night. If you want any chance of seeing one, first and last light is your best bet.
Like later rabbits which came with the Romans, the badger likes to live underground,
sometimes at the base of trees in the woods. With their short legs and large claws,
the badger doesn’t run very fast and its den or hole in the ground is its defence.
However, if attacked, a badger will bite and lock its jaw on you to the bitter end.
In the 21st Century, badgers are an endangered species but in the Iron Age, when
badgers were more common, they must have been a regular sight for farmers. The
badger eats practically everything it can from what it finds on the forest floor to fish
and raw meat. In parts of modern France, badgers are tamed and used to sniff out
truffles from the forest floor. Truffles are in demand in many good French restaurants.
The Brown Hare
Of all the animals, with the exception of the wild boar perhaps, the wild hare is one
of the most enduring symbols. The Latin name for the hare is Lepus europaeus. To
the Iron Age people, the hare was a sacred animal that they kept for pleasure and
never hunted. We know that the Iceni Queen, Boudicca is said to have opened a
sack and allowed a captured hare to run free from it as a sign of the forthcoming
battle with Rome.
Unfortunately we don’t know which way the hare ran. We do however; know that
Boudicca lost the battle.
So, what’s the difference between a rabbit and a Hare?
A Hare lives on the ground in a ‘form’ or nest. A rabbit lives underground in a warren.
In its defence, a hare can run as fast as 45 miles per hour and a rabbit can’t.
The hare is bigger than a rabbit, has longer, larger ears and doesn’t have a fluffy
white tail. The hare feeds on grass in the summer months and twigs and buds in winter. In the
spring of the year, Hares can be seen "boxing" in the open meadows. Unless the
Druids knew better, it was probably thought in the Iron Age, that the males were
boxing to see who was strongest. However, we now know it’s actually the female
telling a young male that she’s not ready to breed yet.
Like so many of Europe’s indigenous species, the hare is declining all over Europe.
Their natural habitats are being changed as more countryside becomes urban and
more chemicals and new farming techniques are used by farmers.