The last million years in Worcestershire has been marked by an amazing diversity of animals, large and small, as the climate fluctuated between icy glacials and warmer interglacials. As temperatures rose species were able to expand into new areas, before being pushed back further south as the climate turned colder.
During warm interglacials, herds of horses, bison and aurochs would have roamed the open grasslands of Britain. Beavers and dolphins swam in our rivers; at the height of the Hoxnian Interglacial (around 400,000 years ago) oak forests were home to deer and macaque monkeys.
Lions, bears, wolves and early humans would have hunted large animals like rhinoceros and the straight tusked elephant. Straight tusked elephants are now extinct but they were once the largest Ice Age animal of all, twice as large as elephants today and even bigger than a mammoth. They could grow to four metres in height, ten tonnes in weight and their straight tusks could grow to over three metres in length.
Around 130,000 – 115,000 years ago, a particularly warm interglacial allowed tropical species to live in Britain. Hippopotamus bones have been found in Worcestershire at Eckington, Bengeworth and Stourbridge. Spotted hyenas, lions and narrow-nosed rhinoceros are also known to have lived in Britain during this time.
In comparison, glacial Worcestershire was populated by animals suited to cold, arctic conditions. With the exception of the brutally cold Anglian glaciation around 480,000 years ago – when two-thirds of Britain was under several hundred meters of ice – plants and animals were able to live and thrive here during glacial periods. Animals like the woolly rhinoceros, bison, musk ox, reindeer and the Irish elk, which had the largest antlers of any animal that ever lived (three and a half metres from tip to tip), were all residents of snowy Ice Age landscapes.
However, it is the mammoth that is the best known of all Ice Age glacial animals. Early ancestral mammoths first came into Europe around three million years ago, followed by the steppe mammoth, which lived until about 400,000 years ago, then finally the woolly mammoth. This last, most well known species of mammoth could grow to over three metres in height and weighed six tonnes. Their tusks are known to have reached two and a half metres in length and, just like a tree, would grow every year in rings. To insulate them from the icy conditions, their coats consisted of a short underlayer covered by an overcoat of longer guard hairs.
But the story of Worcestershire’s Ice Age animals is not quite as clear cut as it first appears. ‘Millicent’ mammoth, discovered in 1990 at Strensham Service along the M5, was found in with deposits containing cold-adverse mollusc species; showing Millicent lived in open grassland with a climate similar to Britain’s today. Whilst we tend to picture mammoths walking across deep snow, they could survive in more temperate climes – to a point. As the world began to warm up after the last glacial, which reached its peak around 21,000 years ago, the habitat and numbers of mammoths and other Ice Age animals dwindled. Human hunters further reduced these populations. The very last mammoths known in Northern Europe were found in 1986 at Condover, Shropshire. They died 14,000 years ago.