The decline and fall of the Peak District wallabies

This alien species was a little bit of Australia in Staffordshire

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That there are curious creatures out there, in the world of living things, there is no doubt.

But while there’s a whole field of wacky study, cryptozoology, devoted to the idea of the Yeti, and Bigfoot, and Nessie, and somewhat closer to home, ABCs or Alien Big Cats, ranging from the Beast of Bodmin to the Essex Lion and the Surrey Puma, not all the strange things out there are fantasy. I have to say that the story of the Peak District wallabies, which is absolutely true, seems to me as curious as any puma prowling the gardens of Godalming or Guildford.

It is not a secret, but it is not generally appreciated, that for nearly 70 years a colony of Bennett’s wallabies, whose natural home is Tasmania, hopped contentedly around the Staffordshire moorlands in the south-western part of the Peak District National Park, munching heather and sporadically breeding.

If you want to place their home range precisely, it’s the area to the north of the A53 from Leek to Buxton, near the rocky outcrop known as The Roaches, and every now and then a late-night local motorist would see what he could have sworn was a kangaroo hopping away in his headlights, and be told, by his family and friends, to get a grip.

But his eyes had not deceived him. A colony of the kangaroo’s smaller cousins had been established there since 1940. They had come from the private menagerie of a local landowner and colonial adventurer, Henry Brocklehurst, who had been game warden to the Government of Sudan, and who, after service as a pilot in the First World War, was to die in the Second, fighting the Japanese in Burma in 1942, at the age of 54. His wallabies had been released when wartime regulations insisted on the closure of private zoos.

His five animals initially flourished in the wild, and the little-known colony expanded to number about 50, until the vicious winter of early 1963, the coldest of the 20th century, when snow lay on the Peak District continuously for more than two months. This was something wallaby evolution had not in any way equipped the animals to deal with in their sunburnt home, and more than half of them are believed to have died.

But the remainder clung on, and they found their chronicler from 1965 in the person of Derek Yalden, who that year joined Manchester University as a young lecturer in zoology. For the next 47 years, as he became one of Britain’s (and indeed the world’s) foremost experts on mammals – a tree frog and a rare rat from Ethiopia are named after him – Dr Yalden personally monitored the moorland marsupials, counting them annually, photographing them (even in the snow) and recording what turned out to be a slow but steady decline.

Perhaps it was because public pressure on the area increased, and the wallabies were nervous in the extreme; but for whatever reason, by 1985 they were down to a probable number of 14; by 1992 they were thought to number six, and by 1995, perhaps only three. Two females survived into the new millennium: the older one was last recorded in January 2003; and the younger one in February 2009. Now they are presumed extinct, although occasional alleged sightings are reported.

Alien species, they were; but Staffordshire’s little bit of Australia was one of the least harmful cases of aliens in Britain, and the full, fascinating story of its rise and fall is told by Dr Yalden in the current issue of the journal British Wildlife; but there is a sting in this tale.

For less than a week after submitting his manuscript, at the start of this month, Dr Yalden suddenly died, and the swansong of the Peak District wallabies has turned out to be a swansong of his own. He is much mourned by former colleagues and friends. A full obituary of him will appear in The Independent shortly; in the meantime, if you want to read his own obit of the wallabies, as it were, you can subscribe to British Wildlife at www.britishwildlife.com.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

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