The decline and fall of the Peak District wallabies

This alien species was a little bit of Australia in Staffordshire

A A A

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us