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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions