After last week’s post about otter hunting, there was some discussion in the comments about hunting animals to extinction during the Middle Ages. For the most part, however, this is a fairly recent phenomenon.
The exception in medieval England was the wolf. They were apparently very numerous during the times of the Romans and the Saxons and very dangerous. People were rewarded for killing them, partly because of the threat they posed to livestock, but also because of the value of their skins. They became increasingly rare and, depending on whom you ask, the last wolf in England was killed in the fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth century.
Other beasts perceived to be dangerous to animals kept to feed people, such as foxes, however, are still plentiful. English Otters, though, didn’t fare so well. During the last century they were hunted almost to extinction and the population is only starting to recover now.
Animals that medieval aristocrats liked to hunt were protected to some extent. All animals that were hunted, even foxes and otters, had a close season, although it might not have been observed meticulously. There were a variety of reasons for close seasons.
The most obvious was that a close season around the time the young were being born preserved the stock for future hunting. This was applied rigorously to deer, the most noble of the beasts hunted in England. Even during the open season, hunters were not indiscriminate. Harts and bucks had to be a certain age before they were worth hunting, thus allowing them time to breed. Medieval aristocrats saw the dangers of over-hunting and avoided them.
Another reason for a close season for ‘lesser’ animals, was that they would be hunted only during the part of the year when they were most worth catching. For some animals this would be when they were judged to be at their peak for eating; for others it would be when the skin or the fat for which they were hunted were at their best.
Aristocratic hunters also restrained themselves out of respect for the animals they hunted, although this was, again, mainly limited to deer.
Whilst aristocratic hunters could afford to think about preserving stock for the future, peasants could not. It’s extremely unlikely that they observed close seasons on anything. If you were going to break the law by poaching a deer, it wouldn’t matter whether you did it in August or January. They also didn’t possess the means to hunt on horseback, but tended to trap animals, which was an indiscriminate method of hunting.
Medieval Hunting by Richard Almond