A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 1. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1906.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
The fishes of Somerset have received a good deal of attention from the late Mr. W. Baker, who has contributed an excellent paper on the subject to the Somerset Archæological and Natural History Society in 1851 (Proceed. pp. 95–110). Very few additions have since been made to the list given by Mr. Baker, and which is the source whence the present account has been compiled. Day's great work on the British fishes contains but rare allusions to Somerset; although Baker's paper is quoted in the preface (p. iii.) it has evidently been overlooked in the preparation of the work.
As in other articles contributed to the Victoria History of the Counties of England, an asterisk prefixed to the name indicates a freshwater species and two asterisks denote occurrence in both fresh and salt water.
This widely distributed sea perch, which occurs at great depths in the Atlantic Ocean, has occasionally been found on the south-west coast of England. Baker records it from the Somerset coast, nearly three feet long, and he mentions one in particular from the estuary of the Parret.
This species appears under two names in Baker's list, viz. as the braize, Pagrus vulgaris, Cuv., and as the sea bream, Pagellus centrodontus, unless, following the error of Yarrell, the first name should be intended for the next species, which undoubtedly occurs in the Bristol Channel at certain seasons.
Baker says this fish is very rare, but that he has met with specimens in Taunton market from the south coast, and in Bridgwater market from Stolford. The specimen figured in Yarrell's work is from the Taunton market.
Grey mullet, says Baker, ascend the Parret beyond the reach of tide water, probably to spawn, as the fry of this species are found in the tributaries of the river in autumn. It is now well known that they spawn in the sea.
An accidental visitor. The first record is of one from the Bristol Channel, ten miles from Bridgwater, in July, 1823; Baker mentions two or three from Burnham. A shoal was observed at the mouth of the Bristol Channel in July, 1876.
'Very many books have been written on the genus Salmo, and of late years much has been done, through careful investigation, to lessen the confusion of supposed species and varieties of this genus; but there it still much more to be done to make the subject intelligible to inquisitive naturalists. The number of species in our books is reduced, and how many more will be found only varieties is yet to be learned.'—W. Baker, 1851. Most ichthyologists in 1901 regard the forms alluded to as mere varieties.
Baker states very large sturgeons come up the Parret, sometimes almost to Bridgwater; one taken in 1850 was ten feet long and weighed 300 lb. These large fish are females full of roe, and generally taken in June and July. Small specimens from 6 to 20 lb. are not uncommon.
REPTILES AND BATRACHIANS
This section of the fauna formed the subject of an interesting paper by the late Mr. W. Baker in 1851 (Proc. Somerset Arch. and N. H. Soc. pp. 116–24), in which four reptiles and five batrachians are enumerated, in addition to an accidental visitor, Chelone imbricata, the hawk's-bill turtle, stated to have been caught in the river Parret. No species has since been added to the list. It is from this county that the palmated newt was first recorded as a British species, it having been discovered by Mr. Baker near Bridgwater in 1843. It is very remarkable that the presence of the natterjack toad, Bufo calamita, has not yet been ascertained in any part of Somerset.
The physical features of the county of Somerset are so diversified that an ornithologist might well expect to find a great variety of birds within its boundaries. In this hope he will not be disappointed, as although the list does not equal those for the counties of Devon and Cornwall, yet it cannot be said to compare unfavourably with those of many other counties. It must however be admitted that in a county possessing about seventy miles of seaboard and such a variety of hill and dale, moor and marsh, one would expect to find even a greater variety of birds than are at present known to occur.
Any one who examines the following list cannot fail to notice that quite a number of species have only been recorded once or twice as obtained within the county boundaries. It is natural to infer from this that these species are only waifs and strays which have drifted away from the lines of migration or have wandered from their usual haunts. In many cases this may be the true state of affairs, but I feel confident that closer observation and more readiness on the part of naturalists to record facts would prove that many of these so-called 'waifs and strays' may be far more often met with in the county than is generally supposed. To take one instance, the late Mr. Cecil Smith only mentioned one Somerset example of the common cormorant in his Birds of Somersetshire published in 1869, and even so keen a naturalist as the Rev. M. A. Mathew could not add to this record in his Revised List printed some twenty-four years later. I have however frequently noticed this bird in various places along the coast, and even suspect that it breeds in one locality. Without doubt there are several species mentioned in the following list which may truly be called accidental visitors. It is most improbable that the keenest field naturalist would ever again come across such species as the American hawk-owl, Egyptian vulture or black stork within the bounds of the county.
On comparing the list of birds of Somerset with those of Devon and Cornwall one is struck by the fact that some species rare in the first named county are comparatively common in the other two. For instance the great northern and red-throated divers, guillemots, razorbills and various species of terns are regularly to be met with on the Devon and Cornish coasts, but are rarely to be found in Somerset waters, and though not unknown in the latter county can only be regarded as occasional or passing visitors. But the reason why these birds avoid the coast of Somerset may easily be understood by any one who has a knowledge of their habits and the physical conditions which are most attractive to them. They all seek their prey in the water, and all but the terns pursue the fish beneath its surface, and the opaqueness of the water in the Bristol Channel, at any rate as far west as Minehead, cannot be said to offer them a tempting feeding—ground. Under the heading 'Red-Throated Diver' Mr. C. Smith remarked in his Birds of Somersetshire, 'probably they stop short at the muddy water; certainly it would occasionally rather puzzle them to see their prey in some parts of our channel, and diving in that thick muddy water must be something like walking in a London fog.'
We have mentioned above that a peculiarity in the county list of birds is that many species have only been noticed on one or two occasions. This feature, where not due to lack of observation, may perhaps be accounted for by the supposition that many migratory birds on their journey up and down the Bristol Channel do not as a rule stop either in Somerset or in the opposite counties of South Wales, but that occasionally a straggler drops away from the line of migration. The firecrest and red-breasted flycatcher, among others, have been thought to follow this route (D'Urban and Mathew, The Birds of Devon), and so possibly observation on the Steep Holm might add these two and other species to the country list. While on the subject of migration it may be mentioned that the absence of any important river which might serve as a flight-line to migrating birds is likely to modify the distribution of species in the county. It appears indeed that a stream of land birds enters the county by Bridgwater Bay and proceeds south-west after having diverged from the main stream which crosses England from the Wash to the Bristol Channel (vide Birds of Devon); but there is no large river running through the county, for the river Avon would only affect the northern district.
While considering the physical features of Somerset and their relation to the distribution of species, it seems advisable to arrange the county roughly into three main divisions, and then to treat of the whole coastline separately. The three main divisions comprise a central basin between two hilly districts, but it must be understood that these areas are not always very clearly defined, and that some parts of the county do not fall in very naturally with any of the three districts.
(1) One of the hilly districts occupies the north-east of the county and is separated from the central basin by the Mendip Hills. It consists of irregular heights sloping away towards the rivers Frome and Avon and is rich in parks and woodlands, particularly around Frome. This district, especially towards the eastern boundary of the county, is a favourite resort of the various species of warblers, the most remarkable of which is the marsh-warbler; three species of woodpeckers occur; the hawfinch and lesser redpoll breed somewhat freely, particularly in the neighbourhood of Bath, while the golden oriole, though only a rare visitor, seems to have been observed more often in this district than elsewhere in the county. The Mendip Hills are also attractive to bird life, and in their rocky gorges the raven, peregrine falcon, and probably the chough used to breed in former years and may possibly do so still in one or two localities.
(2) The other hilly district comprises that part of the county to the west of Taunton. This includes the Quantock Hills with their thickly wooded slopes and combes, the Blackdown Hills on the borders of Devon, the Brendon Hills, the heather and whortleberry clad heights around Dunkery Beacon, and the wild moorland known as Exmoor Forest. A large portion of the land in the extreme west is over 1,000 feet above sea level, though there are no heights which attain to 2,000 feet. In this district the ring-ouzel, raven, common buzzard, black grouse, curlew, common snipe and wild duck still breed; the kite appears to have bred here formerly and the hen-harrier possibly does so still, though more information is wanted on the subject; trips of golden plover are seen in autumn and winter and some may breed on the moors, though the fact has yet to be established; the woodcock breeds sparingly in some of the coverts, and the grey wagtail, dipper and common sandpiper haunt the moorland streams, while the wood-warbler and nightjar are by no means uncommon in many of the hanging plantations.
(3) The central area, which is coextensive with the physical basin watered by the rivers Parret, Brue and Axe, contains no elevation except the low line of the Polden Hills and a few isolated knolls which rise out of the flat, alluvial deposits. This district includes the richest grazing grounds in the country; much of it is marsh or moorland and below sea level, and it is intersected in every direction by dikes or 'rhynes' as they are locally termed, which serve the double purpose of drains and hedges. To the north of the Polden Hills are extensive beds of peat known as the turf or peat moors. In the summer these moors are in parts covered with a luxuriant vegetation such as thick beds of alder and sallow and masses of plants of lower growth, among which the cotton grass, bog myrtle and the local Osmunda regalis may be found; the holes caused by cutting out the peat soon become filled with water and overgrown with flags, reeds and other vegetation, and the district presents just the features which might be expected to attract the more retiring species of birds. Far too little however is known of the birds which inhabit this district, and it would doubtless well repay careful investigation. To quote from the Rev. M. A. Mathew's Revised List mentioned above, ' we can still only sigh for knowledge respecting the birds of the peat-moor country, for almost absolutely nothing is known about its summer visitors, and the ornithologist can but picture to himself the rare aquatic warblers, the small rails, etc., which may visit it all undetected.' There are however many interesting species of birds which are known to breed on the levels of mid-Somerset. The lesser redpoll nests among the alders and sallows, and I came across several pairs this summer (1901) near Ashcott station and found a nest; the wild duck and common snipe breed regularly, and the teal and shoveler do so occasionally ; the water-rail is well known in summer by the local name of ' skitty' ; and the spotted crake, sometimes numerous in autumn, probably breeds more frequently than might be supposed ; careful search also would probably show that the marshwarbler is a regular summer inhabitant of the levels of Somerset. During the winter months large areas of these low-lying lands are flooded, and in very wet seasons the country presents the appearance of a vast lake. Many species of ducks are then to be found on the floods, the wild duck, teal and wigeon appearing in the largest numbers ; but pintails, shovelers and many of the diving ducks put in an appearance and doubtless many rare species are shot by the local gunners and not recorded. Gulls and other sea birds are often driven inland to these districts, being usually met with after severe gales at sea; and among the other more interesting winter visitors may be mentioned the siskin, the marsh and hen-harriers, the short-eared owl and the common bittern. The latter bird is still far from rare, and sometimes quite a number are noticed during severe frosts. While treating of this central district of Somerset it is worth remarking that there is a duck decoy on Sedgemoor not far from the village of Walton, which appears to be the only one in the county which at the present time is regularly worked. Quantities of teal are sometimes taken and a good many wild duck, as well as other species in smaller numbers. It would be interesting to know what species of ducks were formerly taken here, but few records seem to have been kept. (fn. 1) Colonel Montagu in his Dictionary of Birds mentions having received specimens of the garganey teal from the Somerset decoys, and was informed that large numbers of wigeon were also taken.
(4) The coast line of Somerset, some seventy miles in length, presents a variety of features attractive to the shore-frequenting species. It is true there are no very lofty cliffs, but there are a few bold headlands such as Brean Down and Hurlstone Point, crumbling slopes wooded almost to the water's edge as in the extreme west, steep faces of low cliff as at Watchet and elsewhere, fine stretches of firm sand, ridges of shingle, lines of sand dunes, oozy estuaries of rivers and vast expanses of soft mud-flats, each of which have their attractions for various species of birds.
As far as I know the cliffs on the coast are nowhere tenanted by guillemots or any species of gulls, but on the Steep Holm, a rock in the Channel some 256 feet high and three miles off the end of Brean Down, both the herring and lesser black-backed gulls breed, and a pair of pere grine falcons still hold their own. A pair or two of this latter species probably breed also in the cliffs of the west in company with several ravens and at least two pairs of buzzards. Among the other species which find suitable breeding places on or near the coast may be mentioned the cirl-bunting, rock-pipit, wheatear, stonechat, common sheld-duck, stockdove, kestrel, oyster-catcher, and ringed plover, while the white wagtail (Motacilla alba) appears regularly at the times of migration and a few probably stay to nest. Although we have touched on a similar subject before it will here be interesting to notice a few birds which nest on the opposite coast of Wales in the county of Glamorgan, but which do not at the present time appear to breed in Somerset. These species include the greater black-backed gull, common and lesser terns, chough, shag, guillemot, razorbill and puffin. It must be noted however that most of these species only breed, as far as Glamorgan is concerned, on the coast of Gower, where the water is clearer than it is higher up the channel, and so for the reason we have already noticed we hardly expect them to breed upon our coasts. It is however from autumn to spring that the greatest variety of birds may be seen on the coast. The bays with their shallow warm waters attract several species of diving ducks, the scaup in particular being abundant near Weston-super-Mare during the winter months. A variety of gulls spend the winter on the coast, and their numbers seem to vary with the numbers of the sprats which usually enter the Channel towards the end of the year. When these fish appear in large shoals they are followed by hundreds of gulls of which the commonest species is the black-headed gull. At low tide enormous mud-flats are left bare, and these are the favourite feeding-grounds of large flocks of dunlin, ringed plover and curlew; while other wading birds such as knots and godwits are seen in smaller numbers; the whimbrel also is common in May but rarer at the time of the return migration. Besides the mud-flats there are some fine stretches of sand and low rocks covered with seaweed which attract small parties of sanderlings and turnstones and other species which appear to object to the mud. A few geese, in particular the white-fronted and brent geese, and even swans are met with in severe winters, and numbers of wild duck, wigeon and teal, which spend the night on the flooded marshes away from the coast, rest on the sea during the day. The most characteristic bird on the Somerset coast is undoubtedly the sheld-duck, or burrow-duck as it is locally called, and large parties may be seen at almost any season of the year feeding on the mud-flats at the edge of the tide.
We have drawn attention while treating of each species separately to those which are of rare occurrence or which appear to be increasing or decreasing within the county. In the present place it will only be necessary to make a few general remarks on the subject. Prominent among the disappearing species in Somerset as elsewhere are the larger birds of prey. The kite has vanished as a breeding species, and the common buzzard holds only a somewhat insecure tenure in the extreme west. The raven has forsaken some of its old haunts but clings to others with praiseworthy tenacity; I know of a pair which nest yearly within a mile or two of one of the most populous towns in the county. The sparrow-hawk has in some districts been almost exterminated by the gamekeepers, and it is extremely doubtful whether any of the harriers or the chough can at the present time be claimed as breeding species, though the peregrine falcon is still to be met with in one or two localities. Reports also tend to prove that the land-rail is becoming very scarce in some districts.
It is more pleasant to deal with those species which appear to be on the increase in the county; here however we are on somewhat dangerous ground, for it is not always easy to decide whether increase of observation on the part of naturalists or real extension of range on the part of the species is the true cause of the apparent or real increase in numbers. There seems however to be little doubt that among the summer migrants the nightingale, reed-warbler and lesser whitethroat are all on the increase and spreading westward in the county. The hawfinch and lesser redpoll have certainly increased as breeding species, and the same remark is probably true of the stock-dove, especially as regards the coast. The common sheld-duck may also be included among the increasing species, thanks perhaps to an extension of the ' close time ' which this bird enjoys within the limits of the county; its headquarters are near Burnham, where it breeds in large numbers, and it is no uncommon sight to see a hundred or more together even in the middle of the breeding season. The black-headed gull is now a very abundant winter visitor to the coast, but this does not seem to have been always the case; some thirty years ago Mr. C. Smith regarded it as only an occasional visitor, and added that he had never at any time of the year recognized the bird on the coast; of late years a good many have been seen near Burnham throughout the summer months in the breeding plumage, which points to the possibility of some newly established nesting colony in the county.
The discovery of a British lake-village near Glastonbury in 1892 has afforded us an interesting peep at the ornithology of Somerset as it was some nineteen hundred years ago. Mr. Arthur Bulleid, the discoverer of the village, sent several bones of birds which he had found among other relics to Mr. C. W. Andrews. The latter gentleman examined these bones and made known the result of his researches in an article printed in the Ibis, 7th ser. vol. v. No. 19. The most interesting discovery was that of the bones of a species of pelican which after careful comparison were identified as belonging to Pelecanus crispus, Bruch. To quote from the article in the Ibis: ' In the present collection pelican bones are numerous . . . in several instances they must have belonged to young birds. This latter circumstance appears to indicate that these birds bred in the neighbourhood.' As might be expected many of the bones belonged to various species of the tribe of Anseres, but remains of the goshawk, white-tailed eagle, kite, barn-owl, cormorant, bittern, coot and crane were also identified. ' This assem blage of species,' continues Mr. Andrews, 'indicates the existence of a district of marsh and mere, haunted by flocks of pelicans and cranes, and in winter by swarms of wild fowl, which furnished the inhabitants of the pile-dwellings with food. Probably the birds were killed with a sling, for great quantities of pellets of clay well adapted for use with that instrument have been found. From time to time a stray sea-bird made its way to the spot, and the white-tailed sea-eagle no doubt found there a good hunting ground.'
A discovery like the above is exceedingly interesting, and one can only regret that so little appears to be known of the ornithology of Somerset even in comparatively modern times. The only two works I know of on the county birds which claim any attempt at completeness are those entitled The Birds of Somersetshire, by the late Mr. Cecil Smith, published in 1869; and 'A Revised List of the Birds of Somerset,' by the Rev. M. A. Mathew, printed in the Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archæological and Natural History Society for 1893. In drawing up the following list I have made much use of the above works, and my thanks are also due to a number of gentlemen who have furnished me with local lists and notes from various parts of the county, and so have helped me in my attempt, unsuccessful though it may be, to draw up a complete and up to date list of the birds of Somerset.
I have included in the following list 258 species, for which I consider there is sufficient evidence that they have all occurred in the county in a wild state, though it is possible that one or two, such as the little owl or black stork, may not have been truly wild birds. Seventyfive of these may be considered as residents and thirty-three as regular summer visitors, bringing the total of probable breeding birds to 108, while seven more, the chough, hen and Montagu's harriers, teal, shoveler, redshank and dunlin may all still breed occasionally in the county. It is hard to classify the remaining species as the groups often overlap, but there are some thirty-eight more which may be regarded as regular visitors either in winter or at the times of the spring and autumn migrations, while the remaining 105 species can only be regarded as occasional or accidental visitors. Twelve more have been included in brackets as of doubtful occurrence, and some others which have been clearly introduced or have escaped from captivity have been mentioned but not treated of separately. I shall perhaps be considered guilty of inconsistency for treating of the pheasant and red-legged partridge, which were originally introduced, as wild birds, and for omitting or dismissing with a few remarks other introduced species. It does not however seem to me reasonable to couple together birds which have settled down in a wild state with such species as, for example, the Canada goose, Egyptian goose or black swan. The line must be drawn somewhere, or we might find ourselves obliged to include in a local list escaped canaries or even parrots !
8. Wheatear. Saxicola ænanthe (Linn.). (fn. 2)
Mr. H. St. B. Goldsmith, formerly of Bridgwater, writes that a friend of his accurately described to him a firecrest, which he saw in his garden near Bridgwater about twelve years ago. The occurrence however must be regarded as doubtful.]
A summer visitor. Local, but common in many localities. This species appears to have increased in the county of recent years, and nests commonly around Taunton, Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare, and probably in suitable localities throughout the county.
Probably a regular summer visitor to the county. Nests have been found near Taunton, Bath, Bristol, Martock and elsewhere, and competent observers have noticed the species in other districts. Most of the nests have been discovered of recent years, but the species very possibly bred near Bath fifty years ago (Zoologist, 1901, p. 106). For accounts of the nesting of this species in the county see Zoologist for 1875, 1877, 1882, 1883, 1889, 1894, 1895, 1901.
Accidental. Stated in Mr. Baker's notes to have occurred near Bridgwater. Mr. C. W. Tucker of Bridgwater tells me that his father, who knew Mr. Baker, noticed a flock of these birds near Bridgwater about sixty years ago, so this was perhaps the occurrence to which Mr. Baker referred.
Not uncommon on the coast at the time of the spring migration. It has been seen, apparently nesting, in Leigh Woods near Bristol, and is probably a regular summer visitor to many parts of the coast, where it is doubtless often mistaken for the preceding species.
An accidental summer visitor. One killed 'within a short distance of Bristol' (Birds of Wilts, p. 123). Mr. C. Prideaux possessed an adult specimen 'from Somersetshire' (Zoologist, 1852). The species has also been shot in Cheddar Wood (A Mendip Valley, p. 133, T. Compton).
A summer visitor, rare and usually only seen at the time of migration. A few pairs probably nest in the Exmoor district. A nest with five eggs was found near the Bristol city boundary, and within the county of Somerset in 1899 (Dr. J. A. Norton, Bristol).
A not uncommon winter visitor. Also a resident in some districts. Of late years it has been noticed breeding frequently in the Bath and Bristol districts. Nests have also been found in the peat-moor country, near Frome, Flax Bourton, Taunton, Bridgwater and Wellington, and it also breeds in all probability near Weston-super-Mare.
A local resident. In the west of the county, especially around Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare, it is common, and seems to prefer the vicinity of the coast. It is much rarer in the east, but seems to be not uncommon near Martock in the south.
At present only an occasional visitor. This species used formerly to breed on the cliffs near Minehead (C. Smith, The Birds of Somersetshire), and is reported to have done so at the Ebbor Rocks in the Mendips. It is improbable that it breeds within the county limits at the present time.
Accidental. The late Captain Tomlin of Rumwell House near Taunton possessed a specimen that had been shot near Bath. Colonel Montagu records one that was seen near Bridgwater in the autumn of 1805. Others are reported to have been seen at Cothelstone and North Petherton (Mathew, Revised List).
Resident. A pair nest annually on Brean Down, and the species may often be seen in the extreme west of the county, where a few pairs nest on the sea cliffs. Some old haunts, as for example the cliffs at Cheddar, have been deserted.
Accidental. A specimen obtained at Bridgwater was in the collection of Mr. Stradling (Zoologist, 1881, p. 309). Mr. Mathew includes in his Somerset list three that were shot out of a small flock in May 1869 at Stapleton near Bristol. The locality however appears to be in Gloucestershire.
A rare visitor. Specimens are reported from Priddy, spring 1859 ; Weston-superMare, 1858 and October 1860 ; Keynsham, May 1862 ; Monkton, spring 1866 ; Berrow, September 1892 ; Bleadon, summer 1895 ; Flax Bourton, April 1895 ; and Priston near Bath (Zoologist, 1892, p. 409).
A winter visitor. Common in winter on the mid-Somerset levels. Colonel Montagu in the supplement to his Dictionary records that a great many of these owls occurred near Bridgwater during a plague of field mice.
Accidental. One shot at Clevedon, in the year 1878, was in the collection of the late Rev. G. W. Braikenridge (Zoologist, 1879, p. 32). This was possibly an escape from captivity, as many are imported from the continent.
Possibly still a resident, but if so only in very small numbers. A pair or two may still breed in Exmoor, but recent information is wanting. More than thirty years ago Mr. C. Smith considered that this species was almost extinct in the county.
An occasional summer visitor. Mr. C. Smith considered this species to be more frequent in the county than the hen-harrier. It has been known to nest about forty years ago in Pixton Park near Dulverton, and young have been taken on the Blackdown Hills.
Resident only in the extreme west of the county, but sometimes seen in other districts in autumn and winter. About two pairs still nest on the cliffs between Minehead and Glenthorne, where this summer (1901) I have seen the young in the nest. A pair nested at Hawkridge in 1890, and doubtless a few still maintain themselves inland in the Exmoor county. Mr. C. Smith considered that the species must at one time have been very plentiful in the west of the county.
An irregular winter visitor. Specimens have been obtained at Chargot Lodge and Burnham (Smith, Birds of Somersetshire). In the winter of 1875, when quite a flight of rough-legged buzzards visited Devonshire, two were obtained on the skirts of Exmoor (D'Urban and Mathew, The Birds of Devon, p. 148, ed. 2).
An occasional winter visitor. A good many specimens of this eagle have been either seen or obtained in the neighbourhood of Bridgwater and in the Quantock country. Colonel Montagu described one that was killed on the Mendips about the year 1811. An adult was shot at Stolford in November 1856, and an immature specimen was shot on the borders of Devon by Mr. Snow of Oare about the year 1870. Other specimens have been shot on the coast between Minehead and Bridgwater, and about the year 1890 a pair frequented the Quantocks and are said to have carried off some lambs (Birds of Devon, p. 150, ed. 2). The golden eagle (Aquilla chrysaëtus) has occasionally been reported from the west of Somerset, but the specimens seem always to have turned out to be immature examples of the white-tailed species. Bones of the goshawk (Astur palumbarius) have been identified from the remains of birds discovered near Glastonbury in the lake-dwelling (see Introduction), and in Mr. Terry's list in the Handbook to Bath it is stated that a specimen was shot at Claverton in 1833.
Once a resident, but now only a rare visitor. One shot near Yeovil in 1874 is in the Taunton Museum, and there are other local specimens in private collections. The latest records seem to refer to the year 1888, when a specimen was trapped at Chewton, and another shot in Cleeve Wood near Yatton (Dr. J. A. Norton, Bristol).
A rare visitor in summer and autumn. The Rev. M. A. Mathew in his Revised List states that examples have occurred on the Quantock Hills, at Bagborough, Cothelstone, and the near neighbourhood of Taunton. A young male was shot at Cothelstone in the middle of June 1873, and a female was seen shortly afterwards in the neighbourhood, so it is likely that there was a nest close at hand. A specimen was shot near Wells in the spring of 1875 (Stanley Lewis, Wells). (fn. 3)
Resident in very small numbers. A pair breed annually on Steep Holm, and one or two eyries are perhaps left upon the coast. The species is reported to have bred formerly on Brean Down and on the Cheddar cliffs.
A summer visitor. Occurs in the Taunton district, where it has nested in Stoke Wood. It has also been known to breed on the Blagdon Hills, and has been seen in the summer near Wells and Frome. The species may visit the county more often than is generally supposed.
A very rare visitor. None have been recorded in recent years. A specimen in the Taunton Museum was killed at Chargot Lodge in October 1859, and others have been obtained in the neighbourhood on ornamental sheets of water. In September 1887 a young female was taken alive on a boat in the Bristol Channel (Zoologist, 1887, p. 433). The upper waters of the Bristol Channel were probably, owing to their opaqueness, at no time attractive to this species. A pair are said to have attempted to nest at Monksilver in 1847, but both were shot (vide Ibis, 1865, p. 9).
An uncommon visitor. Perhaps also a resident. There seem to be very few records of the occurrence of this species in the county, but it has been occasionally noticed on the coast, usually in the west where the water is clearer. I saw a pair on Steep Holm on April 20, 1900, and five together on June 25 of the present year (1901); some of these appeared to be young birds which may have been hatched out on the island.
A rare visitor. One was shot on the coast near Berrow, October 20, 1892 (Zoologist, 1894, p. 267). I have on several occasions seen either this or the preceding species on the coast in west Somerset, and other observers have had the same experience.
Accidental. A young bird was washed ashore at Stolford in 1880, and others in immature plumage have been noticed on the coast. In 1890 an adult was taken near Martock, many miles inland (Zoologist, 1900, p. 557), and in September 1893 a party of four or five was seen at Denny Isle near the mouth of the Avon. The gannets which reach Somerset are probably stragglers from Lundy where a few pairs nest, or from Grassholm off the Pembroke coast, where there is a larger colony.
Bones of the crested pelican (Pelecanus crispus, Bruch.), belonging to both adult and immature birds, were discovered in the lake-dwelling near Glastonbury (see Introduction). A specimen of Pelecanus onocrotalus was shot on Exmoor in the year 1883, but was proved to have escaped from confinement (Yarrell, iv. 161, ed. 4).
Accidental. Mr. Edward Jesse in his county Life (John Murray, 1844) mentions a little egret that was shot on Glastonbury Moor, and Mr. Terry records another in the Handbook to Bath as shot at Bathampton, 1841.]
Mr. Stanley Lewis of Wells informs me that he has examined two examples of the American bittern, which were shot near Glastonbury in November 1897.] (fn. 4)
Accidental. One obtained near Bridgwater (Baker, Proc. of Somerset. Arch. and Nat. Hist. Soc. 1850). A pair are said to have been shot on the church tower of Wick St. Lawrence in December 1897, but I have not been able to verify this statement.]
Accidental. One shot on West Sedgemoor near Stoke St. Gregory, May 13, 1814. This bird recovered from its wounds, and was subsequently kept alive for some time by Colonel Montagu. Its skin is now in the British Museum, South Kensington.
It is uncertain whether this species ever visits Somerset, but it may do so occasionally as it has occurred on the Welsh coast on the opposite side of the Channel. Mr. Sargent of Clevedon saw a goose which had been shot near that town in December 1887, which he thought was an example of this species.]
An occasional winter visitor. In the winter of 1878 a large flock frequented the Somerset moors and others were seen near Glastonbury and Taunton. Wild swans are occasionally seen on the coast near Burnham. The mute swan (Cygnus olor) has been met with in an apparently wild state in the county, though doubtless in reality the species has only wandered from some ornamental water. The same may be said of the black swan (Cygnus atratus), of which five were shot near Bridgwater in 1858.
Resident. Common and increasing. Breeds on Steep Holm and all along the coast line, among sand hills and in crevices of the cliffs. The headquarters during the breeding season seem to be in the neighbourhood of Burnham, where 150 may sometimes be seen together. It is no uncommon sight to see a flock of 100 or more birds on the mudflats during the winter months, and sometimes 200 or even 300 may be seen together.
A rare winter visitor. Mr. Cecil Smith recorded two specimens, one from the marsh near Taunton and one from near Dunster. One out of a pair was shot near Langport, January 10, 1889 (Zoologist, 1889, p. 149).
A common winter visitor. A few have been known to nest in the peat moors in quite a wild state, and pinioned birds have of late years been turned down in this district and have hatched out broods. This is the commonest species which is at the present time taken in the Walton decoy.
Not very rare as a summer visitor to the peat moors, but its nest has not been reported. Colonel Montagu received specimens from the Somerset decoys in the month of April, and was informed that it always appeared on the pools about that time.
A not uncommon winter visitor. At the present time they are rare on the decoy at Walton, but the case seems to have been different at the beginning of last century, when Colonel Montagu was informed by a decoy-man that more of this species were taken in the Somerset decoys than 'duck, teal and all other wildfowl collectively.'
An abundant winter visitor to some parts of the coast. Small flocks begin to appear in the Channel about the middle of October, and a few birds remain until the end of April. During the winter flocks up to 300 in number may be seen in the bays near Weston-superMare.
Has occurred occasionally on the Severn coast. A female in the Salisbury Museum is labelled Somerset. It is also 'observed in the Channel during winter, though in fewer numbers than the preceding,' i.e. the common scoter (The Birds of Glamorgan: Cardiff, 1900).
This species is reported to have been found breeding on Brean Down, Sand Point, Barton Rocks, Burrington Combe and the Cheddar Cliffs. It is impossible to say whether these records refer to the wild breed or only to escaped farmyard pigeons. I am strongly inclined to the opinion that the true wild rock-dove is not to be found anywhere in the county of Somerset.]
A summer visitor. Somewhat local, but not uncommon in many parts of the county. It is reported to be increasing in numbers near Bristol. In 1900 a nest was found at Wraxall consisting almost entirely of pieces of old rusty wire (vide county Life, August 11, 1900).
Accidental. In 1863 numbers of these birds visited the British Isles, but none seem to have been recorded for Somerset during that year. Several however were noticed during the visitation of 1888. Three were shot out of a flock of eleven on Steart Island on May 25, 1888, and on the same day two were seen at Charlinch near Bridgwater by the Rev. W. A. Bell. About the same time a small flock was seen at Nynehead, and others were reported from the neighbourhood of Weston-super-Mare, one specimen being procured near Portishead. The Rev. M. A. Mathew saw a flock of about twenty in a turnip field in the parish of Norton St. Philip at the end of June of the same year.
Resident in some localities. Numerous on Exmoor and around Dunkery Beacon, but rather scarce on the Quantocks. It is found also on the Blackdown, Brendon and Mendip Hills, though not in large numbers.
Accidental. One was shot on Blackdown in the Mendips by Mr. C. Edwards, September 24, 1884 (Zoologist, 1885, p. 147). Others are reported to have been taken near Weston-super-Mare, which were thought to have crossed the Channel from Wales (A Mendip Valley, p. 170).
Introduced. Some were turned out about eighty years ago on the Cheddar moors, but as they drove the English birds away efforts were made to get rid of them. Some were shot in this district in the years 1879, 1880 and 1884, while others are still occasionally met with in various parts of the county. A pair or two appear to be resident on Brean Down.
A summer visitor. Numerous in some seasons. Several nests have been found recently near Bridgwater, and others have been reported from Cheddar and Sidcot, while the bird has been heard in the summer in the neighbourhood of Taunton.
A migrant in spring and autumn. It is however sometimes numerous on the peat moors, where it is almost certainly resident throughout the year. Young broods have been met with in summer near Weston-superMare (D'Urban and Mathew, Birds of Devon, p. 277, ed. 2).
A rare visitor. An adult female was killed near Weston-super-Mare, September 1840. A bird of the year was obtained from near Taunton October 1870, and another, September 1874. A specimen was also shot at Stogursey in 1887.
A specimen of the purple gallinule, Porphyrio cæruleus (Vandelli), was caught by a sheep dog in the parish of Badgworth on August 25, 1875. It was perhaps an escape from captivity (vide D'Urban and Mathew, The Birds of Devon, p. 282).
A rare occasional visitor in spring and autumn. Specimens have been shot at Stolford near Bridgwater, October 17, 1865; South Brent May 1875; Wincanton, about 1880; and Stolford, December 1889. Remains of this species have been found in the lake dwelling near Glastonbury.
A specimen of the demoiselle crane, Grus virgo (Linn.), is said to have been picked up dead near Wincanton (vide Science Gossip, March 1876). The evidence however is very unsatisfactory (Zoologist, 1883, p. 333).
Only one record. On September 27, 1870, Mr. J. E. Harting saw one alive on the Shapwick peat moor. He was at the time travelling on the Somerset and Dorset railway (vide The Field, January 14, 1871). Bustards were formerly found on the Wiltshire downs, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that a few from these localities used occasionally to visit the Mendips.
A summer visitor. The species probably breeds in some parts of the county, though there is no record. It has frequently occurred on the Mendips and has been seen in summer near Radstock. In September 1898 a specimen was shot near Bridgwater. The species breeds on the Wiltshire downs.
An occasional visitor on migration in spring and autumn. Seven were shot on the Mendips near Wells, May 1, 1869, and early in May of the same year a specimen was shot on the Steep Holm. In the middle of May, also in 1869, a small trip was seen at Weston-super-Mare, and on August 21, 1870, two specimens were obtained near Wells. Colonel Montagu was informed that eggs of this species had been taken on the Mendip Hills, but he suggested in his Dictionary that the eggs were those of the golden plover.
An autumn and winter visitor. Found both on the coast and inland districts and appearing sometimes in large numbers. Mr. Cecil Smith was informed that a few bred near Dunkery Beacon and on Exmoor, but there seems to be no direct evidence that it has ever nested in the county. I have seen small flights on Exmoor in August and September.
A resident, but more numerous during the winter. About four pairs still nest on Steart Island and others on the shingle at Steart Point and elsewhere on the coast. I have seen sixty in a flock near Burnham in the middle of June, but conclude that many of these were not breeding birds. Small parties are common on the coast in winter, especially on the mud-flats near Burnham, where I have seen as many as 200 together.
An irregular autumn visitor; sometimes numerous after stormy weather. Many were obtained in the county in 1866, and 1891 was another 'phalarope' year, when after a severe gale in October many were driven ashore on the south-west counties. It has sometimes occurred in Somerset, many miles from the coast.
Resident in small numbers; great accessions in the autumn. A few breed on the wooded slopes of the Quantock Hills and elsewhere in the west, where it is at all times more numerous than in the east of the county.
Resident in limited numbers, but chiefly a winter visitor. Breeds on Exmoor and some of the levels of mid-Somerset, and has also been reported as nesting on the Quantocks, Brendon and Blackdown Hills. There are some very good 'snipe grounds' in the county, where sometimes a great many are shot in the winter.
Abundant on the coast from autumn to spring, and a few may be seen in the summer in the breeding plumage. Mr. Howard Saunders, in his Manual of British Birds, states that he has seen young dunlins on Exmoor hardly able to fly, so it is probable that a few nest in that district.
A very rare winter visitor. Colonel Montagu received one shot out of a party of six near Bridgwater in September 1805. He referred to this bird under the heading 'Little Sandpiper,' but his description of the bird is now generally thought to apply to T. temmincki. Another specimen was shot on North Curry moor, November 14, 1874 (vide Zoologist, 1875, p. 4334).
A rare autumn visitor. Two were obtained at Weston-super-Mare, autumn 1893, and another in winter plumage was shot on a moor near Taunton. This species doubtless occurs more often than is supposed, as it might easily be overlooked among the thousands of dunlins which frequent the coast.
A not uncommon autumn visitor to the coast. The Rev. R. Chichester has informed me that he sees them every year in small numbers at Minehead, sometimes as early as the middle of August. Others have noticed them at Burnham and at Weston-super-Mare.
Now only a rare autumn visitor. This species used formerly to breed in the fens of Somerset (vide Yarrell's British Birds, ed. 4), and Colonel Montagu was informed that they were not uncommon in the fens about Bridgwater before these were drained and enclosed. In more recent times specimens in the breeding plumage have been secured near Taunton.
Accidental. A specimen was shot more than forty years ago at Combwitch near the mouth of the river Parrett. This specimen was identified by the Rev. M. A. Mathew, and is now in the museum at Taunton Castle (Zoologist, 1877, p. 389).
A rare passing visitor in spring and autumn. There are two records from the neighbourhood of Taunton. One, an adult shot on May 9, 1870, and the other a young bird shot in the autumn. These were formerly in Mr. Cecil Smith's collection.
A passing migrant in spring and autumn, not uncommon. Found on the coast as well as by inland streams and pools. Mr. C. Smith has received examples as early as August 8, and the Rev. M. A. Mathew has seen them in the summer near Weston-super-Mare in so immature a state that he thought they had come from a nest in the neighbourhood.
A rare irregular autumn visitor. Colonel Montagu received a specimen shot out of a small flock near Bridgwater. Two young birds were also procured in autumn several years ago, near Weston-super-Mare, and examined by the Rev. M. A. Mathew.
A very rare visitor. One out of a couple was shot near Bridgwater in February some year prior to 1869. Mr. Goldsmith has noticed specimens in the poulterers' shops in Bridgwater, shot in the neighbourhood ; but this species is evidently far rarer in the county than the bar-tailed godwit.
Resident ; more numerous in winter. Breeds in the hilly country in the west and in some numbers on Exmoor. Very abundant on the mud-flats from autumn to spring, and many remain on the coast throughout the summer.
A rare winter visitor. Several young birds have occurred at Weston-super-Mare (vide Zoologist, 1863, 1865, 1867). Immature birds have also been obtained at Burnham, October 1893, and at Tickenham, September 1896.
An irregular winter visitor. The Rev. M. A. Mathew had an immature specimen which had been shot on the sands at Weston-super-Mare about the year 1863. Another was shot at Clevedon, October 1888 (Zoologist, 1889, p. 32).
An abundant winter visitor. From autumn to spring this is by far the commonest species of gull on the coast. Of late years several have been observed throughout the summer near Burnham in the breeding plumage, and so it is possible there may be a small nesting colony somewhere in the county, though I have not heard of one.
Resident. May be seen on the coast at all seasons of the year, but not in large numbers. About twelve pairs nest on Steep Holm, but I do not think that there is any other nesting station in the county.
Resident. Not at any time common on the coast. Ten or twelve pairs nested this year (1901) with the herring-gulls on Steep Holm. I visited Steep Holm on June 25 of the present year, and consider that there were about twenty-three pairs of gulls breeding on the island, and perhaps rather more herring-gulls than black-backs.
Seen occasionally on the coast. Colonel Montagu was informed that this species used to breed on Steep Holm, but that would be about 100 years ago. I do not know when they ceased to breed there, but there appear to be none at the present time. A few breed on the Gower coast, Glamorgan, on the opposite side of the Channel.
An irregular winter visitor. Several have been obtained at Weston-super-Mare from among the flock of gulls which enter the bay in pursuit of sprats. Yarrell's illustration was taken from a specimen shot on the river Severn near Bristol in 1840.
A rare winter visitor. Mr. Cecil Smith received an immature specimen from Weston-super-Mare which had been obtained on December 28, 1870. Another was taken inland at Somerton, December 12, 1881 (Zoologist, 1882, p. 71).
Accidental. One was shot at Berrow in December 1883 (vide Zoologist, 1896, p. 233). According to the report of the British Association Migration Committee, another specimen was seen off Minehead on October 16, 1886, and at the same time twelve Pomatorhine skuas and six Richardson's skuas were also noticed.
Accidental. In October 1879 large numbers appeared off the south-west counties of England, and at that time examples were procured in Somerset at Minehead, Combwitch, North Curry, Weston-super-Mare and on Steart Island. Others occurred in the county in October 1880, and November 1893.
Accidental. An adult was shot at Nynehead, October 1862, and an immature bird at Stolford, September 1873. In the autumn of 1891 numbers were blown by gales into the Bristol Channel, and a specimen was shot as high up as Clevedon.
Accidental, in winter. Several specimens have been at various times picked up dead or caught alive, doubtless having been driven in from the sea by storms. There are records for the years 1805, 1863 and 1884, both from the coast and inland. Mr. Stanley Lewis of Wells informs me that ten specimens have been taken during the last twelve years, principally from the flooded moors near Glastonbury.
Accidental. Mr. Cecil Smith mentions an adult shot on the river at Nynehead, and states that one or two immature examples have occurred on the ponds at Chargot. A young bird was shot on the Barrow reservoir, January 20, 1881, and two were shot some years ago on the floating harbour at Bristol. Another was killed at Steart by a fisherman, November 1888.
Accidental. A specimen was picked up near Taunton, March 28, 1867, and others were shot in the river near Bridgwater during the winters of 1890 and 1892. There are one or two other records, but this species as well as the two preceding can only be regarded as accidental visitors to Somerset.
A rare visitor. Mr. C. Smith recorded four county specimens. The species has also occurred on the Barrow reservoir, and doubtless on many other inland waters in the county. In January 1895 a specimen was picked up dead on the coast in the west of the county by Mr. A. Luttrell, and I possess an adult male shot at the mouth of the river Axe, November 2, 1901.
Accidental. Sometimes driven in by gales. Mr. C. Smith mentions two instances, one from Cothelstone, another from Weston-super-Mare. One was shot, October 1883, near the Clifton Suspension Bridge (Zoologist, 1884, p. 145), another was shot in December 1892, near Bridgwater (vide Zoologist, 1893, p. 22).
Accidental. Four specimens have been recorded: An adult from Weston-super-Mare, winter 1868 (Zoologist, 1869); an immature specimen from Stolford, October 1869; a third occurred near the mouth of the Avon, August 1878; and a fourth was obtained near Taunton, December 1883 (Zoologist, 1884).
A specimen of the 'gentoo' penguin (Pygoscelis taeniata) was picked up dead on the shore near Berrow, and is now in the possession of Mr. H. St. B. Goldsmith, late of Bridgwater. It was quite fresh when found, and had probably escaped from some ship.
In the following account of the mammals of Somerset only those species have been included that are to be found in a wild state within its boundaries at the present time or have occurred within the last fifty years, either as residents or occasional visitors; and those species have been omitted which have been extinct as residents for a longer period than half a century or are unlikely to occur even as accidental visitors.
In a county having such an extensive seaboard as Somerset has on the north, it might have been expected that seals and cetaceans would have occurred more frequently; but besides being out of their usual track the waters of the Channel are so much discoloured by Severn mud, and also by the mud brought down by the Parrett into Bridgwater Bay, that the coast is exceedingly poor in marine life and offers but little attraction to these animals. Another cause that has tended to shorten the list has been the absence of evidence as to the species that have occurred from time to time, as specimens have been merely reported as a 'seal' or a 'whale.'
Several specimens of rorqual have at different times floated up the Bristol Channel or been stranded on the Severn coast, but such 'jetsam and flotsam' can hardly be considered as entitled to a place in the county fauna.
The roe deer has been omitted, although a specimen was found and hunted by the Seavington hounds in 1883 to the south of the Vale of Taunton; yet this cannot be considered as having been anything but a stray from Dorset, where roe deer were introduced at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
There are two species of bats that further observations will undoubtedly add to the list, viz. the barbastelle and Natterer's bat. The former has been taken in Bristol just outside the county boundary and also in Wiltshire. The latter has occurred at Kingswood near Bath in the spring of 1874 (vide specimens in Bath Museum), and has also been found in Gloucestershire and in Dorset. There can be little doubt that these near neighbours hunted as often in Somerset as in the county where they were captured.
Mr. Richard Lydekker, F.R.S., in his handbook of British mammalia gives 43 land mammals (native and introduced) as at present inhabiting Great Britain, besides 4 species of seals and 19 species of whales. The present list enumerates 33 terrestrial forms besides 1 seal and 3 whales as forming the present mammalian fauna of Somerset.
The chief authorities on the mammals of the county are Baker, 'List of the Mammals of Somerset' in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archælogical and Natural History Society for 1849–50; Fairbrother, Mammals of Shepton Mallet (1856); C. Terry, 'Fauna within a radius of 6 miles of Bath,' in Wright's Historical Guide to Bath (1864); T. Compton, Winscombe Sketches (1882); R. Lydekker, F.R.S., Handbook of British Mammals (1896); Prof. C. Lloyd Morgan, F.R.S., and H. J. Charbonnier in British Association Handbook to Bristol and Neighbourhood (1898), and various notes that have appeared at intervals in the Zoologist.
Common and generally distributed. Often found in numbers in old ash trees in June. Many of these colonies consist of females only. If disturbed they will often forsake the tree. This is a most useful species, as they destroy an immense quantity of 'chafers.' This bat produces one young one in May or early June.
Sometimes abundant in old roofs, also in caves and quarries. A colony containing more than 100 individuals was found in the roof of an old house at Keynsham on July 2, 1888. Some twenty specimens were captured and proved to be all females. Many of these gave birth to a young one within a day or two. These latter had pink bodies and nearly black heads and membranes; they were quite naked and apparently blind, and measured 2½ to 3 inches across the wings.
Common in suitable localities. A female captured in June littered on the 24th. The young, three in number, appeared quite naked at first, but on the second day the spines, which were quite soft, began to show on the surface of the skin.
Common. The cream coloured variety with rusty underparts occurs not infrequently. There is also a much rarer particoloured variety, black with large patches of white, in which the white fur is rather longer than the black.
This is now extinct. The last occurrence was mentioned at a meeting of the Bristol Naturalists' Society in 1867 by the late president, William Sanders, F.R.S., who had 'seen a specimen, a few years before, that had been shot in the county south of Wells.'
Formerly common, but now very rare. As the species still holds its own in several parts of Great Britain (in Wales in numbers) it will certainly be found occasionally, for during hard weather these animals migrate (sometimes in small packs) to great distances.
Common. Nearly white specimens have been shot near Taunton in January and also at the same time and place specimens in a brown coat as in summer. Nearly white specimens also occur during very mild winters.
Not uncommon in rivers and streams. As these animals often travel many miles during the night they may occur unexpectedly in any of the streams. Six years ago Messrs. George and Edward Parsons killed three females and one male in the river Tone at Bathpool near Taunton, three on one day and one on the next. The largest weighed about 19 lb. This species has also occurred at Bathford, Limpley Stoke, Congresbury, Creech St. Michael and elsewhere.
For reasons given in the introduction seals have rarely been recorded from the coast of Somerset. Mr. Sargeant of Clevedon reports that he saw one that had been shot in Lady Bay, Clevedon, on March 7, 1874.
Local and decidedly scarce in the more northern parts of the county, but fairly common a few miles from Yeovil. It consumes quantities of flies and insects, and makes a very pretty and interesting pet.
Very common. A black variety is said to occur. Water voles seem to have been excessively abundant in former times, as immense numbers of their bones and teeth are found in the loam filling the fissures in the limestone at Holwell near Frome, and in other localities.
Fairly common in some parts of the county. Mr. Arthur Vassall of Harrow says that he has observed the lowland hares round Langport and Athelney move up to higher ground shortly before rain occurs in sufficient quantities to flood the district.
This grand member of the British fauna is still found in a wild state on Exmoor, where it has existed for many centuries. The question of whether the red deer at present found on the Quantocks is truly indigenous has been discussed at length in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archæological and Natural History Society, (xliv. i. 22), and the evidence adduced leads to the belief that the present red deer were introduced there about 1839, and that except as a straggler it did not occur on the Quantocks during the 150 or 200 years previous to that date.
Occurs occasionally. 'In March, 1864, ten of these whales entered the river Parrett, all of which were captured within a few miles of Bridgwater' (Lydekker). Mr. Sargeant of Clevedon saw two whales, probably of this species, killed in Little Harp Bay, Clevedon, on October 17, 1866.