Iwalk over the exposed hillside above Giggleswick Scar and push past the elder crowding the entrance to Kinsey cave. The dripping limestone grotto, like many of Craven’s karst caves, has been a time capsule, trapping evidence of the human and natural past in sediment and protecting it from the passage of glaciers. It is an unassuming space, but one that reverberates with significance in the debate around rewilding. Two of Britain’s lost charismatic carnivores – the lynx and the brown bear – made their last known appearance here.
I am not sure what I expect to find. It’s not as though there are archaeological gems scattered over the floor; Kinsey has been excavated from the Victorian era onwards, and the findings have either been lost or stashed in archives. But among the latter are the bones of both brown bear and lynx, native animals we extirpated from these shores. It was once thought their British extinctions occurred in the bronze age, but research into the discoveries made in Kinsey cave has rewritten the histories of both species.
Since the turn of the millennium, bones of the creatures in the Kinsey archives have been carbon dated in separate studies, and both found to have been from animals alive in the early medieval period. In the lynx’s case, this was about 2,500 years closer to the present than previously dated remains, a find that has given weight to current calls for reintroduction. The bear bone is the latest wild specimen found in Britain by a margin of around 1,500 years (although, as a recent University of Nottingham paper has pointed out, it could also be from a descendant of bears imported by the Romans rather than a “native” animal). No serious calls are being made for the brown bear’s reintroduction, but on the Kinsey evidence, its presence here could be at least as recent as the lynx.
There is a womblike calm inside the cave. I listen for some distant resonance from a time before the Yorkshire landscape was fully tamed, but instead simply feel the quiet poignancy of standing where two beautiful animals last appeared.