Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Isle of Bute Mongoose of December 1900

Bute, an island in the north of the Firth of Clyde, is the last place one would expect to see a mongoose. But while looking for something else I came across this report of a mongoose found on the Isle of Bute in 1900 and even more remarkably of their employment in bakeries in Scotland as mousers.



This is an extract from an article by Dr J.A. Gibson, published in 2004.

MONGOOSE Herpestes ichneumon
An old record of a possible Mongoose on the Island of Bute has recently been discovered and reported (Gibson, 2000). Searching the columns of any local newspaper in the hope of discovering some interesting natural history items is a wearisome and usually unrewarding task, but just occasionally one finds something unusual, and in the Buteman for Friday 5th December 1900 I was fortunate enough to discover the undernoted paragraph:
     "That well-known trapper, Mr. Robert Morrison, had the luck to trap on Saturday last, at Plan Farm, south end of Bute, an animal certainly not native of this country. It is believed to be a mongoose, and was caught in a trap set in a rabbit hole".
     So far I have been unable to trace any later reference to this occurrence, but the Mongoose is a fairly distinctive creature and there is no real reason to doubt the identification, even although no confirmatory details were given. At first, it might reasonably be assumed that this occurrence resulted from another introduction, as yet unrecorded, by the Bute family, but the Bute family Archives were very thoroughly searched by the late Marquess and myself when we were endeavouring to obtain as much information as possible about the Wallaby and Beaver introductions, and nowhere in the Archives did we find any indication at all that the Mongoose was ever introduced.
     There is, however, a much more likely explanation. In my 1976 account of the land mammals of the Clyde area (Gibson, 1976a) I reported the old records of an adult Mongoose trapped at Blanefield, West Stirlingshire, on 1st June 1928, and five weeks later a barely half-grown specimen trapped at Duntocher, Dunbartonshire. At that time, the origin of these animals was unknown, but eight years later, by the time of the publication of my separate account of the mammals of Dunbartonshire (Gibson, 1984), my colleague Mr. John Mitchell had discovered that "in the 1920s Mongooses were kept by at least one Dunbartonshire bakery, since their mousing ability was considered to be greatly superior to that of cats" (Mitchell, 1983). Later investigation showed that this practice was more widespread, in several parts of the country, than had previously been realised.
     It seems most likely, therefore, that the 1900 Bute Mongoose was an escape from a local bakery or some other establishment, but it is clearly desirable to draw attention to this occurrence in the hope that some other records may come to light, and needless to say, I shall be most grateful to receive any additional information.

I do not know whether Dr Gibson did receive more information but is I think it more likely that the mongooses brought to Scotland would have been the Indian Grey (Herpestes edwardsii) rather than the Egyptian (Herpestes ichneumon) since the former were commonly imported up to the time quarantine for rabies was introduced for a wide variety of mammals in 1974.

Mongooses were also often brought back by sailors as pets and it is no coincidence that the major animal dealers were located in seaports like London, Liverpool and Glasgow. The Indian Grey (and, I read, the Egyptian) become extremely tame very quickly. I had one for several years that was completely trustworthy when being handled; its delight in life was being given an egg. Usually it would remove the shell from one end before licking out the contents. Less frequently it would throw the egg down onto the ground until the shell shattered and the contents could be licked up.

Indian Grey Mongooses introduced into the West Indies and Hawaii have had a devastating effect on the native wildlife. I wonder if the mongooses kept in bakeries ever bred. Mongooses had the reputation of needing to be be kept warm in Britain, so it is perhaps unlikely that they would breed, or even survive for very long, when feral in the cold, damp winters of the West of Scotland.

Another possible source of a escaped mongoose on Bute could have been the Royal Aquarium in Rothesay. They advertised  a menagerie in addition to aquatic exhibits.


But there is nothing to beat seeing mongooses in the wild, from seeing them walking in pairs along the footpaths in a hotel grounds in Goa to their pottering about the forest in Gir Forest.



-----------------

Gibson, JA. 2004. Supplementary notes on Bute vertebrates - mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fishes. Transactions of the Buteshire Natural History Society 26, 99-107.