RARE BRITISH FAUNA
This article covers the rarer British wild animals including the Haggis, the Priddy Oggy and the Neep. Visitors to the British Isles are unlikely to see these creatures in the wild state, but products derived from them form integral parts of British Cuisine.
Haggis (Microvis sp.) evolved from highland Celtic Pygmy Sheep. There are two main species. M .deosilis grazes the steep upper slopes in a clockwise fashion and has evolved left legs longer than right. M. widdershinis grazes in the opposite direction and evolved left legs shorter than right. The two species rarely hybridize in the wild because one or other partner ends up with longer legs uphill and rolls downhill before coition occurs. Artificial hybrids result in specimens with back legs longer than front (these can ascend slopes but cannot descend, since they cannot walk backwards, ultimately they graze their way to the barren summit and starve); back legs shorter than front (which forces them to descend to the lowlands where they are easy prey); or long legs at diagonal corners (prone to rocking and hard to shoot). The slightly larger Lowland, or Spotted, Haggis (M. microvis) with legs of equal length, was once abundant, but was hunted into extinction, with the last know specimen being killed in the 1850s. Haggis fossils can be seen in several museums.
The Haggis was once widespread throughout Britain until displaced by the rabbit (introduced by the Normans in the 12th Century). The Normans began a systematic clearance of haggis burrows, converting them into rabbitries (worsened by escaped rabbits) and forcing Haggises further and further north to their current habitat in Scotland. Their reduced size is an adaptation to a harsh climate. The wild haggis is very timid; its excellent hearing means it is rarely seen as it retreats underground at the first sign of humans. Domesticated Haggises are sometimes kept as pets or are bred to keep up the numbers in the wild (Haggises quickly go wild). Feral Haggises are considered pests around some crofts. Haggises are farmed and remain in a semi-wild state; they get supplementary feeding in winter, but are otherwise left alone.
The Annual Wild Haggis season starts at noon on St Andrew's Day (30th November) although feral Haggises may be shot at any time. Haggis farmers prepare their Haggises for a hunt by laying out oatmeal and scraps of meat (some farmers specialise in vegetarian Haggises which are fed on vegetables and grain). Replete with food, the Haggises can't get into their burrows and are easy prey for hunters. Shot while still digesting this meal, they are also "oven-ready" and need only be skinned. Culling of haggis out-of-season is strictly controlled and occurs only when they have over-grazed an area (Haggises cannot be herded to new pastures). Out-of-season Haggises are plucked, rolled in oatmeal, turned inside out and are either baked or boiled.
Note: There have been rumours of Giant Haggises, these are documented on several cryptozoological sites. No Giant Haggises have ever been killed or captured.
The Oggy (indigenous to Cornwall, Devon and Somerset) resembles a large hedgehog, but has long, soft, mottled fur instead of spines. It is an omnivore which feeds mainly on roots and tubers, which it digs up with its strong, front feet, supplemented with meat (often carrion, though it will take young rabbits and packs of hungry Oggies have been known to bring down new-born lambs). In times past, Oggies were considered serious garden pests for their depredations on potatoes, swedes and carrots and for their attacks on lambs (which these days are often blamed on released panthers). The Somerset variety is known as the Priddy Oggy because the males are highly prized for food.
There is an annual Oggy cull in which the Oggies are driven into rivers and prevented from getting to safety by people lining the banks stamping and yelling; the drowned Oggies are then fished out in nets and cooked. Only the "Prid" (male) Oggies are eaten; they are wrapped in pastry and baked. The females have a noxious taste to deter their natural predators (birds of prey). Unfortunately the annual Oggy Chase is a highly non-selective method of hunting and many "Tids" (females) are drowned. This by-catch was traditionally thrown back into the river and washed out to sea. For several weeks afterwards, local beaches were littered with decomposing Tiddy Oggies.
Under new regulations, the inedible Tids are used in local incinerators; their high fat content makes them ideal for fuel (and indeed, up until the era of electricity and mains gas, the Tids were once used as fuel by local villagers). The Somerset Oggy Trust now breeds Priddy Oggies to replenish wild stocks and there is a government grant to look at more selective methods of culling Oggies. Meanwhile, visitors to the area may be lucky enough to see an Oggy Dance in which locals in traditional brightly-coloured hunting costumes dance noisily from one village to the next.
Note: Due to extinction of the local Oggy sub-species, modern Cornish Pasties contain Oggy substitutes.
Wurzel and Neep
Wurzels (West Country) and Neeps (Scotland) are arboreal relatives of rabbits, which they resemble apart from their more lithe build and stronger grasping paws. An unflattering description would be that they look like long-eared, brown-coloured squirrels; usually only glimpsed as they scurry along branches, they are often mistaken for Grey Squirrels. They live mainly in woodland and scrubland, but are in decline because of introduced Grey Squirrels. The Wurzel mainly occupies deciduous woodland and hibernates after gorging itself on acorns and nuts. The hardier Neep also occupies thorny scrub, bramble and gorse; it also hibernates and is a favourite prey of Haggis hunters - gorged on nuts and late fruits, the Neep is sluggish. A traditional accompaniment to Haggis is "Bashed Neeps".
The unfortunate creatures are knocked out of trees by throwing stones at them and then battered to death using cudgels; this ensures they are tenderized. Neeps are sometimes found curled up asleep in bramble patches and are beaten to death where they lie. The flesh of the Wurzel/Neep varies from whitish to pale orange.Welsh Rarebit
Welsh Rarebits are an increasingly rare hybrid between a hare and a rabbit, the tragedy being that only the cheese-like secretion of the Rarebit's small intestine is used and the rest is unfit for human consumption and used for fertilizer. The decline in Welsh populations of Brown Hares is an important factor in the decline of the Welsh Rarebit.
Rarebits are strict vegetarians although old Welsh legends claim the "cheese" is due to their habit of sucking the milk from cows which lie down in the field. Scientific investigation has proven the "cheese" to be a natural secretion in the fore-gut; it aids in the processing of grass and is itself digested in the hind-gut. Rarebits are snared and shot and the "cheese" is scraped from the upper gut and eaten hot on toast. The rest of the creature is turned into pet-food. Unfortunately there is no way to harvest the "cheese" without killing the Rarebit.Toad-in-the-Hole
The traditional dish of Toad-in-the-Hole has driven the Greater Striated Warbling Toad to near extinction. There are EEC subsidies to encourage toad farming, but afficionadoes claim that captive-bred toad doesn't taste the same and there is an illegal trade in wild Greater Striated Warbling Toads (the Lesser Striated version became extinct in 1793 due to excessive hunting).
Hunting methods varied. Adult toads were collected from ponds. Eggs collected from the wild were often transferred to hatchery ponds in back gardens. Once the toadlets had reached the right size (that of a modern day chicken nugget), they were boiled in pig's blood, mashed to a paste and stuffed into a casing made from the thigh-skin of the adult toads. These morsels were cooked in a tray of batter and served in slices.
The over-consumption of toadlets, and the removal of eggs and adults (for their thighs), from the wild led to a huge population crash. In spite of strict quotas, the view of Brits is "The French have frogs' legs, we have toad-in-the-hole" and the Greater Striated Warbling Toad looks set to become extinct in the wild in the next decade. Tragically, the toad does not breed well in captivity and only strict protection will preserve this culinary tradition for future generations.East Anglian Hot Dog (Hotch Dog)
Visitors to Britain should note that "hot dogs" in the UK are made from weasel-like amphibious canines hunted in the East Anglian fens. In days gone by, hunters waded through the reed beds and speared their prey, but intensive farming in cages stacked ten or twenty high has largely taken over. The Wild Hot Dog has largely been supplanted by the American Mink which was released into the wild from fur farms. Hot Dogs were once widespread and occupied a number of habitats including riverbanks and canal-banks. Their name is a corruption of "Hotch Dog", meaning "mixed-up looking dog", and they were once extensively hunted in Lancashire as the main ingredient in Hot-Pot or "Hotch-pot".