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Was ancient Welsh poet right about the legend of the lynx?

Byline: By DARREN DEVINE Western Mail

An historic Welsh poet has outfoxed experts who claimed his work contained a mistaken reference to a wild cat that had long since become extinct in the British countryside. The sixth century poem 'Pais Dinogad' in the Book of Aneirin boasts of the astonishing hunting abilities of Dinogad's father, and suggests he killed a 'llewyn' as well as a roebuck, a boar and a stag.

Experts originally believed the word referred to the lynx, but the notion was later dismissed as it was thought the feline had become extinct in the UK around 700 years before the poem was written.

But now carbon dating of lynx bones found in the Yorkshire Dales National Park has revealed the animal may well have still been around for more than half a millennium after it was thought to have disappeared.

As a result experts are suggesting the Book of Aneirin may, after all, have contained an accurate reference to a lynx.

Dr John Koch, of the University of Wales, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, said though he believed the word 'llewyn' referred to the fox it may have been a term applied to the lynx.

'The word probably refers to a wild animal because the poem is about hunting and it's not impossible [that it refers to the lynx].

'Because they have been extinct in recent times nobody knows what the word was in the Celtic languages. We find words in texts and we don't know what they mean.'

Dr Koch said the poems in the Book of Aneirin contain many older forms of Welsh words that were originally written in Cumbric - a language related to Welsh that was once widely spoken in Northern England. A passage reads:

Peis Dinogat, e vreith, vreith,

o grwyn | balaot ban | wreith.

Chwit, chwit, chwidogeith,

gochanwn | gochenyn | wythgeith.

'For me the interesting thing about the poems is they definitely contain old animal names because they are not the usual Welsh names and are obviously the forms used in Cumbric,' said Dr Koch.

Sixth-century poet Aneirin compiled his book of poetry about the kingdom of Gododdin, which at the time had Edinburgh as its capital and was Welsh-speaking.

Researchers have found the lynx lived in North Yorkshire, and possibly the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District, just 1,500 years ago. The study suggests the animals became extinct here due to factors resulting from human activity, such as deforestation and declining deer populations.

The European Union suggests animals killed off by human activities in member states should be considered for reintroduction.

A research paper published online in the Journal of Quaternary Science dates the right tibia of a lynx found in Craven, North Yorkshire, as 1,840 years old - plus or minus 35 years. The work also dated a left femur as 1,550 years old - plus or minus 24 years.

Conservation geneticist at the University of Wales, Bangor, Dr Chris Gliddon, said the ecology of the British Isles had changed massively since the lynx became extinct and would not support a population of more than two to four. When the lynx was thriving in Scotland its main source of food was the roe deer, but these have been replaced by red deer, which are too big for the lynx to eat.: A translation of the Pais Dinogad poem:Dinogad's smock, speckled, speckled, I made from the skins of martens. Whistle, whistle, whistly we sing, the eight slaves sing. When your father used to go to hunt, with his shaft on his shoulder and his club in his hand, he would call his speedy dogs, 'Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!', he would kill a fish in a coracle, as a lion kills an animal. When your father used to go to the mountain, he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag, a speckled grouse from the mountain, a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd Whatever your father would hit with his spit, whether wild pig or lynx or fox, nothing that was without wings would escape.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 12, 2005
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