Fauna: Natives and Exotics
On the foothills of Slievenamon back in 2009 a forestry worker, planting trees for Coillte, looked up from his back breaking toil, and what he said he was confronted with made the ache in his back just a minor problem. He took off like a rocket and jumped in his car, which luckily was parked nearby, and drove to the Garda station in Kilsheelan, where he breathlessly told the Garda on duty what scared him so much,
“I was nearly eaten alive”, he told the Garda`. “And why was that?” enquired the now very interested man of the law?
“I just saw a huge black panther. He was just twenty yards away and ready to pounce on me. It was lucky for me that I spotted him in time, you will have to warn people not to go walking in that area. It’s too dangerous.” The not so intrepid worker refused to continue planting in that section after his strange encounter.
As a result of this man’s tale the local Garda contacted the National Parks and Wildlife Service, just in case there was anything to this unusual story. They sent three men with rifles to the area, from where they scouted the woods and the farmland adjoining. They enquired from farmers if any livestock had been killed. A hungry panther will kill sheep, calves or even dogs and cats. None of the landowners were missing animals.
Because of this (when the story became public knowledge) people began to ring the Gardai, radio shows, and other media outlets with further claims of sightings. All turned out to be imaginary or mischievous, though the forestry worker was quite certain in his belief that he had seen a panther.
What he likely saw was a fairly large feral cat, and when he looked up from his work he saw this animal close to him and he panicked; and like the angler nearly landing a fish, the fish is never a little tiddler, the size is always exaggerated, and so the cat got bigger as he related the story to others, the bigger the animal the more justification he had to panic and run.
The above story is just one of the many sightings of exotic fauna in Ireland in the last few years but, unlike the panther, it is feared that we have many alien species that are genuinely resident here. Some were brought here illegally or were carried accidentally. With the huge import of goods coming in to the country every day many alien species are unwittingly landed here. Some are unable to survive, and die out. Others find conditions to their liking and thrive.
The most recent alien species found here is the Dormouse. This tiny animal is a rodent. It is thought that the fodder shortage in 2013, where thousands of bales were unloaded from ships and distributed to farmers throughout the country, is the likely way this animal was transported here. This fodder came from Britain, France, Germany and other European countries and with it came many small rodents, possibly snakes etc. Some of these are new to the country, and add to the biological diversity and will have an effect, which will take time to evaluate.
Ninety percent of the animals which now inhabit this country originated outside these shores, because many of them have been here for hundreds of years we consider them as native. However, at the end of the ice age, very few animals existed here except some of the aquatic species. Environmental experts tell us that a land bridge to Britain and Europe still existed as the ice receded. This enabled some animals to re-inhabit parts of the country. The only large mammal still with us is the Red Deer. Bear, wolf, and wild boer have long been wiped out.
In the Cloneen area, as elsewhere, people were wary of new species in the environment, the Mink being a prime example.
When locals first began to notice this animal all sorts of stories began the rounds that it would kill cattle and horses, and it was blamed for lamb kills etc. It was also seriously suggested by at least one representative (County Councillor) that mink were drinking the milk from his cows at night when they were lying down, but one thing for sure it is a ferocious killer of domestic and wild fowl. If it can gain entry to poultry houses it will kill at random, the Mink (Mustela vison) has had an effect on other species within habitats it is a predator on water hens, ducklings, young swans and other slow moving fauna. Because it is semi-aquatic the mink also take fish as part of its diet, the Anner River and other local streams have populations of mink, but because they are fiercely territorial one or two is the usual amount found in a one mile stretch of waterway. They forage for food far away from watercourses and can be seen anywhere in the area. Other alien animals noted in the Cloneen area include Grey Squirrels, Hungarian Red, Muntjac, and Fallow Deer. In recent times in Ireland people have taken to keeping exotic pets. This can include anything from Snakes to Tigers, Cheetahs, Monkeys, etc. Many of these animals are discretely kept out of sight from neighbours, and will not be seen until one escapes. This happens on a regular basis, most people have not the know-how to handle these alien species, as they require specialist care.
The effect of new species on Biodiversity
It takes time to see the effect that newer alien species may have on a habitat and it’s resident animals, whether they be vertebrates or invertebrates. If, for example, the panther had been real and it was roaming the countryside it would have caused a major upset to species diversity within habitats. It would likely predate on Rabbits, Hares, Squirrels, Deer, Fox, Badgers. The North American Mink was introduced in to Ireland in the fifties, to be farmed for their fur. Many of these escaped into the wild and, to-date, all areas of the country have populations of this animal. Mink are a ferocious predator and have caused chaos in aquatic ecosystems by killing vulnerable waterfowl; the population of Moorhens (in the Cloneen area) has dropped considerably because Mink takes the young hatchlings.
In the last ten years Grey squirrels have become very noticeable in the large and small woodlands in the vicinity of Cloneen. This has had an impact on the Red Squirrel, whose diet is restricted to mostly Hazelnuts, and Pinecones. Whereas the Grey’s have a varied diet and will eat anything edible. The Pine Marten is making a comeback in the woodlands adjacent to Cloneen Village.
The Marten is known to be a predator of Grey Squirrels, which Squirrels are less agile, and are heavier than Reds, thus are easier to catch. This will help to keep their numbers down and is another link in the biological diversity puzzle.
Though now considered native domestic cats seemed to have increased in numbers in the vicinity of the village and are having an adverse effect on small bird populations locally. Apart from the fact that they kill many small birds, they cause havoc in gardens where birds are nesting by worrying them, so that they cannot settle down to hatch. When cats are on the prowl, they should be fitted with a bell to warn birds of their presence.
Aquatic animals, which were plentiful in the Anner River, are now scarce or absent completely. Fresh water Pearl Mussel is now no longer to be seen in the river that was once the main habitat for them in South Tipperary. Pike and Eel are either gone completely or are very rarely encountered.
White Clawed Crayfish are still there, as can be seen from the remains left by Otters on the stones under the Bridges. Though the absence of these animals cannot be blamed on alien predators, pollution of our waterways in the seventy’s and eighty’s is to blame. The last three years have taken a heavy toll on insects having had two severe winters. This was followed last year by one of the coldest and wettest summers on record, whereas this year (2013) is one of the better Summers, with good sunny periods and high temperatures, the Honey
Bee especially is under pressure mostly because of an alien Mite (the Varroa parasitic mite) which attachés itself to the bees body, feeds on the flesh until the bee dies, a swarm of wild honey bees is now a rare site in the Cloneen area.
Three main factors are involved in the changing flora and fauna of our island, climate change is one of the reasons. Some exotic species are here, others are getting ever closer to our shores and its only a matter of time before they arrive. This includes the Asian hornets (Vespa velutina), which have devastated beehives across most of Europe and according to the European environmental agency (EEA) will arrive in Ireland within the next few years. It joins other species, which includes Asian tiger mosquito, Spanish slugs, New Zealand flat worm, Wild Boer, and many others. The second reason is the huge volumes in traffic carrying goods into the country every day. It is only to be expected that animals big and small will be amongst the goods. Thirdly, many people nowadays like to keep exotic pets and like the child’s puppy for Christmas, they soon get tired of them and are careless about keeping them secure and so they escape in to the wild.
Article by: Paddy Clancy, Cloneen