What do we know about Irish endangered animals?

Zoe Fagan

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In Ireland the term ‘endangered animal’ is practically unheard of.  Yet, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) species programme, Ireland is home to 29 endangered species with some bird species populations dropping 80 per cent in just 25 years.

Although a general awareness of threatened species is limited, Irish birds of prey, which are also at risk of becoming extinct, are making the headlines. Yet, the received media attention comes from controversy and disagreements. As such, these endangered species are suffering twofold, from habitat destruction and persecution.

Four hen harrier chicks in nest
Heather as a chick – photo credit BirdWatchIreland

Recently, the death of a particular bird of prey, the Hen Harrier, sparked controversy throughout social media. Heather, a two year old female Hen Harrier, was found dead in the Inny Valley, near Waterville, Co. Kerry. An investigation found she had been shot near her roost over the weekend of January 10th-12th 2015.

Heather was the subject of a joint project between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the rural development body IRD Duhallow. She was fitted with a satellite-tracking device shortly after she hatched in 2013 in east Kerry and since then, her travels were tracked and logged to an online blog followed by thousands of people.

Hen Harrier flying high in sky around Cork
Heather flying around Cork – photo credit BirdWatchIreland

Dr. Barry O’Donoghue, a member of the National Parks & Wildlife Service, who oversaw the satellite tracking project, found this female Hen Harrier after she was shot. He said, “It was heart-breaking to find this young bird when she had been shot.  An individual that gave so much joy to thousands of people that followed her progress, killed in the prime of her health.  This was not just one bird, but the hopes and dreams for a species that is vanishing from our country.”

It is not just human activity that is endangering Irish animal species. Many of our native species are under threat as foreign species introduced offer competition. A study, published in the journal Biological Invasions, found that if the problem persists, many of the native species will die out in at least 80 percent of their habitat. “The introduction of alien mammals to Ireland over the last 100 years has had major detrimental effects, threatening our indigenous habitats and species,” said Ian Montgomery, a researcher who led the study.

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel eating a nut
Red Squirrel – photo credit Peter Trimming (Flickr)

One of the most heard of endangered species is the red squirrel with its picture gracing Junior and Senior schoolbooks. The red squirrel is currently threatened by human activities and also the presence of the grey squirrel, which Montgomery said “passes a deadly virus to native red squirrels.” Additionally, the grey squirrel has adapted to find the red squirrel’s winter food hoards resulting in starvation of the red squirrel. With rising human populations comes an increase in the numbers of domestic cats and dogs and as a result, an increase in the mortality rate of red squirrels.

Pine Marten

Pine Marten - photo credit Flickpicpete (Flickr)
Pine Marten – photo credit Flickpicpete (Flickr)

Although the pine marten has plenty of animal predators, such as certain birds of prey, humans pose the biggest threat. The species’ rapid decline were related to hunting for its fur; loss of habitat through deforestation; direct and indirect poisoning and persecution as a predator of livestock populations. In the last 30 years, the distribution of pine marten in Ireland has slowly increased due to an increase in afforestation, less persecution and deliberate re-introductions of the pine marten into certain areas. But despite this recent increase, pine marten currently only occur in approximately half of their historical distribution range, being extremely rare in Munster and Ulster.

Red Deer

Red Deer looking at camera
Red Deer – photo credit Smudge 9000 (Flickr)

Ireland’s largest wild mammal is the red deer. The primary concern for the red deer is the potential hybridisation between sika and red deer, two different species of deer. The Kerry red deer population are the descendants of a Neolithic introduction of red deer by humans around 5,000 years ago. Equally of concern is the potential interbreeding of the pure Kerry red deer with other red deer which could will threaten the pure genetic integrity of the Kerry red deer population. Overshooting is also a concern for this particular species but thanks to reintroduction and conservation efforts, its populations are not suffering the same fate as Ireland’s other native species.

Grey Partridge

Grey Partidge walking through grass
Grey Partridge – photo credit Stefan Berndtsson (Flickr)

Hunting and habitat destruction have plagued Ireland’s native grey partridge and it is now reduced to a single viable breeding population, at Bord na Móna’s Lough Boora Parklands, in Co Offaly. But, thanks to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and organisations like the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust, these birds are slowly making a comeback with several partridges being released in north County Dublin, a place where they haven’t been seen in the wild in decades. However, the grey partridge still remains red-listed due to its small and localised breeding population.

Pygmy Shrew

Cute little pygmy shrew
Pygmy Shrew – photo credit Andrew (Flickr)

The pygmy shrew is the only shrew native to Ireland. This animal has completely vanished in parts of Ireland where two invasive species, the bank vole and the greater white toothed shrew, are found. Additionally, the pygmy shrew is a favourite prey species for a number of other animals and birds in Ireland including foxes, pine martens, stoats and bird of prey. The main concern for the pygmy shrew relates to the discovery of the new greater white-toothed shrew species which, though beneficial to predatory birds in Ireland, may threaten already established rodents as they will compete for similar habitats and food. The population of the greater white toothed shrew is likely to increase over time and may replace the native pygmy shrew completely in some areas due to their greater reproductive capacity.

Wood Mouse

Cute little wood mouse peeking out from tree
Wood mouse – photo credit jans canon (Flickr)

The tiny wood mouse has suffered tremendously in recent years as a result of invasive species and being prey of larger predatory mammals such as stoats, badgers, foxes and pine martens. The yearly mortality rate of wood mice can be as high as 90% in some areas and on top of this, they are sensitive to large-scale environmental changes, especially in rural habitats during harvesting season. Wood mice found in more urban areas are susceptible to poisoning from chemicals leaking into their ecosystems.  As it stands the wood mouse is considered widespread and is not currently protected by any legislation.

Two grey wolves
Grey wolf now regionally extinct in Ireland – photo credit Ronnie Macdonald (Flickr)

All these animals are classified as vulnerable or near-threatened which means they are likely to become at risk of extinction in the near future and could follow the same path as the grey wolf which is now regionally extinct in Ireland. The last wolf seen in Ireland was a female shot in County Carlow in 1786.

Irish schools may touch on our native species but too much time is spent focused on endangered animals abroad. The greatest change starts at home so it’s time to educate ourselves about our endangered animals and build the awareness which is notably needed. The relationship between nature and human activity is complicated but this is not about the environment versus people; we must remember the central issue is the protection of animals on the verge of extinction.

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Zoe Fagan