(back to index of Mammals in Ireland)
Land Mammals (continued):
The Pygmy Shrew:
The Pygmy Shrew is our smallest land mammal. It is found throughout Ireland though seldom seen, as they stay well hidden in the undergrowth. They have very poor eyesight and they hunt by smell and by touch, using well developed whiskers. While hunting, it frequently squeaks and it must eat at least its own body weight in food per day. Because of its high metabolic activity, the Pygmy Shrew can only sleep for a few hours at a time, otherwise it will starve.
Pygmy Shrews breed from April to October with two or three broods per year producing about six young each time.
In autumn the Pygmy Shrew grows a thick coat to help survive the winter. However, due to a shortage of food and the cold, many do not make it. The average life-span is about 18 months.
Because of their aggressive nature, sharp-tongued women are sometimes called shrews or are said to have a shrewish nature. They are preyed upon by owls, foxes and stoats. Many are brought in by domestic cats, and in fact this is often the only time that many humans ever get to see a live Pygmy Shrew.
The herbivorous mammals in Ireland are the Rabbit and the Hare.
The Rabbit was introduced into Ireland by the Normans in the 13th Century and is found throughout the country. It is thought that they were introduced from the continent to provide sport for noblemen and as a new source of food and fur. They are normally active from dusk onwards, but if the area is quiet they will appear in broad daylight to feed. Because Rabbits are herbivorous, and because plant material is so hard to digest, they pass their food through their digestive system twice. After the faeces are passed pout of the body, they will ingest it to digest it once again to enable a further extraction of nutrients.
Rabbits have large ears and their hearing is very sensitive. Their eyes are set on either side of the head, thereby enabling them a greater field of view. They feed mostly on grass and live in underground burrows called warrens. Although they are capable of breeding throughout the year, most are born from April to June.
The viral disease, myxomatosis, was introduced in Australia to reduce their huge numbers there. It was introduced in Ireland in the 1950's and is spread by the rabbit flea. There was widespread condemnation in Ireland of the use of this method of control.
There are two species of hare in Ireland, the Brown Hare, which was introduced from mainland Europe and the native or Irish Hare. The Brown Hare is only found in the lowland areas of the northeast of the country, whereas the Irish Hare is present all over the country.
The hare lives out in the open from the moment of birth. Young hares are called leverets and they have a coat of fur and are soon fully mobile. Hares rest up in a form which is usually orientated so that the animal can sit with its back against the wind.
Hares are commonly observed in early spring, often careering around the countryside, "boxing", apparently oblivious to danger. The hare's large eyes have a very glassy appearance which enhances the idea that there is madness in the stare. Recently, hares have taken up residence along the grassy verges of airport runways and often run alongside planes at take off and landing. Hares were very common on the Bull Island in north Co. Dublin, but in recent times their numbers here have been reduced due perhaps to the number of dogs present. The male is called the Jack and the female, the Jill.
Although a protected species, hares may be captured, under licence, for coursing by muzzled greyhounds in accordance of the rules of the Irish Coursing Club. Hares used for coursing must be tagged prior to release and not used for coursing again.
The remaining land mammals are from the Order Carnivora, and they include: the Fox, Stoat, Badger, Mink, Pine Martin and Otter.
The Fox is common throughout Ireland and unlikely to be mixed up with any other animal. They are found in all types of habitat and recently are appearing with more regularity in suburban gardens. They have been known to breed in the city of Dublin for over 50 years now. Although classified as a carnivore, foxes also take fruit and berries and are known to raid dustbins in cities. Many people feed foxes with "titbits" nightly to encourage them into the garden. Male foxes are called dogs and females, vixens.
Young foxes (cubs) are born in an "earth" below ground. The vixen bears one litter of four or five in a season. The young are born blind with short, dark fur. It is a major task for the adult foxes to provide enough food for the growing cubs.
Foxes have long been persecuted by man, particularly farmers and gamekeepers. Foxes may indulge in surplus killing, e.g. young reared game birds or hens in a hen house. Local gamekeepers kill large numbers of foxes. However, the effect this is having on numbers of game birds is generally unknown as other foxes soon move into the vacated territory.
The effect of fox hunting on the population of foxes is also unclear. It is unlikely that this seriously affects the population countrywide, however, it should not be forgotten that individual foxes can die very painful deaths all in the cause of this "sport".
The Stoat is a small but savage animal and the only mammal in Ireland that regularly kills prey much heavier than itself. They are very curious animals and are often seen out in daytime, however, they commonly hunt at night. The Rabbit forms the major part of its diet. The Stoat kills the Rabbit by repeated bites to the back of the neck, inflicted while it clings on to its victim's back. Rats, mice, birds and their eggs are commonly taken. Like the Fox, Stoats also indulge in surplus killing
Stoats breed only once a year and the young are born from March to May. Anywhere from six to thirteen young may be present in the litter.
Stoats are unpopular with gamekeepers and farmers, due to their liking for game birds and poultry. However, they do keep down agricultural pests such as Rabbits and rats. Apart from man, the Stoat has no natural enemy.
The Badger, old Broc, has often been described as our oldest landowner. There is no mistaking the Badger with its white face and distinctive black stripes running over each eye. They are nocturnal and widespread in Ireland. The Badger home is underground and is called a sett. This is a series of intercommunicating tunnels and chambers, generally found in woodland or edge of woodland often on a slope. Setts can have a large number of entrances and hundreds of metres of tunnels. They are excavated by the Badgers and up to 25 tonnes of soil have been known to be removed by them.
Badgers are communal animals with one male dominant in each group. Badger setts can be occupied by a clan for many generations. They are regularly cleaned and extended. In most setts, Badgers use only one chamber for breeding. Badgers spend a lot of time at play and grooming, suggesting that they are sufficiently successful and do not need to spend every waking hour searching for food. Play is very important in social animals, strengthening the bond between members of the group.
Although classed in the Order Carnivora, the Badger is truly omnivorous. The favourite food is earthworms, although acorns, beech mast and berries is taken along with beetles, slugs, snails and small mammals.
Bovine tuberculosis is endemic in Badgers, with most groups containing at least one infected animal. A lot of debate is ongoing as to whether outbreaks of TB in cattle is due to cross-infection from Badgers. Another major threat to Badgers is the illegal "sport" of badger-baiting.
The Mink is a member of the weasel family and the mink found in Ireland is the American Mink which is bigger than the European Mink. This mink is an escapee from mink farms which were established here in the 1950's. The Mink has long been valued for its pelt. It was inevetible then, that some would escape and breed in the wild. They occupy a diversity of habitats, woodlands and parklands, particularly those with access to streams and ponds. Unlike Otters, they are active during daylight hours. They are not as efficient at hunting in water as the Otter, but this is more than made up for when on land. The diet implies that the Mink is an opportunistic predator feeding on duck, pheasant, fish, crab, rodents, eels etc. As with Foxes and Stoats, surplus killing occurs which can lead to problems on islands with bird colonies.
Mink have linear territories and the removal of a dominant male can lead to great unrest among the sub-ordinates to take that place.
As the Mink is very destructive of poultry and game stocks, control by trapping is necessary. However, the overall impact of Mink in Ireland has not been as catastrophic as was first predicted.
The Pine Marten:
The Pine Marten is a somewhat cat-like animal spending most of its time on trees (hence the Irish name, cat crainn). It has a body similar to the Stoat, but larger and with a bushier tail. Pine Martens are found mainly in the west of the country and their numbers are increasing lately as has their spread. Their preferred habitat is deciduous woodland with good ground cover. They are solitary animals.
Although a very skilled hunter, Pine Martens hunt primarily on the ground, feeding mainly on rats and mice and occasionally taking squirrels.
They breed once a year and the litter of generally three animals are born in April. The young are called kits.
The Otter, although rare throughout Europe is found in every Irish county. Otters live in lakes, rivers, streams and around our coasts. Coastal otters require a source of fresh water to wash salt from their fur to maintain its insulating properties. The diet of the Otter is primarily fish, both coarse, but also includes Salmon and Trout. Birds and young mammals may also be taken.
Otters rest up in a "holt" and an otter may have a number of holts within its territory. Female otters often make their holts under the roots of an overhanging alder tree. The cubs are protected from enemies because the entrance is under water.
Adult Otters breed once a year and the young are born generally in the summer months. Cubs stay in the holt for about 8 weeks after birth and they are generally reluctant to take to the water, needing encouragement from the mother.
As the Irish population is now the healthiest in Europe, this population is of international importance and strictly protected.
The remaining land mammals in Ireland are the deer and the feral goat. These are members of the Order Artiodactyla (the even-footed mammals).
The Red Deer
is the largest deer in Ireland. They are most common in counties Kerry, Donegal and Wicklow (those in Donegal and Wicklow were introduced in the 19th Century from Scotland. They are herbivores, feeding on grass, leaves, acorns and herbs. They can damage woodlands by stripping the bark from young trees in order to obtain minerals contained in the inner bark.
were introduced to Ireland in the mid 19th Century and are the smallest of our deer. They are found in counties Wicklow, Wexford, Kerry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Limerick. However, their genetic diversity is poor as they have all descended from a small founder population. Sika are opportunistic feeders, taking whatever vegetation is available.
were first introduced to Ireland after the Norman invasion. They are now widespread and the most common deer in Ireland. The best known herd of Fallow Deer in Ireland is in the Phoenix Park. They are here for over 300 years now and this herd numbers about 650 animals. The best time of year to view these beautiful animals is in October or November, i.e., the rutting season. The rutting season lasts about four weeks and during this time dominant bucks form territories and mate with the does. They are extremely noisy at this time, often for hours on end. They feed off grass, leaves and twigs, cropping branches to about 2 metres. Their coat colour varies considerably. However, the summer coat is a rich glossy brown with white spots. The tail is white below and black on top.
The Feral Goat:
Feral or wild goats are found in small herds on remote mountain slopes and off shore islands. They feed mainly on grass and shrubs. The young (kids) are born in February or March and are unable to run with their mothers for several days after their birth and are often found lying motionless under cover. These kids are not abandoned and should be left alone. Occasionally twins are born.
One of the more famous goat herds in Ireland is that which inhabits the Golf Links at Lahinch, Co. Clare. They are said to forecast the weather more accurately than a barometer, for, when rain is imminent, they congregate close to the Clubhouse. In fine conditions, they are well spread out over the golf-course.