Mooney Goes Wild Monday 27 July 2020

If you notice something unusual in the natural world in your garden or on your travels or have a question about wildlife, ask the Mooney Goes Wild experts! We will do our best to get you the answer but remember a picture paints a thousand words so, if it is possible and safe to do so, take a picture and send it to Mooney@rte.ie

Mooney Goes Wild

Mooney Goes Wild

Derek Mooney and guests explore the natural world in all its forms.

Second Chance Documentary: The Eider Duck

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Cherished and respected by mankind for centuries, supremely adapted for life in cold northern waters and the subject of some of the very earliest conservation measures in the world, the Common Eider is a remarkable bird but more people know about its feathers than the bird itself. So treasured is the Eiderdown, and so labour-intensive is the annual harvest of it, depending on the size of your bed, an Eiderdown quilt can sell for as much as €15,000 in some Dublin outlets.

That its feathers are far more famous than the bird that bears them is something of a pity: it deserves to be better known for its own sake. It is tough, it is beautiful, and it sounds like nothing else in all of nature.

In this special Mooney Goes Wild programme, Derek snuggles up with the Common Eider.

(Photo courtesy of Gudrun Gauksdottir, Chairperson of the Association of Eider Farmers)

Eiders are perfectly adapted for life in cold seawater, and they nest along the coastline of northern parts of North America, eastern Asia and Europe, including in Ireland. The male Eider – the drake – is a very striking bird indeed. His body is largely white, with a contrasting black belly, sides and rear end, and with a delicate salmon-pink wash on his chest. He has a black cap on top of his head, along with a very sloped, yellowish "Roman nose"-style beak. Most striking of all, though, are the patches of pastel lime-green on the sides and rear of his neck, more on which anon.

The female, as with most female ducks, is altogether more drab in appearance, being a mottled brown colour all over. Her brown feathers provide vital camouflage when she is incubating her eggs, helping her to blend in with her surroundings and avoid detection by predators. The male Eider, as is the case with most duck species, plays no role in incubation or childcare, and so can afford to look as flashy and conspicuous as he likes.

(Photo - Derek Mooney)

Eiders live for 20 to 25 years and return to the same nesting grounds year after year. It is the female Eider alone who produces the famed eiderdown. Each adult female only produces approximately 16 g of it each year: roughly half an ounce. When building her nest, she plucks this pre-loosened down from her breast and uses it to create a soft and extremely well-insulated lining for her precious eggs.

It's not just her eggs that are precious. Eiderdown commands such high prices because it is so scarce a commodity. Eiders can't be farmed or raised in captivity to ensure a supply of their soft down feathers, so all of the world’s eiderdown must come from wild sources.  It is said that each year, more Rolls Royce cars are produced than eiderdown quilts!

Crucially, no Eiders are actually harmed in the production and commercial harvesting of eiderdown. For centuries, communities in northern Europe and North America have known that it is vital to safeguard the female Eiders and their nests, so that the birds will return again to nest in subsequent years, and to ensure that the population of these remarkable ducks remains strong and healthy. The Eiders benefit from the protection, while the humans benefit from a perpetual supply of the finest natural insulation material in the world: the ideal symbiotic relationship, and a perfect example of sustainable natural harvesting.

Much of what has been traditionally called "eiderdown" in Ireland has been anything but. The word almost became a generic term for any feather-stuffed quilt, but not all feathers are created equal. The vast majority of the so-called "eiderdowns" in Irish homes are actually stuffed with much cheaper domestic goose or Mallard down, a by-product of the massive Chinese poultry farming industry. These down feathers do themselves provide excellent insulation, and at a much more affordable price . . but true eiderdown, from the breast of the female Eider duck, is more than twice as effective an insulator, and far lighter to boot. Unlike other down feathers, its filaments cling together like Velcro, meaning that it is much more efficient at trapping and retaining warm air.

(Photo courtesy of Gudrun Gauksdottir, Chairperson of the Association of Eider Farmers)

The scarcity of the product and its incomparable insulating abilities have meant that the laws of supply and demand have long controlled the eiderdown market. For centuries, it was considered the preserve of the rich and powerful, and became a status symbol and a hallmark of supreme luxury. For example, the Titanic, which sank in 1912, had 800 eiderdown duvets onboard, to cater for the needs of its first-class passengers.

As a species, the Eider is doing fairly well. They tend to live in quite remote areas, away from the human pressures that now afflict so many other waterbirds. Also, because they dive deep to feed on bottom-dwelling molluscs and crustaceans, as opposed to surface-dwelling fish, they don’t suffer to such a degree as other seabirds from the impacts that rampant commercial overfishing and pollution have had on marine ecosystems.

(Photo courtesy of Gudrun Gauksdottir, Chairperson of the Association of Eider Farmers)

A particularly famous colony of Eiders lives on the Farne Islands in Northumberland, England. These birds were the subject of one of the first ever bird protection laws, established by Saint Cuthbert in the year 676. He even encouraged the ducks to nest inside his church, around the altar, and placed them under his personal protection. It must have worked: around 1,000 pairs still nest in St. Cuthbert’s colony today, and locals still call them "Cuddy’s Ducks", "Cuddy" being a shortened version of "Cuthbert".

(Erla Fridricksdottir, CEO of family run firm KING EIDER - Photo - Derek Mooney)

With or without saintly protection, female Eiders are excellent, attentive mothers. Not alone do they pluck their own breast feathers to ensure a soft, warm nest lining for their eggs and chicks, they perform 100% of the egg incubation duties. Incubation of the 4 to 6 eggs lasts for 25 for 26 days, and so attentive is the female that she won’t eat at all for the entire duration.

She also has a pretty special trick up her sleeve . . . well, not exactly her sleeve! If a predator, such as a fox, threatens the nest and chases the female away, as she flies up to escape, she deliberately defecates all over her eggs. It is thought that this is probably an attempt to make the eggs less palatable to the predator, in the hope that it will decide to give them a miss.

( Niall Hatch - Development Officer at BirdWatch Ireland)

After hatching, female Eiders also go to great lengths to protect their young ducklings as they grow. Like other duck species, Eider chicks are extremely advanced – or precocious, as an ornithologist might say – when they hatch out of their eggs. They can run and swim immediately, and their mother quickly leads them away from the nest and out to the relative safety of the sea.

Eiders are colonial nesters, breeding in groups which range in size from a couple of dozen to over 15,000 birds, and the females help each other with the child-rearing duties. Remarkably, they operate a crèche system: while most of the mothers journey far out to deeper waters in order to feed, some stay behind and look after the floating rafts of fluffy youngsters – up to 150 ducklings each. Think of it as sort of a duck day-care facility.

Around 100 pairs of Eider breed annually in Ireland, with the coasts of Sligo, Donegal and Antrim being particular strongholds. In winter, numbers swell as migrants from Scotland and Scandinavia join our resident flocks to feed, and the Eider could be described as being locally common. The small size of our breeding population makes the species somewhat vulnerable, however.

The Bird Atlas 2007-2011, spanning Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, was a landmark collaboration between staff and volunteers of BirdWatch Ireland, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club. One of its key discoveries was that the breeding range of the Eider in these islands was gradually expanding southwards, and that the species was colonising new areas. For example, once a rare sight off the coast of Co. Dublin, previously considered to be too far south for the species, it is now regularly seen off the town of Skerries.

The Dawn Chorus

Back from the Brink is a one-hour programme that plans to celebrate the hard work, dedication, and commitment of conservationists who are striving to save endangered species from extinction. Here, Derek Mooney discusses this unique, pan-European natural history event.

I've been working in natural history broadcasting for over 30 years now. In that time, I’ve seen some truly wonderful sights, but I’ve also seen first-hand the problems that wildlife is facing, both in Ireland and around the globe. There has been a growing awareness amongst the general public, particularly in the last few years, of the threats to our environment and biodiversity.

In many ways, this has been long overdue, but I’m also aware that for a lot of people the current state of our planet can seem overwhelming, even depressing. We are increasingly bombarded by tales of doom and gloom. Issues like climate change and animal extinction are too often made to seem insurmountable, as though tragedy is a foregone conclusion, but that’s simply not true. It’s not too late to help nature. 

We need to find a way to bring some much-needed optimism back into the conservation. That’s definitely what attracted me most to Back from the Brink. Through my work over the years on Mooney Goes Wild, in particular, I have met thousands of dedicated scientists and conservationists out there, fighting hard to save endangered species and working miracles. By telling some of their stories, I thought we could inspire people and show that there is every reason for hope.

Nature is resilient, and if given a chance it can recover from all sorts of abuse. It was once thought that the Red Kite, a stunning bird of prey, was lost forever from Irish skies, shot and poisoned to extinction. To see dozens of them now flying over the Co. Wicklow countryside again, all thanks to the dedication of people who simply weren’t prepared to give up, was a humbling and inspirational experience.

The same goes for the enormous efforts that I witnessed to safeguard the growing populations of Wolves in Italy, Brown Bears in Spain and Eurasian Beavers in The Netherlands, to give a few key examples from the programme. Perhaps the most sobering part for me personally was seeing the dramatic effects that climate change has wrought on the Swiss Alps, where glaciers are rapidly melting and high mountain habitats are disappearing, along with the unique animals that live there. Even then, against all the odds, people are fighting back.

Back from the Brink is not just a story about animals. At its core, it’s really a story about people. We, humans, have caused our planet’s problems, but people are also the key to fixing them. Literally every conservationist I interviewed for the programme spoke with such passion about their work, coupled with an unshakeable belief that what they were doing was utterly worthwhile, and I think that shines through on the screen. It must do because even the production crews, and there were many across Europe, not least our own team here in Ireland, headed by Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and scientific advisor Niall Hatch, were totally dedicated to this project.

We want to empower as many of those viewers as possible, and to reinforce the truth that every single one of us can play a role in saving endangered species and the wider environment. It’s not just about doing your bit – it takes much more than a bit, it takes a lot! – but about understanding that we need to accept fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives. Having seen what can be achieved when the will is there, it will be well worth it, believe me.

Watch Back from the Brink at 6:30pm on Monday, 30th of December on RTÉ One.

Second Chance Archive

Have another chance to hear some of our Mooney Goes Wild programmes uncovered from the RTÉ Radio 1 archive. Click the links below for more information. 

The Dance of the Cuckoos - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

The Blue Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Feathers - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Bergen Whale - Mooney Goes Wild Special

Sparrows  - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

Wildlife Film Makers - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

The Common Swift - Mooney Goes Wild Special 

E-mail: mooney@rte.ie        Facebook: facebook.com/rtenature          Twitter: @NatureRTE

Ireland and Climate Change: Are we up for it? Professor John Sweeney - Maynooth University

When the countries of the world assembled for the now famous Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they undertook to take the necessary steps to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change. Defining what was dangerous proved a difficult task, however, and largely as a result of the European Union’s prodding, a value of 2oC warming above pre-industrial times was generally adopted as the criterion. Gradually the rest of the world fell into line with this, except the Small Island Developing States of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. For them this was something that would have condemned their island homes to submergence beneath the rising sea. So when the Paris Agreement emerged in 2015, it had a nuanced objective: "to hold increases in global temperatures to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit increase to 1.5 °C." To flesh out what the 1.5oC target would actually mean, the Conference asked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to produce a Special Report, which they did in October of last year.

The report confirmed that significantly greater climate problems would be experienced at a warming of 1.5oc compared to the present day, even though we have already warmed by 1oC over pre-industrial levels. These would include increases in extremes of heat and heavy rainfall events in several regions, accompanied by more frequent and more intense droughts. But most worrying was the realisation that the remaining carbon budget to avoid this warming would only last for a decade or two at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. After this budget was exhausted the carbon would be in the atmosphere for a century or more. Globally, emissions needed to fall by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030. It was this realisation that galvanised many groups and energised many individuals around the world, culminating in the mass protests we see around us. This was true, even in an Ireland whose compliance with its international obligations are failing miserably and its laggard status approaching the level of a national shaming. As a developed country with historical responsibility, we should be bearing more of the burden of tackling this problem than most other countries. Instead our per capita emissions are 50% higher than the EU average and place us as the second worst contributor to climate change on a per capita basis within the EU. The recently released 2018 figures confirm we are now 5M tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the limit we agreed solemnly with our EU partners over a decade ago.

At the same time as we declared a climate emergency in Ireland this year we also declared a biodiversity emergency. This was in recognition that Ireland was also experiencing serious threats to its species and habitats, partly due to climate and also a number of other drivers, such as agricultural intensification. Another UN report in spring 2019 confirmed that human actions are now threatening more species with global extinction than ever before. The current rate of species extinction is 10-100 times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years. Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.

In Ireland, our peatland, coastal marsh and mountain habitats are particularly at risk. 29 different bird species and 120  species of flowering plants are in serious decline. Some bird species such as the Corn Bunting and Corncock have become extinct. Others such as the Curlew have been decimated and many species such as the pearl mussel, bumblebee, barn owl and marsh fritillary butterfly face serious threats. At the same time invasive species are moving into newly favourable ecological niches providing additional competition and stress to native species.

Ireland has warmed by 0.5oC over the past 30 years and is likely to warm by a similar amount over the next 2-3 decades. This  will have impacts on our growing season, making crops like maize much more feasible to grow. However, projected changes in rainfall are likely to be the main climate change problem Ireland will face. Already we are seeing an increase in intense rainfall events. Increased winter flood problems will result and the government will need to find €1B of taxpayers’ money to protect against future events. Winter storms are also likely to become more problematical. Winter 2013/14 was the stormiest winter in Ireland for at least 143 years. Winter 2015/16 was the wettest winter on record over half of Ireland. Former hurricanes such as Ophelia and Lorenzo pose additional late autumn threats which are likely to increase as the Atlantic warms and summer droughts will bring their own difficulties for agriculture and municipal water supplies. All in all, it is changing weather extremes which will bring the message of climate change home to Irish people and instil in them the urgency of playing a constructive role in international negotiations.

Conscious that it their legacy that is under threat, young people have been in the vanguard of protest. The ‘Fridays for Future’ schools protest has taken up the baton of Greta Thunberg who has become the icon that communicates the reality of climate change more effectively than a hundred graphs and tables. Armed with the factual knowledge of the Green Schools, it is to these inspirational leaders that the rest of society must now turn. The time for tinkering around the edges with excuses about efficiency or identifying ‘low hanging fruit’ on the basis of economic cost benefit curves is now over. The problem is now an ethical one of intergenerational equity, one where scientists can no longer be labelled ‘alarmists’ but rather ‘realists’. In an emergency the unthinkable has to be considered and Ireland is now at a crossroads where the next decade will determine what legacy we leave to the next generation. It’s an awesome responsibility. Are we up for it or not?

Professor John Sweeney is Ireland’s foremost climatologists and was a  lecturer at Maynooth University’s Geography Department for 40 years until his recent retirement. Over the past 30 years he has published approximately 60 scientific papers and edited and co-authored texts on various aspects of climatology and climate change in Ireland.

Hedgerows

Statement from BirdWatch Ireland, Thurs Feb 28th 2019:

BirdWatch Ireland wishes to remind the public, local authorities and contractors that hedge-cutting is NOT permitted between 1st March and 31st August inclusive, except in the case of any of the derogations permitted under the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended. The Heritage Act 2018 gives the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the power to make certain changes to these dates, but it is important to note that, as yet, the Minister has not done so. As a result, the usual dates when hedge-cutting is prohibited currently remain unchanged.

It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here.  To read the Heritage Bill 2016, as passed by Dáil Éireann on July 5th 2018, click here.  To read the Heritage Act 2018, click here.

To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.

Caring For Wild Animals

Please note that many species of mammals, birds, invertebrates etc... are protected under law and that, even with the best of intentions, only someone holding a relevant licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service should attempt the care of these animals.  For full details, please click here to read the NPWS Checklist of protected & rare species in Ireland.  If you are concerned about a wild animal, please contact your local wildlife ranger - click here for details.

 IMPORTANT NOTICE

Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild.  If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie

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E-mail: mooney@rte.ie

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Presenter: Derek Mooney

Series Producer: Ana Leddy

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