Extinct in Ireland, September 21st – the red squirrel

OK, this entry in my September series of species rendered extinct in Ireland since human settlement here may cause many readers to do a double-take. The red squirrel? Extinct? But … isn’t the red squirrel not only with us, but making a comeback

“Iconic” is a highly over-used word, but in the case of the red squirrel and the context of Ireland’s mammalian fauna it seems apt. Indeed, I discovered the National Biodiversity Data Centre having seen a red squirrel near Marlfield in Clonmel. I thought “there must be some way of reporting this” and thus the at times quite compulsive world of biodiversity data submission was revealed to me.

The widely known story of Irish squirrels is one in which the native red squirrel has been displaced by the implacable invasion of the grey squirrel. In recent years however the tables have turned a bit, amongst other reasons due to the resurgence of the pine marten (like the corncrake, a species which has nearly made it onto this list, albeit unlike the corncrake it seems to have bounced back.

What is forgotten is that contemporary Irish red squirrels are actually the descendants of introduced animals. From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Generally considered a native species,. Went extinct , probably due to deforestation, although also exploited for its pelt, around the end of the eighteenth century. Reintroduced with stock from England between 1815 and 1876.

Fogarty has a rather dry sense of humour which is never more evident as during the more discursive passages on the squirrel story in the chapter in Whittled Away on extinct Irish species. The reintroduction of the red squirrel, like the reintroduction of the Capercaillie in Scotland, was an example of rewilding avant la lettre.

In the past I had some rewilding. After all, isn’t it perpetuating the illusion that we are in control of nature, and isn’t it an enterprise fraught with the prospect of unintended consequences. My view has changed on this with more reading and a more nuanced understanding. Fogarty, like other authors I respect, is enthusiastic about it (in fairness to myself some mass media articles about it miss out on the nuance). For a while I ignorantly thought it was simply re-introducing “iconic” species for the sake of it, not realising that the whole principle is that a whole ecosystem surrounds those animals. I think now that it is something that needs to be done with care and consideration.

This article from Ireland’s Wildlife has more detail on the 19th Century reintroductions:

Luckily, we are quite fortunate to have an excellent account of the red squirrel in Ireland during the 1800s. Richard Barrington, an important Irish naturalist conducted a distribution study of the red squirrel in Ireland in 1880, a paper titled “On the introduction of the red squirrel into Ireland”. Barrington believed that there were no trustworthy early records of red squirrels in Ireland, and that they were never naturally here. In fact, he disputes some of the historical mentions of red squirrels as erroneous, and quite openly criticises the ‘humbler classes’ for not knowing their pine marten from a stoat. He must have been quite the character! We now know that red squirrels did exist in Ireland prior to their reintroduction in the 1800s as the historical export records showed that thousands of red squirrel skins were annually exported from Ireland in the 16th century. The cessation of these exports coincided with an international depression in the fur trading market. Woodland cover was also depleted over this time due to large scale deforestation which drastically reduced the available habitat for red squirrels. Forest cover in Ireland around the year 1600 was estimated to be anywhere between 3-12%. A combination of these factors probably led to the extinction of the red squirrel in Ireland. If red squirrels did survive this period, they were likely to have been found in remote areas that were too difficult to extract the timber from, and therefore were also likely to go unobserved and undocumented.

Back in 1880 with no access to the wonderful mapping system now available at the National Biodiversity Data Centre http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/, one had to write to one’s friends to establish the presence or absence of a species. Barrington wrote to the big houses in Ireland to establish if the red squirrel was present in their area, and if so when its arrival was first noted, and had any introductions been documented?

What emerged from this was some very interesting information. The first documented introduction of the red squirrel in Ireland refers to dates between 1815 and 1825 in Glenmore Estate, Ashford, Co. Wicklow. Other introductions are referred to in Castle Howard estate in Co. Wicklow, where the Countess of Wicklow, Alice Howard, was said to have introduced the species. The Wicklow introduction had spread into Dublin by 1861, and a separate introduction conducted by Joseph Shackleton also took place in Lucan, Dublin in 1876. Joseph was a relative of the great Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton.

Colonel Bruen was reported to have introduced red squirrels into Co. Carlow. At the time of writing, Barrington also had reports of red squirrels in Abbeyleix and Portarlington, and considered that these may have originated from another introduction. Red squirrels were introduced into Birr Castle Co. Offaly by Lord Rosse around the date of 1864. These red squirrels were said to have originated from Sussex and Yorkshire . Barrington believed that these red squirrels had subsequently spread into Tipperary by the time of writing.

Red squirrels were reported to be quite common in Co. Galway in 1880. This was again attributed to an introduction into Castle Taylor, Garbally, by Lord and Lady Glancarty, who introduced two to four pairs of red squirrels that they obtained from London in 1833. A stable boy was later reported to have introduced the red squirrels from Galway into Roscommon in 1865. Red squirrels were also introduced into Castleforbes, Co. Longford between 1836 and 1837. An introduction into Rathowen, Co. Westmeath was also documented to have taken place, by the Battersby family.

In the North of the country, red squirrels were reported near Ramelton, Co. Donegal. When Barrington investigated this, he found that a George Hill had kept tame red squirrels on his property, and it is likely that some escaped. Red squirrels were introduced from England into Moneyglass in Co. Antrim by the Egan family. This introduction was thought to have been successful as many locations in the surrounding area were reported to have red squirrels when Barrington wrote his paper in 1880. Introductions also took place into Co. Down and Louth in the 1850s.


Extinct in Ireland, 20th September, the Woodlark

From Pádraic Fogarty‘s Whittled Away:


Formerly common along the Eastern counties, it had disappeared as a breeding bird by the start of the twentieth century.

Gerald Manley Hopkins attempted to turn the Woodcock’s song into verse:

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can tháat be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;
And all round not to be found
For brier, bough, furrow, or gréen ground
Before or behind or far or at hand
Either left either right
Anywhere in the súnlight.
Well, after all! Ah but hark—
‘I am the little wóodlark.

I am a big fan of Hopkins, but this does not strike me as one of his more successful efforts. Robert Burns made a more successful job of his Address To the Woodlark:

O stay, sweet warbling woodlark, stay,
Nor quit for me the trembling spray,
A hapless lover courts thy lay,
Thy soothing, fond complaining.
Again, again that tender part,
That I may catch thy melting art;
For surely that wad touch her heart
Wha kills me wi’ disdaining.
Say, was thy little mate unkind,
And heard thee as the careless wind?
Oh, nocht but love and sorrow join’d,
Sic notes o’ woe could wauken!
Thou tells o’ never-ending care;
O’speechless grief, and dark despair:
For pity’s sake, sweet bird, nae mair!
Or my poor heart is broken.

However, spoilsport Wikipedia suggests that Burns may have been writing about the wrong bird:

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the bird’s “melting art” in his poem “To the Woodlark”.[17] As there are currently no woodlarks in Scotland, and Burns never travelled south of Carlisle, many have speculated that Burns never came in contact with the bird and was in fact writing about the tree pipit, which was commonly referred to as the woodlark in Scotland.[18] The woodlark’s song is also thought to be melodious[11] while Burns’ poem has an “underlying sense of grief” which may be attributed to the languishing notes at the end of the tree pipit’s song.[18][19] However, the woodlark has been spotted in Scotland on occasion[20] and it is possible that Burns was writing about this bird. This is backed up by the entry of a minister from Clinic, Perthshire in the Old Statistical Account, which reads “The notes of the wood-lark are heard, delightful along the banks of the Lunan in spring and autumn; its nocturnal song has a dying cadence peculiarly melodious and has often been mistaken for the song of the Philomel [nightingale].”[18][21]

Extinct in Ireland, September 19th, Spotted crake

From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Spotted crake
Probably common up to the mid-nineteenth century, there was a record of them breeding on the once extensive marshes around Dundalk, Co. Louth, in 1892.

I must confess I had not registered the spotted crake before reading this. Of course, I am very aware of the corncrake, which is fortunately not (quite) extinct in Ireland. From the RSPB fact sheet on the spotted crake:

The spotted crake is similar in size to a starling. Breeding adults have a brown back with dark streaks, a blue-grey face and an olive-brown breast – all covered with white flecks and spots. The under tail is a warm buff colour.

Spotted crakes tend to skulk in thick cover and walk with their body close to the ground and tail flicking. They swim with a jerky action like that of the moorhen. If surprised in the open, they run for cover or jump up and flutter away with legs dangling.

With a mere 28 British breeding pairs, the spotted crake is evidently under threat in Britain also. It is evident that it is a rather secretive bird, like the Water Rail, an inhabitant of my favourite habitat, reeds.

I also love the formal name – Porzana porzana. Wikipedia tells us that this is derived from Venetian terms for small rails.

Extinct in Ireland, September 18th – the Osprey

From Pádraic Fogarty’s Whittled Away:

Breeding in inland lakes including Lough Key in Roscommon in 1779 but no records thereafter, save for the odd vagrant. Given its relatively abundant status elsewhere it is somewhat of a mystery why ospreys have not bred in Ireland in recent times and many suitable nesting sites are keenly watched each summer for activity.

As this 2012 Irish Examiner piece points out, the Osprey is “the wildlife filmmakers favourite bird” and has come back from the brink of extinction in Britain:

With ospreys breeding again in Scotland, England and Wales, Ireland is the odd man out. Birds, from Scotland and Scandinavia, pass through on their journeys to and from Africa, but there’s no direct evidence of nesting here. It’s almost certain, however, that ospreys did so in the past. Gordon Darcy in Ireland’s Lost Birds notes that bones from two individuals were found during excavations at Fishamble Street in Dublin. They were dated to the 10th or 11th Centuries; were ospreys persecuted by Medieval game-keepers protecting fish stocks in the Liffey? Gerald of Wales, who visited Ireland twice in the 12th Century, describes the bird, but some of his other claims are so outlandish that nothing he says can be believed. A description in a manuscript attributed to the 17th Century naturalist William Molyneux is more reliable. Darcy claims that the illustration of an eagle, representing St. John in the Book of Armagh, looks suspiciously like an osprey. There is a reference in Irish to a bird of prey catching salmon in its talons and some Irish bird names seem to refer to ospreys. The Irish Rare Breeding Birds Panel lists the species as an ‘anticipated’ or ‘possible-probable’ nester. Their most recent report, which covers 2010, lists three sightings for ospreys between May and August.

Nineteen records, involving about 11 birds, appear on the Irish Birding website for the same year. So, will the bird return to Ireland of its own accord? Should we build platforms at suitable locations to encourage them? Would the Scots give us some of their chicks? Now that our introduced red kites are breeding well, golden eagles have nested and white-tailed ones are holding territory, ospreys re-colonising would be the icing on the cake. Come back, fish eating hawk, all is forgiven.

And let’s have some videos to show just why the Osprey is such a favourite of filmmakers:

Extinct in Ireland, September 17th, Pheasant’s Eye (Adonis annua)


Another pretty flower with a pretty name – pretty names, indeed, as Adonis annua has a pleasingly alliterative ring. And extinct in Ireland.

I came across this elegy for Adonis annua (which is endangered in the UK) by Pete Flood:

There was once a plant. Not showy like many of our garden flowers, but nevertheless pretty enough that, back in the day when it grew abundantly through the wheat fields on our local downland, bunches of it used to be gathered and taken to Covent Garden Market, where flower vendors would sell it under the name ‘Red Morocco’. Native to Southern Europe, it was introduced to our shores in the Iron Age as a seed contaminant of grain. And although, like many in the Ranunculaceae (the buttercup family), it was mildly poisonous to humans and livestock, it seldom set enough seed or produced enough vegetation to cause any harm.

The plant, whose common name was Pheasant’s Eye, was one of a suite of species which had evolved in tandem with human beings, and specifically our ever-growing skill in food cultivation. Like the grains with which it grew, it had adapted to survive in disturbed environments, giving it a competitive advantage as the agricultural era ushered in an age of land clearance. Arable weeds of this sort, like shepherd’s needle, corncockle, cornflower and many more, did well up until the twentieth century when their luck ran out in spectacular fashion. Seed-sorting techniques foiled their means of distribution, limiting them to isolated populations, while a new generation of selective herbicides further decimated their numbers. Pheasant’s eye disappeared from our fields, a catastrophic decline of at least 92%, persisting on only in a handful of field margins in Southern England.

One of those locations was local, a lovely arable margin bordered by hedge and woodland, near where the Wayfarer’s Walk leaves the Itchen Valley on its way north. On the marginal land by the hedge grew a number of declining species of sunny field margins, including dwarf spurge, rye brome, and the longest-standing population of Pheasant’s eye in Hampshire (plants rarely grow in isolation – they have associates, parasites, consumers, symbiotes – most of the time the presence of a rarity is an indicator of an unusual ecosystem). That was until early October this year when the hedge was grubbed up and the margin put under the plough, part of an amalgamation of two fields. pheasant’s eye seeds persist in the seed bank for many a year, so we may not have seen the last of it, but unless the landowner has a massive change of heart and works actively to bring it back from the brink, we have just lived through an extinction on our doorstep.

Indeed, the time is coming soon when the only way you’ll be able to experience this once-abundant plant is by visiting an arable reserve like Plantlife’s Ranscombe Farm, in which it and other rarities are actively conserved in a semi-wild floral theme park.

The extinction of a large mammal is news-worthy, but real extinction is more often a tortuously slow thinning and fading from the world. The downland stone curlews, ring ouzels and golden plovers beloved of Gilbert White have been largely replaced locally by a monoculture of pheasants. The Pheasant’s eye by a monoculture of wheat. Each loss is a barely perceptible impoverishment of our natural and cultural heritage, plotted slowly enough that each generation becomes used to a baseline that their forebears would have considered impossibly degraded. “There’s no birdsong anymore” say our elders, while those of us born after the twin scourges of DDT and organophosphates hear plenty.

Extinct in Ireland, September 16th, the wild boar


This is one of those entries in this month of Irish extinctions since the coming of humanity which can provoke a double-take. For the wild boar, as I have blogged some time ago, has experienced something of a resurgence in Ireland.

In Whittled Away, Pádraic Fogarty has a tables of extinct mammals and birds. In this table the Wild Boar’s extinction is discussed thus:

Definitive evidence from a scapula found in Dalkey Island from 6870 years bp but thereafter archaeological remains are confused with domestic pigs. It may have gone extinct during the Neolithic period, 5000 years ago, but some think it has persisted much longer.

Fogarty discusses the wild boar at more length in the chapter proper. He is evidently sceptical of the rapid designation of the wild boar as an invasive species in Ireland. He queries the logic of this decision on several grounds, for instance the evidence used for it was based on North America where it undoubtedly was an invasive species, and wonders why the red deer whose trajectory as an Irish species is not dissimilar is protected as opposed to dubbed invasive.

When I posted before on wild boars I quoted this passage from a site on birding in France, I hope I will be forgiven the liberty of posting it again:

There is of course another aspect to hunting; that of culling. Taking the wild boar – the sanglier, as an example, the estimated French population in 2013 was in excess of two million, with a population explosion in recent years as a result of human activity – global warming and radical changes in agricultural land use. The wolf is historically the principle natural predator – a species virtually non-existent in France despite a mini revival in the French alps and Massif Central. Needless to say this will never be a viable future solution here. So it follows that assuming numbers need to be controlled, hunting is the only solution. Sangliers certainly love maize (a thirsty crop at the best of times), as well as root vegetables and vines, amongst much else on this adaptable omnivore’s varied menu. In an attempt to stop the boars roaming into fields and vineyards, hunters have been encouraged to create feeding zones in woods and forests – often maize. But this has actually exacerbated the problem by artificially concentrating large populations, thereby creating perfect breeding grounds and leading to even larger packs of well-nourished animals. These zones have also apparently been responsible for accelerating the time it takes for them to reach adulthood (i.e. they can now breed at a younger age).
Interestingly, the hunters have been forced to reimburse farmers for crop damage, a bill that has much increased in recent years to a massive 50 million Euros (in 2011), but in spite of spending most of the year in the woods, they don’t seem to be able to keep the population increase in check. And as a sign of innate intelligence, according to hunters sangliers have recently developed a new tactic when devouring maize. When they enter the fields, they leave the outer edges of the field intact, presumably to hide what they’re doing deeper in the field completely out of sight!

Liszt : St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots, Deux Légendes II

Not that St Francis (of Assisi), but t St Francis of Paola patron of the Calabria region, boatmen, mariners, naval officers.

This is one of Liszt’s “Deux Légendes”, the first of which deals with St Francis of Assisi. From Wikipedia:

St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots, S.175/2 is based on a legend of St. Francis of Paola, according to which he was refused passage by a boatman while trying to cross the Strait of Messina to Sicily. He reportedly laid his cloak on the water, tied one end to his staff as a sail, and sailed across the strait with his companions following in the boat.[4] The piece was inspired by a picture owned by Liszt of St. Francis of Paola (who was Liszt’s name saint), drawn by Eduard von Steinle. Liszt described it in a letter of 31 May 1860 to Richard Wagner: “On his outspread cloak he strides firmly, steadfastly, over the tumultuous waves – his left hand holding burning coals, his right hand giving the sign of blessing, His gaze is directed upwards, where the word ‘Charitas’, surrounded by an aureole, lights his way!”[5]