As demanded by absolutely no-one, here are all the posts I have done this month on species extinct in Ireland since the coming of humanity….
As demanded by absolutely no-one, here are all the posts I have done this month on species extinct in Ireland since the coming of humanity….
The final species I have selected for this month of Irish extinctions is the crane. The crane only went extinct in late medieval times, and features much in Irish poetry and song before this. This 2011 Irish Times piece by Lorna Siggins deals with a sighting of a flock in Castletownroche, Co Cork (home of labyrinths, dinosaurs and spies):
While there have been occasional sightings, cranes have not bred here since the early 18th century and were under severe pressure for several centuries before. The majestic bird breeds across northern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine.
Cranes were once so prevalent here that their Irish name “corr” is recorded in hundreds of place names – such as “Curragh” or “crane meadow” in Co Kildare.
“Few native birds can rival the widespread cultural footprint and the connections with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the druids, St Colmcille and the Book of Kells,” said Mr O’Toole.
Druids believed in transmigration of the soul and the cranes were said to carry the spirits of the dead. They are best known for their migratory trumpeting and their predilection for display.
“Research by Prof Fergus Kelly suggests that the ‘peata corr’ was the third commonest pet after dogs and cats during the Brehon Law period,” said Mr O’Toole. “The crane bag was a well known magical container in our ancient folklore, which had associations with Manannán Mac Lir, the great sea god, Lúgh and Fionn Mac Cumhaill.”
Its familiar bald red patch on its crown is depicted in the Book of Kells, and St Colmcille was known as the “crane cleric”, he added.
Colonisers from Viking and Anglo-Norman times who had no qualms about eating the bird may have contributed to its demise, along with an increase in the fox population, said Mr O’Toole.
There was great excitement among local bird watchers last week when a flock nine Cranes were seen near the M1 at the turn off for Ardee just west of Dunleer. There has only been one verified sighting of a Crane previously in Louth on March 19 2012 in Drogheda.
This most recent sighting was by Billy Clarke and has led to speculation that the birds may be relocating somewhere in Louth.
Cranes are long distance migrants from southern Europe to north eastern Europe. They have also been reintroduced in the UK. in Somerset where there is a flock of around 50 birds with colour rings on legs so as to record their movements.
Cranes are a common sight in much of Europe and are famous for their spectacular dancing display.
It’s believed that these majestic birds have been extinct in Ireland for over 300 years. Sightings at various parts of Ireland in recent years has led to speculation that the European Crane might return to Ireland to breed thanks to a warming climate, just as little egret has done.
I have posted before about some ambivalence at the spread of Little Egret. It is on one level still a little exotic and a bit thrilling, on another it is a sign that the climate is changing, with all that implies. The fact that flocks of cranes are being sighted, albeit sporadically, in Ireland is perhaps another mixed blessing.
On that possibly uplifting, possibly not note, this is the last Extinct in Ireland post. It has been a rather saddening, albeit educational process. Sadly there was no shortage of species to choose from, and in the end it was more a question of what to leave out (for instance out of the three raptors which the Golden Eagle Trust have reintroduced, only focusing on the Golden Eagle)
I hope readers have taken something from this – for Irish readers particularly, I hope any complacency about Ireland being a wonderful place for wildlife is dissipated.
Scheuchzeria palustris (Rannoch-rush, or pod grass), is a flowering plant in the family Scheuchzeriaceae, in which there is only one species and Scheuchzeria is the only genus. In the APG II system it is placed in the order Alismatales of the monocots.
The only species, the only genus, and only in one site in the British Isles: Rannoch Moor, in Scotland.
But it was not always so. From the Facebook page of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council:
In the early days of the peat industry Pollagh Bog in Co. Offaly was scheduled for development by Bord na Mona. This site had an extensive spring-fed flush habitat which was the only known station for Scheuchzeria palustris (the RANNOCH Rush). Prof John Moore – a peatland expert – wanted the bog conserved, but at the time that was not on any commercial agenda. With the extinction of the rush imminent, Prof Moore transplanted it to the soak system on Clara Bog. It did not survive. Today Pollagh Bog is part of the post industrial Lough Boora Parklands which people enjoy visiting – such a pity we lost this interesting bog plant.
I did a little bit of searching from Prof John Moore. It seems (I am not entirely sure, but the times seem to fit) that Prof Moore is Prof Fr John Moore SJ, profiled in this article. I don’t know if anyone can confirm this?
The interview with Prof Fr Moore linked above is from 2016. He certainly had an eventful life, (like Fr Padraig de Brun one wonders if his intellectual achievements would be more celebrated in contemporary Ireland if he wasn’t a priest), as indicated from the below:
When John Moore entered the Society of Jesus’ noviciate straight from secondary school, it was customary at the time. Like the other young Jesuits who came straight from secondary school, he was assigned to study for a degree in UCD. He did first Arts but switched over to Science the following year. In his final year one of the research projects he undertook was a follow up survey of vegetation in the Dublin Mountains, which had been researched 50 years previously by the famous naturalist, Lloyd Praeger, the results being published in 1905. He was required to re-survey the parts closer to Dublin and write up the results.
After getting his B.Sc. degree he was sent to study philosophy in the Irish midlands. A few days before he left Dublin, the Fr. Provincial (who had been his Master of Novices and knew all about his scientific interests) suggested that he might look around and start work in an informal way on his Ph.D. during his spare time. He was fascinated by the vast areas of Bogland which stretched in all directions and discovered that a local bog had two very rare plants growing on it: one a rare rush never seen in Ireland before, the other one found in only one other place in Ireland. So he decided to work eventually on a Ph.D. thesis on the ‘Bogs of Ireland’.
During the holiday periods he decided to finish the re-survey of the mountain area south of Dublin, covering the whole area of Praeger’s original survey. He wrote up the results during his spare time while studying Theology at Milltown Park. He finished the job before leaving for ‘Tertianship’, the final year of Jesuit formation which focusses on deepening one’s spiritual life. He was sent to Germany for this stage of his formation, so he left the manuscript with the Professor of Botany to see it through the printing process.
While in Germany his paper on the “Resurvey of the Vegetation south of Dublin” appeared in print and his Professor in Dublin sent him a few reprints. These he distributed to some of the ecologists living on the European Mainland. To his surprise, a reply came back immediately from the famed German ecologist, Reinhold Tüxen. He, along with the famous French ecologist Braun-Blanquet, had been invited to Ireland after Europe began to recover from the effects of World War II. They published their results (in German) in 1952 and John had critiqued some of their work in his paper. Tüxen was extremely pleased. He wrote “Although we published our Irish material 10 years previously, nobody seems even to have read it, let alone critiqued it! “Can you visit me before you return?” Tüxen asked. And so began a long and valued relationship of scientific interests with Reinhold Tüxen.
Before John’s ordination, his Provincial casually mentioned to John that UCD (University College Dublin) had requested to have him on its staff after he had finished his Jesuit studies. “I said ‘Yes’ – is that OK for you John?” All he could say was “You are the boss! If you want me to take up the offer, that is OK by me.”
So John taught for 23 years at UCD, Botany Dept., being eventually appointed Professor and Head of Department.
In the 1970’s the Irish Government was sending quite a lot of official aid to Zambia University, financing lecturers from the Irish Universities to give courses at the University of Zambia. Fr Michael J. Kelly, SJ, a good friend of John since the novitiate, was at this time Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University in Lusaka and was much involved in arranging this government aid; he petitioned the Irish Government to finance John to come as External Examiner of the Biology Department. John accepted the offer and was very struck by the difficulties of running a third world University according to First World standards. When his work in the University was finished John stayed on for some time in order to visit the Irish Jesuit Missioners and help in their work.
John returned to UCD in time to organise things for the new academic year. It was while making his annual retreat in the Jesuit retreat-house, Manresa in Dublin that it happened.
John had been 23 years in the Botany Department of UCD. He was unexpectedly overcome with a very strong feeling that he should relocate to Zambia! Having prayed over the matter, he sent a letter to the Provincial requesting to be sent to the Zambian mission. He was quite late going onto the missions at 56 years of age.
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.
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:
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.
Included in Red List No. 2, Non Marine Molluscs as extinct, albeit perhaps in this case its presence in Ireland in the first is debated:
Known in Ireland only from limestone bluffs in the gorge of the River Blackwater, Carricka-Brick Castle, Fermoy, East Cork (Phillips, 1914). Its status as a native is questionable according to Kerney (1972), who failed to find living material during a visit to the site in 1971. No live specimens have been found in recent times. It is known mostly from limestone rocks and quarries in Britain where it appears to be also declining.