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.

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No green to be seen 2: “Dead From the Neck Down” in Wales

In September 2016 I posted “No green to be seen: a biodiversity desert on Slievenamon” about the void that was a conifer plantation on Slievenamon. David Elias, at his blog Dispatches from the Undergrowth,  has an evocative, sobering piece on a similar experience. I was particularly struck at how he, too, had experienced this at an affective level as disturbing, indeed unbearable.

“A culture is no better than its woods” indeed.

It is 8.30 on a peerless sunny morning in late April, the sort of morning I had waiting for all through a long cold winter here in North Wales. I am sitting in a conifer plantation that looks like a Bridget Riley painting in brown (an unlikely thought). The trees are forty foot […]

via Dead from the Neck Down — dispatches from the undergrowth

Denise Levertov, “Conversion of Brother Lawrence”

I particularly love the lines “your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant” – which neatly summarises Brother Lawrence’s way of deceptive simplicity.

Let us enter into ourselves, Time presses.’

Brother Lawrence 1611-1691

1.

What leafless tree plunging
into what pent sky was it
convinced you Spring, bound to return i
n all its unlikelihood, was a word
of God, a Divine message?
Custom, natural reason, are everyone’s assurance;
we take the daylight for granted, the moon,
the measured tides. A particular tree, though,
one day in your eighteenth winter,
said more, an oracle. Clumsy footman,
apt to drop the ornate objects handed to you,
cursed and cuffed by butlers and grooms,
your inner life unsuspected,
you heard, that day, a more-than-green
voice from the stripped branches.
Wooden lace, a celestial geometry,
uttered more than familiar rhythms of growth.
It said By the Grace of God.
Midsummer rustled around you that wintry moment.
Was it elm, ash, poplar, a fruit-tree, your rooted
twig-angel of annunciation?

2

Out from the chateau park it sent you
(by some back lane, no doubt,
not through the wide gates of curled iron),
by ways untold, by soldier’s marches,
to the obscure clatter and heat of a monastery kitchen,
a broom’s rhythmic whisper for music,
your torment the drudgery of household ledgers. Destiny
without visible glory. ‘Time pressed.’ Among pots and pans,
heart-still through the bustle of chores,
your labors, hard as the pain in your lame leg,
grew slowly easier over the years, the years
when, though your soul felt darkened, heavy, worthless,
yet God, you discovered, never abandoned you but walked
at your side keeping pace as comrades had
on the long hard roads of war. You entered then
the unending ‘silent secret conversation,’
the life of steadfast attention.
Not work transformed you; work, even drudgery
was transformed: that discourse
pierced through its monotones, infused them w
ith streams of sparkling color.
What needed doing, you did; journeying if need be
on rocking boats, lame though you were,
to the vineyard country to purchase the year’s wine
for a hundred Brothers, laughably rolling yourself
over the deck-stacked barrels when you couldn’t
keep your footing; and managed deals with the vintners
to your own surprise, though business was nothing to you.
Your secret was not the craftsman’s delight in process,
which doesn’t distinguish work from pleasure—
your way was not to exalt nor avoid
the Adamic legacy, you simply made it irrelevant:
everything faded, thinned to nothing, beside
the light which bathed and warmed, the Presence
your being had opened to. Where it shone,
there life was, and abundantly; it touched
your dullest task, and the task was easy.
Joyful, absorbed,
you ‘practiced the presence of God’ as a musician
practices hour after hour his art:
‘A stone before the carver,’
you‘entered into yourself.

200 Years of Tipperary’s Lost and Found Wellington Monument 

200 Years of Tipperary’s Lost and Found Wellington Monument 

Along the Grange Crag Loop walk,near the village of Grange in the Slieveardagh Hills, one comes across an arresting monument built two hundred years ago. Almost unbelievably (when you contemplate the scale of the structure today) it was overgrown and only rediscovered in the 1990s. Here it is:

And here with a view of the more recently added spiral stairs that take one to a viewing platform:

From the Slieveardagh Website
:

The Wellington Monument
In 1817, Sir William Barker, the then landlord of Kilcooley Abbey estate caused a large structure to be erected in commemoration of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo two years previously. The Wellington Monument has a finely carved dedication stone on its 15 foot high west or ´front end´. The south side is also impressive but the remaining side of the monument is half the ‘Light’ and clearly shows that the structure was designed to be viewed from the west and from Sir William’s manor house at Kilcooley a mile away. The monument – technically called a folly, became completely hidden by forestry in latter years and its reappearance in the early 1990’s, following Coillte’s clear felling was a pleasant surprise to all.

The site features some of the most impressive explicatory plaques I have seen anywhere (there is even more on the other side):

I didn’t know that Napoleon was of an average height for his time, and that British propaganda portrayed him as the short prototype of Small Man Syndrome. And while I had known that Wellington did not say “just because you are born in stable doesn’t make you a horse”, I didn’t know that in fact Daniel O’Connell said it, in modified form, of him.

There are magnificent views from the top:

The top was a little vertiginous. While the structure is reassuringly solid and I knew I was safe, I felt like I did on the Glasgow Tower. This distracted me a little from the excellent display explaining what one could see (and meant I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked. And I did find the typo at the end of this description of Gortnahoe appropriate, for me at least:

I would like to re-iterate that this is a wonderful site to visit and that the structure is very solid and secure…my own reaction to heights is the issue. The local community deserves immense credit for its work and I highly recommend a visit here.

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

A butterfly in the woods: guerrilla forest art in Millennium Forest Kilkenny

Walking in the Millennium Forest in Kilkenny I saw in the distance what seemed like an unbelievably considerate butterfly lying still on a tree trunk:

20170801_134033

As I approached, it was suspiciously still and increasingly, well, plastic looking:

20170801_134039

On closest inspection, it was indeed a plastic model someone had inserted onto the trunk:

20170801_134047

I prodded it with a twig, just to make sure. Yep, my ability to distinguish a real butterfly from a plastic model remains undimmed by the passage of time.

This wasn’t there a week before. Someone has evidently placed it on this prominent tree beside a bench (possibly the single most prominent tree in the forest)

There seems to be something of an underground trend of what could be called guerrilla forest modification (I am sure there is a better term than that) I’ve posted before about a seemingly spontaneous sign proclaiming a spring in Wilderness Gorge in Clonmel a “Holy Well.” While the popular fairy trail concept is generally an officially sanctioned one, I have seen unheralded Fairies and Fairy Doors in Castledermot Co. Kildare and also on a recent visit to St Berrihert’s Kyle (in a grove of trees beside the Kyle itself)

While one can imagine This Kind of Thing going a bit far, it is a pleasingly spontaneous artistic intervention, one that seemingly has occurred without official sanction or the need for some kind of proposal to be written.

Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.

….

And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here