Our hedges, and the trees and shrubs within them, form a critically important habitat for Irish wildlife. We have three times more hedges in Ireland than we have native woodland and, so unsurprising, a whole host of animals and plants live there.
You can find brambles in almost all Irish hedgerows. When I hear the word bramble, I can’t help but think of sore legs and arms, getting stuck and tangled. This is precisely why brambles are so common, because they are so useful for keeping stock in the correct fields. Hard for a woolly sheep to push through a blackberry thicket!
Blackberries are not just useful for humans – but oh are they useful, giving us jam, wine, medicines and even rope! Caterpillars and deer love the leaves, bees and butterflies rely on the nectar from the flowers, and almost everything eats the blackberries. Funnily enough, a blackberry isn’t actually a berry at all, rather each of those little round balls is its own individual fruit. Does that matter when you’ve been out picking all afternoon and your fingers are scratched and stained purple, your bucket is almost empty but your belly is full? Not at all!
Foxes are very partial to a feast of blackberries in the autumn and yes, I have been lucky enough to see them in my garden, so tomorrow will be foxy Friday!
Latin Name: Rubus fruticosus
Irish Name: Sméar Dubh
The red fox is an equal opportunities eater. They will eat almost anything – beetles, worms, berries, rabbits, mice, carrion, they’re not fussy. They can’t afford to be, life is too hard and you never know how easy it is going to be to find your next meal. This adaptability is why they also do so well in cities and why nowadays, it is often easier to encounter an urban fox than its countryside cousin.
Foxes are Ireland’s only wild member of the dog family; yet, they can move like a cat, leaping vertically up onto walls with precision that no domestic dog could hope to emulate. During the mating season, the vixens scream, and this noise may be one of our countryside sounds that gave rise to the legend of the banshee.
Foxes have a bad reputation for being merciless killers, getting into the chicken coop and killing everything around them but only taking one or two chickens. Why do they do this, is it just killing for fun? Did the predator instinct take over and result in this unnecessary slaughter?
Foxes actually have something in common with squirrels, they bury (or cache) their food. And they don’t leave it all in one place either – not putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak. They bury it all around the place and have to remember where they put it in order to dig it up again. When we see what looks like unnecessary killing, it is likely that the fox is off burying one chicken, coming back to get another, burying that and so on until for some reason the fox no longer feels it is safe to continue, maybe it is getting bright, or noises and lights have increased as the human world awakens.
Interestingly, in July of this year another suspected behaviour of red foxes was confirmed.
They have been seen fishing! Fish remains had been found many times in their stomach contents, but no one was sure if they were hunting or just scavenging them opportunistically. Finally, a male fox was caught in the act, catching 10 carp. A vixen also ran over, took one and ran away again, perhaps to feed their cubs. I’ll put the link to the article in the comments for anyone who’s interested.
Foxes link with so much in nature that choosing Monday’s subject is tricky. I would love to do squirrels as they share caching behaviours but I have to be honest and I haven’t seen any in the woodland below our garden so I can’t! Let’s look at the wood mouse, a favourite prey, instead.
Latin Name: Vulpes vulpes
Irish Name: Madra rua, Sioonach
There are only 2 species of mouse in Ireland – the Wood Mouse, and the House Mouse. You can tell the difference because a wood mouse has a white tummy and a very long tail. A tail is a useful thing, and particularly so for the wood mouse as in extreme circumstances, it can shed its skin to distract a predator, leaving the would-be picknicker with just an empty stocking for its trouble.
A wood mouse’s life is extreme circumstance after another. Almost everything eats them and only about 10% of them survive in any given year. In Ireland, we don’t have a large variety of small mammal species, so they are hugely important as a prey source of our predatory birds such as kestrels, owls; and mammals like foxes, stoats. Wood mice eat mostly seeds and insects. They love acorns, beech nuts, haws, snails and caterpillars. Their diet varies throughout the year, in late spring and early summer, they munch on invertebrates. In late summer and autumn, they eat berries and fungi, but they are also busy preparing for winter, and collecting as many seeds as they can to bring back to the nest to help survive the winter months. They don’t hibernate, but they do go into a daily state of torpor – where their body temperature and heartrate drop down to a fraction of normal. This way they need a lot less food to survive the winter.
Some mice may figure out another way to survive the winter if they are lucky enough to discover a bat hibernaculum (that’s a place where bats are hibernating, hibernaculum is a great word). Comatose bats are obviously an easy target for predators, and a hungry mouse can’t afford to pass up that opportunity. This behaviour hasn’t been observed in Ireland yet to the best of my knowledge, actually I don’t know of any studies showing what, if anything, predates on hibernating bats in Ireland. However, it has been observed numerous times in Europe so I can’t see why an Irish mouse would pass up the opportunity if it arose!
Tomorrow its one of our bat species.
Latin Name: Apodmeus sylvaticas
Irish Name: Luch féir
Bats have so many amazing adaptations, I don’t even know where to begin. At the obvious place, I guess. As the only flying mammals, they developed, well, wings for a start! Also, their bones have evolved to be especially light, which keeps weight down for flying. They can ‘visualise’ the world around them using their ears, having developed a remarkable echolocation system that is so accurate they can capture up to 3,000 insects in a single evening.
That isn’t nearly all that is strange or startling about bats, but I am trying to keep these posts a little succinct so I will discuss some more when I look at another species. The bat I want to focus on this morning is the soprano pipistrelle, which I have found flying around the woodland at the bottom of the garden.
Until 1999, it was thought that we had 8 bat species living in Ireland. Pipistrelles were Ireland’s smallest species, weighing in at just the same as a €1 coin. Then it was realised that these bats could be heard producing 2 distinct peak echolocation frequencies (45 & 55KHz) – what was previously thought of as just pipistrelles were two different species. While these bats look identical, they sound different, with the sopranos echolocating at a higher frequency than the common pipistrelles.
Once it was realised that these bats were two distinct species, a whole host of differences started to reveal themselves including that sopranos have much larger roost sizes, slightly different habitat preferences, and can tolerate warmer climates.
My next post will consider the midge – a favoured prey of the soprano pipistrelle.
Latin Name: Pipistrellus pygmaeus
Irish Name: Ialtóg shopránach