Let’s hear it for the Antipodean Satan Number One

The Tasmanian Devil was simply snuffling in the snow beneath the bedroom window of the guesthouse where our friend was sleeping somewhere in  upland Tasmania, last month. 

Hearing it and then seeing it, she thought it was an awful looking yoke. “Horrible”, she said.

I can’t understand why. In the pictures I’ve seen of devils — I’ve never encountered one, never having visited the Antipodes — they have always looked to me like oversize, truncated, pine martens.

Perhaps readers will say “they don’t look at all like our sleek and beautiful pine martens!” and I won’t argue with them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. I’ve always had sympathy for them, despite the dangerous-looking incisors which protrude like fangs from their jaws.

They are much maligned, shot at on sight, and now require protection from extinction.

What did these unique carnivorous marsupials ever do to arouse such antipathy? As far as I know — and what I read seems to prove — they have never been a fearsome threat to farmers or mankind. They do little more harm than a fox in a chicken house — which is harm, of course, but hardly deserving the designation of Antipodean Satan Number One.

In any case, our friend was repelled by the appearance of the creature although she is, normally, a very open-minded woman, thinking nothing of flying the distance to Australia, travelling all over the eastern regions and then flying on to Tasmania.

So, why the devil the snuffling devil moved her to such disgust, I can’t understand.

Curious to know, I have researched the animal, to see if it, perhaps, has a dark side that would scare intrepid females.

I will report, in brief, my findings, and let the reader judge if seeing a devil scraping at the wall of his or her snowbound hut of a dark night would alarm them.

Tasmanian devils are the size of a small dog. They are black. They are marsupials and give birth to between 20 and 30 young which live in the pouch on the mother’s belly for three and a half months. Devil mothers spend all but six weeks of the year looking after their offspring, but eventually they have to fend for themselves, and 60% never make it to maturity.

They are very fierce when feeding. They have powerful jaws and teeth. Their usual prey is rabbits and other small antipodean animals with endearing names like potoroos and bettongs. They particularly enjoy wombat and wallaby, but will also eat frogs, fish, vegetables and roadkill (as a result of which they often become roadkill themselves).

Apparently, their body odour is singularly unendearing, but this hardly warrants their execution on sight. Stay upwind, and they would cause no more offence than pudgy black bull terriers.

Devils’ teeth were valued by early man in Australia. A 7,000-year-old male skeleton wearing a necklace of 178 teeth from 49 devils was excavated in New South Wales. It is unlikely that aboriginals ate devils, but the first settlers did, and also convicts. The flesh is apparently like veal.

Although, in the main, solitary hunters, they will attack sheep or even kangaroos if they are weak or failing, or trapped in some way. They quickly dispose of animals that die on the land. This helps prevent the spread of disease and earns them the gratitude of farmers.

Young devils climb trees and catch birds or rob their nests (there are too many damn cockatoos in Australia anyway!). Their endurance, and speed, when necessary, is remarkable.

They swim rivers 50m across, approaching freezing cold waterways ‘enthusiastically’.

Unhappily, some have recently contracted a facial tumour disease: was the ‘horrible’ specimen our friend saw a victim?

Attempts are underway to save the species from extinction by transporting non-infected individuals to islands, where a disease-free population can be bred.

Now, skipping home to Ireland, I see that, after our hurricanes and storms, numerous beech trees in Courtmacsherry woods have been knocked, their roots, carrying earth in their grasp, standing high among the saplings that survived.

John Kingston, a landowner at Clogheen, Clonakilty, tells me that among the numerous trees flattened on his land was a magnificent beech, 45m tall, the root ball of which was 8m in diameter.

I see that the redwing thrushes have arrived from Scandinavia, and are skiting along the hedges on the back roads. Some holly trees are red with berries.

These will be laden tables for the redwings before Christmas, I fear.


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