Pine martins: one of Ireland’s rarest wild mammals being portrayed as a blood-thirsty lamb kille

How is it that there always seems to be some animal in Ireland singled out for demonisation and persecution asks Donal Hickey

Several years ago, the fox was hunted almost to extinction for its pelt, with powerful, dazzling lights used by hunters becoming a common sight at night around the country.

A century ago, or more, eagles became extinct here through deliberate killing and poisoning; the national badger cull to prevent the spread of TB from badgers to cattle is continuing, but some experts believe vaccination would be more effective than a cull.

Projects to reintroduce eagles and other birds of prey, such as red kite, have been dogged by poisoning. When plans to return white-tailed sea eagles were announced in Killarney National Park, eight years ago, objectors filled halls to protest, with spurious claims the eagles would kill lambs and even snatch babies.

About 100 eagles have been released in Killarney and we haven’t heard any reports of harm being caused to other wildlife, farm animals, or humans. Rather, the opposite has happened, with people killing many of the eagles, mainly through poisoning. Most people now welcome the eagles.

And need we say anything about that wily survivor, the fox, now adapting well to urban life? The legally-protected pine marten — one of Ireland’s rarest and elusive wild mammals — has recently been portrayed as a blood- thirsty lamb killer. However, work is underway in the Midlands to learn more about the brown-coated creature and dispel the myths.

The Laois Offaly Branch of the Irish Wildlife Trust has joined forces with volunteers from the Abbeyleix Bog Project, BirdWatch Ireland, and mammal expert Denise O’Meara, from Waterford Institute of Technology, to conduct mammal research at Abbeyleix Bog.

Sometimes hunted for its fur, the pine marten is a tree climber which needs forest and scrub habitat. About the size of a domestic cat, its name in Irish, cat crainn, describes it well.

Studies show its diet is mostly plant-based, with fruits, nuts and berries a significant share of its food. It also eat small mammals like field mice, bank voles, shrews, and the occasional squirrel. Birds and insects can also be part of the diet if the opportunity arises.

Pine martens are small animals and pose no threat to humans or livestock, says the trust.

Their numbers declined in the 20th century and there are now an estimated 2,700 pine martens in Ireland, according to the Vincent Wildlife Trust.

The animal is found in only about 50% of the areas it formerly frequented, but there are signs numbers may be rising again because of extra forest habitat and hopefully, less persecution.


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