There has been a long standing interest in Irish mammals over the centuries. Yet for many Irish people, their encounter with a terrestrial mammal is limited to glimpses of a furry tail disappearing into a hedgerow, or the sight of a dead badger, hedgehog or fox at the side of the road. Perhaps having a little hedgehog in our garden. Maybe we have seen it stolling along with its spikey coat or rolled up in a little spikey ball.
However, a study of mammals is not limited to sightings only, we can look out for indirect evidence. This can be fascinating and fun, look out while walking for things like, pathways, burrows, nuts and cones gnawed by rodents. Even animal droppings.
In Ireland we have the Deer - Fox - Hedgehog - Irish hare - Lesser horseshoe bat - Leisler's bat - Badger - Irish stoat - Otter - Pine Marten - Red squirrel - Pygmy shrew - Wood mouse.
Lets just for a moment look at the 'Red Squirrel'. There are two species of squirrel currently in Ireland. The red squirrel is a native species and it is totally dependent on woodland as a habitat. The current population mainly derives from reintroductions that took place in a number of locations. The second species is the American grey squirrel that was introduced on just one occasion in 1911 to Co. Longford. The subsequent spread of this alien species has resulted in competition with the red squirrel for food resources, with the red squirrel loosing out to the grey.
Red squirrels weigh approximately half that of a grey squirrel. Reds can be distinguished from greys by their long ear tufts and fur colour although grey squirrels can be a brown-red colour in the summer, and reds sometimes taking on a greyish hue in the winter! Grey squirrels feed more frequently on the ground and display less wariness of humans while the Red squirrels are more elusive, spending the majority of the foraging time in the trees. Its sad to say that Red squirrels continue to disappear from forests into which the grey squirrels have invaded.
Squirrels nest in round structures built of sticks and foliage (called 'dreys'). Dreys can be built also in hollows in trees, or within heavy ivy. A single squirrel will use a number of dreys at a time, and the dreys may be shared with other individuals.
Breeding usually begins in January or February, with males chasing females. After a gestation period of 5 to 6 weeks the kittens are born, usually a litter of one to six kittens, with three being the usual litter size. The babies are born blind and naked. After approximately three months they will resemble adults. Mortality is highest in young animals up to 70 percent not making it to breeding age. Some squirrels live up to six years of age in the wild.
There is no direct aggression between the two species but there is major competition for food resources. The grey squirrel is usually the winner. The demise of the red squirrel is also exacerbated by a disease, 'squirrel pox virus'. This virus is believed to have been brought in to the country and spread by the grey squirrel, who acts as a carrier but is never mortally affected.
It is a great past time to go walking. Whether its rambling through forests or something a bit more strenuous. Breathing in fresh air, the smell of the trees. Learning about nature and the importance of looking after our environment. You never know, you might even catch a glimse of the elusive red squirrel.
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