Another Life: Citizen science puts dots on Ireland’s wildlife map

Have all the house mice fled Connemara? Or the harbour seals Co Louth? The All-Ireland Mammal Atlas is charting nature’s progress

Bank vole: found in Kerry in 1964, it has reached Mayo. Illustration: Michael Viney

Bank vole: found in Kerry in 1964, it has reached Mayo. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

Have all the house mice fled from Connemara? Or the harbour seals from Co Louth? Are otters really so scarce in watery Roscommon, or sika deer in Co Cork? Have feral goats been vanishing from Fermanagh, along with hedgehogs from Derry and fallow deer from Antrim? Or are the citizens of Ireland not nearly so observant of furry (or prickly) wildlife as everyone had hoped?

In 2010 the environmental agencies and data-gathering centres north and south launched the All-Ireland Mammal Atlas project, the island’s biggest collaborative venture in “citizen science”. It invites sightings of wild animals from ordinary people, as well as the scarcer ecological professionals, to prepare maps for an atlas to be published in 2016.

As yet the project’s maps, produced at the National Biodiversity Data Centre, in Waterford, show distinctly uneven results. Brought on screen (at iti.ms/1fmklTW), one map for a species shows the records up to 2010 while another, beside it, shows the sightings recorded since. Comparing the two is to spot the kind of oddities I listed above. Some of the “before 2010” maps have parts of the island densely covered in purple dots, but, in the new maps, these areas can be bleakly green and apparently empty of the species, which is clearly unlikely to be true.

The historical picture was built over time and from many data sources, some of them intensive modern surveys, like those for the Irish hare, squirrels, otters and badgers, or the popular “BioBlitz” annual species-spotting contests run by the centre. Casual sightings from people out watching birds or walking the dog can’t be expected to compete, but they do help to build the new picture of what is living where.

Although most of our mammals are in the countryside (foxes may now be an exception), farmers are not generally disposed to regard such “green” ventures with sympathetic effort and attention. Mammals large and small are generally just part of their experience, some to be shot, poisoned, run over or chased by dogs, but rarely, perhaps, to prompt time at the computer (though iti.ms/1hOn6VS even helps with the grid reference).

Ireland’s wildlife, furred or feathered, is still mainly a hobby for townies. That may change, as a generation encouraged and enlightened by nature-friendly rural schoolteachers come to inherit the land. Their enthusiasm has already brushed off in school sightings offered to the atlas. Judging total effort, however, county by county, Dublin, Kilkenny and Kildare are way out in front, each offering about 500 sightings. In Leitrim, Monaghan and Tyrone it’s about a tenth of that. The maps also reflect the extra effort focused by towns with universities, technical institutes or ultrakeen county-council heritage officers.

Coastal pioneers


“Citizen science” is nothing new to Europe or the US

(where some call it “crowdsourcing”). In Ireland it was pioneered at Karin Dubsky’s pollution-mapping Coastwatch, for which I was clambering along the shore to record oiled seabird casualties some 25 years ago. Her vigilant scheme continues, but as climate change takes over the headlines it is phenology, science of the seasons, that invites new help from the populace.

The website naturescalendarireland. com, run by Paul Whelan of Co Cork, was early in the field as a way of keeping track of the steady calendar advance of spring and postponement of autumn, and the changing phenophases of plants, birds and insects. His excellent companion website, biology.ie, also has a roster of mammals killed on the roads. (Badgers, predictably, top the list as I write, at a toll of 1,303.)

Records of all of Ireland’s species continue to flow in to the National Biodiversity Data Centre (at biodiversityireland.ie) – another 57,000 records since mid 2012. Its new programme of identification workshops includes one next Saturday in Killarney National Park, on trapping small mammals for identification (this is for professional ecologists) and another in September at the biodiversity centre, in Waterford, on how to track mammals (this one for “all”).

Even the partial pictures offered by the atlas maps so far show the dramatic spread of some of the furry animals alien to Ireland. The American mink has now penetrated to the farthest peninsulas of the west. The little bank vole, found in Kerry in 1964, has reached as far north as Mayo. The greater white-toothed shrew, with one dot in north Cork prior to 2010, now rates a whole cluster in Tipperary, into Laois, with one isolated and mysterious sighting in Westmeath.

Ireland’s alien species increase all the time, as a new report published by the biodiversity centre makes clear. Half a dozen new ones recorded in recent years have been spotted by members of the public (among them a Siberian chipmunk, the Chinese mitten crab and the harlequin ladybird). Ireland’s only permanent colony of ancient black rats and a small population of the Australian red-necked wallaby are, however, safely marooned on Lambay island, east of Co Dublin.

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