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

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