How hot dogs and peanut butter help to monitor mammals
ANOTHER LIFESINCE OUR OLD DOG, Meg, crept off into the bushes to breathe her last in private, the acre has been running a bit wild. Hares are commuting past the woodshed, and blackbirds march around half-moulted, having quite ceased to live on their nerves. The nearest farm cat, unmissably big and white, has returned to stalk the baby wrens. (Meg used to give her a hard time.)
And now a rabbit is laying siege to the polytunnel. Roaming up from the dunes at the bottom of the hill, it found the tunnel open at both ends, to stir the air in this miasmic summer. It munched on half a dozen lettuces and fronds of florence fennel and then began to burrow into the raised bed beneath the towering tomatoes. Shocked to discover the sudden, big, round hole, I blocked it with a rabbit-sized rock.
Next morning, a second excavation had scattered the soil beside it, and I undertook defences: wire netting at one end, an old wooden door, on its side, at the other. Returning later to inspect, I found I had trapped the rabbit inside the tunnel. Leaping from the hole it had begun beneath the courgettes, it took off on a terrified circuit, hurtling perilously past the peppers and taking the basil at a leap. I prayed it would find the gap I had come in by, and it did.
As I write, the defences are holding, and if, indeed, this was a doe rabbit, pregnant and preparing to multiply, she can dig her hole in the ditch, preferably close to a stoat.
Should I tell mammals.biodiversityireland.ieabout my rabbit? I hardly think so. While they’ve mapped the raccoon in west Cork, the red-necked wallaby on Lambay Ireland and the feral ferrets in Ulster and Munster, there are far more pressing whereabouts to be charted for its atlas of mammals in Ireland. By 2015, nonetheless, the rabbit will need to take its pestiferous place in baseline maps of the island’s everyday mammals.
The first two years of the atlas project have been a great success, thousands of historic records digitised and loaded to the database at the National Biological Records Centre, in Waterford, and hundreds of new ones added every month by the project’s voluntary recorders. At maps.biodiversityireland.ie, mammals are a small but burgeoning part of a very high-tech, many-layered but just-about- navigable database. (The centre does, after all, manage more than two million records of the island’s myriad species.) Tempted, in passing, to browse the maps and dates of 11 visits from walruses to the west coast, one presses on to more likely current creatures: hedgehogs, pine martens, stoats, otters and others great and small.
Quickly evident is the number of new sightings from Mammals in a Sustainable Environment (Mise), the EU-backed regional project meant to get local communities in Ireland and Wales involved in mammal surveys. It is led from Waterford Institute of Technology, on whose campus the records centre is based; you can browse its activities at miseproject.ie.
On August 18th, for example, a Mise day in two Waterford woodlands will guide teams of volunteers (ask Denise O’Meara at email@example.com) in looking for signs of pine martens, foxes, deer and squirrels. Reports of previous such surveys, from the sand dunes of Tramore to the woods of Tipperary, show how reassuringly low-tech the means of detecting a mammal can be.