The raccoons of Macroom: Look out for these escapees of the pet trade

In Ireland, raccoons join a long list of introduced and invasive mammals

The behaviour of raccoons is not that different from that of Ireland’s native pine martens. Illustration: Michael Viney

The behaviour of raccoons is not that different from that of Ireland’s native pine martens. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

Last summer, moved by some inscrutable ambition, a raccoon set out to climb the facade of a 25-storey office tower in Minnesota, clawhold by clawhold. I was one of the international audience at least passingly engaged by this absurd but gripping saga, photographed through office windows and shared across the world in newspapers and social media.

The raccoon, so eerily displaced from trees and taking the odd breather curled up on window ledges, reached the roof at 3am, there to be trapped humanely with a bait of cat food and returned, unharmed, to the wild.

Concern for raccoon welfare is far from universal. Among its predations, this agile carnivore raids birds’ nests in woodland. Nearer home there are ructions attending some of Ireland’s first feral raccoons, clustered near Macroom, Co Cork. Here, last November, a one-eyed raccoon was spotted in a garden. It was later trapped and shot by local wardens of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

This summer, a reader tells me, a racoon has been trying to access garden chicken coops and a female with several young has been seen in the area. This prompted further trapping sorties by the diligent NPWS even as some locals, beguiled by such exotic animals, feed them.

Introduced through the pet trade, errant raccoons have been sighted around Ireland since 2011. The first was in Co Cork, then came Cork city, Dublin, Co Tipperary and Co Clare. An invasive species alert has been posted by Biodiversity Ireland, but the raccoon “is not thought to be established in Ireland”.

Foxy look

Climbing and denning in trees, stealing eggs from birds’ nests and henhouses, eating frogs, raiding dustbins, raising messy families in people’s attics . . . the behaviour of raccoons is not that different from that of Ireland’s native pine martens. The larger and burlier Procyon lotor has much the same foxy look. But its black eyes glint from a dark highwayman’s mask and it waves a furry tail marked with rings.

The raccoon originates in America, but an east Asian animal called the raccoon dog, with a similar face, has caused confusion. This is an unrelated canid species, bigger, fluffier and closer to the fox than the domestic dog but sometimes appealing as a “different” pet, if one to keep on a lead. It was brought into Europe for the fur trade but has now been added to the EU’s list of invasive alien species, potentially competing with native wildlife or eating too much of it. Sweden, for example, protective of ground-nesting wetland birds and amphibians, has a special team to track and shoot the animal.

In Ireland, real raccoons join a long list of introduced and invasive mammals. Most of the first were brought in for their fur, and in modern times, American grey squirrels and mink have been joined by wild boar, muntjac deer, coypu and the greater white-toothed shrew.

Along with fears for loss of native biodiversity, new mammals prompt early concern about their possible pathogens and parasites. Distant from veterinary inspection, they can carry organisms harmful to humans or farm livestock. Raccoons, for example, can possibly carry rabies and West Nile virus, and do host a roundworm that (however improbably) can infect children touching their droppings.

Swine fever

The wild boar, in turn, can conceivably carry African swine fever, a virus fatal to farmed pigs. It is now widespread in Ireland: a Biodiversity Ireland map shows some 30 locations. Once indigenous to the island and rooting for food in primal forest, it was then controlled by wolves, but now it is shot by marksmen for the NPWS.

The small and dainty Chinese muntjac deer, introduced for hunting, simply add to the island’s excessive deer population, notably of Sika and its hybrids with red deer. All destroy the understory of forests, strip bark off the trees, break into meadows and, in a few parts, threaten cattle with bovine TB.

The coypu is a large and hairy semi-aquatic rodent with orange buck teeth and undesirable viral passengers, originally valued for the fur trade but reportedly brought to Co Cork in 2014 as novelties for a pet farm. Escaping to local rivers, they joined the quarry of NPWS shooters in 2017, who may not have got quite all of them.

The coypu’s prolific breeding and burrowing into riverbanks has brought hyper-vigilance from Waterways Ireland. Its alarm at a reported sighting in May, on the Royal Canal near Ashtown in Dublin, became lessened by the chance that this was a native otter with perfectly white front teeth.

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