Wednesday 28 September 2016

Journey's end for a tree cat

Joe Kennedy

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

If the greys manage to cross the Alps, it could prove disastrous for native red squirrels, scientists claim
If the greys manage to cross the Alps, it could prove disastrous for native red squirrels, scientists claim

Grey squirrels were noticeable in a particular forestry plantation on the Louth-Meath borders and then, suddenly, they were gone.

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This could have meant dispersal through sudden predation, or a virus, or a territorial wipe-out in a hunting spree by one particularly ruthless mammal with a growing reputation for having greys in its sights.

A dead pine marten, or cat crann (tree cat) on the roadside outside the village of Collon (where a fascinating militaria museum has been set up by a local farmer) was hard evidence that this furtive squirrel-hunter had extended its territory, perhaps northwards from the wilds of Wicklow.

The passing motorist who saw this "most beautiful of Ireland's wild animals," so described by the naturalist Gordon D'Arcy, did not pick it up for taxidermy (not everybody is so inclined, though a rare dead barn owl would no doubt bring a positive response from some) but he had no doubt about identity.

Martes, martes has a 60cm-long (two-feet) body of rich dark fur with long bushy tail. It is colourful. Large paws and facial hair are black. On a foxy face there are big, parabolic cream-edged ears and a large creamy-yellow patch on the chin and throat.

The animal is elusive, rarely seen in daylight, keeping mostly to the ground, but is sufficiently agile to stalk and kill squirrels in the trees.

However, the principal prey is small mammals and perching birds, but it will eat almost anything when necessary, including insects and all wild fruits.

The zoologist, Dr James Fairley (NUI Galway), referring to a study of the marten's diet in the West, has written of a widely variable food intake that included rats, mice, voles, pigeons, water rails, ducks, waders, game birds and leverets (young hares). Even carrion (a dead calf left unburied in a ditch) was acceptable fare.

Martens make their dens in old wall crevices, ruined cottages, hollow tree trunks, or abandoned squirrel or magpie nests.

In north Mayo last year, one leaped and scurried past a startled householder clearing an outhouse for turf-stacking.

Once I saw one on the roadside while, like the narrator in an old ballad, I was returning late home from a wedding in west Waterford. I saw it again the following night - the festivities were prolonged - on the same windswept headland with little cover, and guessed its den was in a farmhouse ruin and it was hunting where cliff-top seabirds nested.

The animal's name suggests a habitat of pine woods, and conifer plantations, alongside some semi-natural deciduous growth, have provided an ideal landscape. It has also adapted to life in the open limestone and hazel scrub areas like the Burren.

Martens have interesting reproductive lives. The naturalist Dr Norman Hicken has written in Irish Nature that "copulation is a rather tempestuous affair" lasting about an hour, with the male dragging his mate around by the scruff of the neck "with much purring and growling".

This month, and July just past, is mating time, but implantation is delayed until January with two or three kits being born in late March or April. They are weaned at seven weeks and leave the den after two months to join the hunt for rodents - and grey squirrels.

Sunday Independent

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