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Incredible scenes from an incredible wildlife adventure

In May, as the undergrowth thickens, the heat increases and brief rain showers moisten and feed the plant life, there is a crescendo of wildlife activity. Keep your eyes open when walking along lanes or through meadows in Wicklow, and you could be rewarded with amazing encounters, such as a family of Irish Stoats moving to a new lair. The mother leads, usually with the father nearby, and the babies moving along tracks at intervals, piping loudly in communication with their parent/s, sounding like exotic little birds.

A very rarely seen juvenile Irish Stoat, one of a family following their mother along a dried out drainage ditch by a hedgerow.

Irish Stoats are remarkable little animals. Genetics studies suggest that these rarely seen predators may be Ireland’s oldest indigenous mammals. The Irish Stoat subspecies (Mustela erminea hibernica) differs from its British and coninental relatives in that it does not turn into the snow white Ermine in winter, and an irregular line between the creamy-white underside and upper brown fur, which is a regular line in most stoats. The Irish Stoat is often known as a “weasel” in Ireland, but there are actually no weasels found on the island.

Irish Stoats have traditionally been regarded as almost supernatural creatures in Ireland. They are known to dance, and in full view of rabbits, seemingly mesmerising them, before suddenly attacking. Although a large Irish Stoat will reach only 40cm at maximum from nose-tip to tail-tip, they voraciously pursue and kill even the very largest rabbits, and have even been seen dragging them up vertical walls and tree trunks. In the countryside they have long been feared: it is said that if a young Stoat is harmed by a person, the whole family will track the offender down and kill them. Needless to say, these amazing little monsters have never been persecuted in Ireland. Bravery, daring, intelligence and ferocity are always respected!

Ireland’s largest carnivores are all members of the Stoat family, but very different to the wily little hunters. It is still a much-debated topic as to which is the larger animal, the Badger (Meles meles) or the Otter (Lutra lutra). Both are credited with phenomenal strength. You might not see them around, but they are always there in the Wicklow countryside. Look along the edges of walls and fences in meadows for the tell-tale territorial markings made by Badgers: latrines. They are not the most pleasant looking things, being small open holes dug in the earth and filled with Badger dung, but they certainly get the message across! And then you know to come back after dark, with a camera.

A Badger latrine: someone's been feeding on peanuts!

All this dung, especially cowdung, horse dung and sheep dung, will give you a good chance of seeing a wonderful little animal which has been portrayed in some adventure movies as an insane supernatural killing-machine. Anyone who has seen Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy will probably have unpleasant recollections of swarms of large black scarab beetles pursuing the adventurers, burrowing into skin, and eating people alive. In Wicklow we have a number of members of the Scarabidae, better known as “dung beetles”. The most commonly found is the large, muscular-looking and armour-plated Common Dor Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius). You will imediately notice that it is an extremely slow-moving animal and clumsy insect, finding it very difficult to right itself if it gets turned over. The immense, blade-like digging claws of the front legs are powerful. Hold a beetle in your hands and you will feel them prize your fingers apart with the kind of strength that is barely imaginable in such a small creature. There are always parasitic mites clinging to Dor Beetles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see any.

A Common Dor Beetle with mite travelling companions.

 

However, even these big beetles have their mammalian predators, with bats in the sky, and badgers and Pygmy Shrews on the ground. Watch out for Pygmy Shrews (Sorex minutus) running along carefully maintained trackways beneath the undergrowth. They move fast, so watch closely!

Wildlife as the humidity increases…

As tropical weather systems move across the Atlantic from the Caribbean the Barn Swallows have an abundance of food and can take time to rest and socialise. This is probably the best time of year to view their colours, as they perch on the ground.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) on the ground

Between the showers, and even in them, you have a very good chance of spotting Ireland’s unique subspecies of Mountain Hare. The Irish or Blue Hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) has a bluish sheen, which you can just about see in this photo, which was taken in difficult lighting just before a shower of rain.

An Irish Hare on the alert.

However, in the humidy of May keep your eyes on the hedgerows and you will see some very interesting creatures, such as the brilliant shiny green Birch Weevil, and the Strawberry Ground Beetle, which is a hunter that also enjoys eating strawberries. The Strawberry Ground Beetle is one of the most common beetles found inWicklow, and you will often find it under flowerpots. Although it does eat strawberries, it makes amends with gardeners by eating slugs too.

Birch Weevil (Polydrusus sericeus), on a Dock leaf, just to cause confusion.

 

Strawberry Ground Beetle (Harpalus rufipes), crossing a deep pile carpet of Sphagnum moss.

 

However, the most striking and bizarre thing that you are likely to see in the hedgerows at this time of year is a vast web, covering whole trees and bushes, and more. Many people are startled by the sight of this phenomenon, and often fear the invasion of some terrible tropical spider species like from the film Arachnophobia.

Tent-webs on a hedge

Those who dare to get closer are often startled by thousands of caterpillars writhing in the webs. The truth of the situation is far more interesting than you might think: the caterpillars spin these webs themselves, as protective tents to keep predators at bay while they feed unopposed. They are caterpillars of the beautiful, tiny, white-with-black- spots Small Ermine moth, which can be seen flying over the hedgerows throughout the summer months.

 

Caterpillars of the Small Ermine (Yponomeuta patella) feeding in their protective tent.

 

May Changes

At this time of the year the plants and animals usually behave in careful time. One of the first definitive signs of May is the so-called Maybug, the large and ungainly Cockchafer Beetle, which flies through the air on balmy nights, often blundering into people, windows and car windshields. This ungainly beetle gets the name “Maybug” because it takes to the sky at this time of the year, having spent over a year underground as a white beetle grub, feeding on dandelion roots. The name “Cockchafer” is because it is one of the chafer-type beetles, that feed on pollen in flowerheads, and seemingly because the frilled antennae of the males (used to sniff out female pheremones on the wind) bear a striking resemblance to a cock’s/rooster’s comb. I photographed this one feeding on newly blooming Hawthorn, one of the quintessential Irish spring blossoms.

 

Maybug or Cockchafer Beetle (Melolontha melolontha) on Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna).

This is the time of year for what we humans term “love”, and the various insect species are especially busy. On the large fronds of Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often find the dead leaf-imitating camouflaged Dock Bugs, mating on the leaves.

Dock Bugs (Coreus marginatus)

These bugs feed on the sap of the Dock plants, and live happily among these plants. They belong to a group of insects known as shieldbugs due to their shield-shaped bodies, or alternatively as stinkbugs, due to their habit of emitting extremely noxious scents and foul-smelling liquid on anyone or any thing that dares handle them roughly. Otherwise they are completely harmless.

 

If you look at the hanging yellow-green blossoms of Sycamore Trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) which appear at this time of year, you will find dozens, if not hundreds of shiny black flies bearing a remarkable resemblance to the St. Mark’s Fly, except that they are much smaller. These are Fever Flies (Dilophus febrilis), a species which is found throughout the spring and summer months, but is most common in spring in huge numbers, when breeding occurs.

Fever Flies on Sycamore blossoms.

All this insect activity creates a surge of predatory activity among the invertebrate predators. You will often see large net-like webs placed horizontally, like platforms, across bushes in sunny areas. These are the hammock-like webs of the appropriately named Hammock-web Spider. The spider is quite small, and runs along upside-down and underneath the web, biting it’s prey through the silk. This method protects the spider from injury to some degree.

Hammock-web Spider - Linyphia triangularis

Some insects are a bit too big to handle. At this time of year in Wicklow, you will see the huge female Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) bumbling from flower-to-flower, collecting vast amounts of nectar. The male is very different, and much smaller, looking like a more typical bumblebee.

Red-tailed Bumblebee

Sadly, the busyness of spring often causes animals to be off their guard. This is especially dangerous on the winding roads of Wicklow when people begin to make day-trips into the countryside in sunnier weather. I found this unfortunate Badger (Meles meles) dead by the side of a narrow country road. This one appeared to be a boar, and about the size of a muscular Jack Russell terrier. When taking a car into the wild Wicklow landscape it is a good idea to drive very cautiously and to be aware of other creatures that might be crossing the roadways. Drive carefully and safely. There’s no hurry!

A dead Badger lying by a narrow roadside.