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.
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.
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.
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!