Hello! To start off your Ambassador work, can you tell us about some of the wildlife in your country? Thank you! (If you would like a different question, let me know)!
As a former Zoology student, I don’t think you could have started me off with a better question than this one!
So to start off, Irish wildlife could generally be considered to be pretty similar with what one might expect to find on the European continent. With a few differences of course. Ireland is located on an island and although it has known an insular existence for a very long time, Ireland was originally connected to Great Britain and the European mainland by a land bridge. However it is thought that this land bridge disappeared around 14,000 BCE due to rising sea levels. As a consequence, not all fauna that is native to continental Europe managed to cross into Ireland.
For example, out of 60 mammal species recorded in Ireland, only 26 of them are actually native to the country. All others were recently introduced, either accidentally (brown rat, bank vole) or purposefully (rabbit, fallow deer).
Extinctions are never nice to talk about, but I felt it’s still an interesting subject to discuss. Due to Ireland’s location during the Ice Age, it was home to a plethora of animal species that are today either regionally extinct from Ireland or have become completely extinct. Wooly mammoths used to be present in Ireland (and were apparently still around when Newgrange was built) along with the Irish elk, reindeer, lynx, Arctic fox, lemming, and the spotted hyena. Brown bear also used to exist in Ireland before becoming extinct 12,000 years ago and interestingly enough, genetic testing seems to indicate that at least some polar bears today are descended from a female brown bear that was from Ireland. (it appears that polar bears and brown bears in Ireland frequently interbred with each other)
More recent extinctions include the great auk (1834), grey whale (1600s) and wildcat (1800s). The grey wolf, one of the few native species of Ireland, was fairly widespread in the country up to the 1700s. (apparently wolves were so abundant that a few shocked Englishmen gave the nickname “Wolfland” to Ireland) Regarding it as a pest, English lords decided that it needed to be exterminated and put in place a policy where monetary reward was offered for killing wolves. It wasn’t very long until the last wolf was killed in 1786 by the farmer John Watson in Ballydarton, Co. Carlow.
Some of the native mammal species that can be found in Ireland are the following: red fox, hedgehog, badger, hare, otter, stoat, red squirrel, and the pygmy shrew. Many more mammal species were introduced to Ireland over the centuries, such as the rabbit which was introduced by the Normans in the 12th century and the grey squirrel which was introduced in 1911. Unfortunately some of the introduced mammal species have a negative impact on the native fauna, such as the grey squirrel which could potentially push the red squirrel to extinction by outcompeting it and by being a carrier of a disease that is fatal to their smaller red cousin.
Among the marine mammals, Ireland has seals and whales that are either permanent residents or migratory. Of the seals, the two most common species are the common seal and the grey seal. Other seal species and the walrus can be spotted along the Irish coasts but it is only very occasionally that this occurs. Ireland also has various species of dolphins and whales, the most famous example being Fungie the Dingle Dolphin, a bottlenose dolphin who has been around since 1983. Fungie is best known for his friendliness towards humans and is often seen in the Dingle harbour.
A tidbit that I find to be highly interesting is that despite the fact that the red deer is a native species of Ireland due to the attested presence of the it during the Ice Age, the red deer of today isn’t actually descended of that original population. Genetic testing showed that the original red deer population became extinct after the end of the Ice Age but the red deer was subsequently reintroduced 5,000 years ago after Neolithic people brought it with them when they migrated to Ireland. The boar is another example of a species dying out and being reintroduced to Ireland centuries later.
The only native land reptile present in Ireland is the viviparous lizard (or common lizard), the term “viviparous” meaning that it gives birth to live young rather than laying eggs like the majority of reptiles. Another land reptile that has been seen in Ireland is the slow-worm, though it is believed to have been illegally introduced in the 1970s. Other than that, Ireland has five marine turtles species that are often sighted off the west coast of Ireland though they don’t tend to come ashore.
There are no snakes in Ireland. A popular myth claims that this was due to the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, chasing all snakes out of Ireland and into the sea. Of course the story has never been believed to be true because Saint Patrick’s predecessor, Saint Palladius, had noted decades earlier that there were no snakes in Ireland. This is most likely due to Ireland losing its land bridge long before snakes migrated to the north of Europe after the end of Ice Age.
Only three amphibian species are native to Ireland: the European brown frog, the smooth newt, and the natterjack toad. What is curious about the frog is that it is often questioned if it is native to Ireland at all. No mention of frogs in Ireland was made until the 12th century, leading some to speculate that the Normans introduced the frog to Ireland (as they did with the rabbit). Others speculate that the frog could have been introduced as late as the 18th century thanks to an English naturalist who participated in a survey on Irish flora and fauna and allegedly placed imported frog spawn in a ditch after failing to find any native frogs.
There are approximately 400 bird species in Ireland, many of which are migratory such as the swallow. The most widespread of bird species in Ireland are the European robin, wren, blackbird, starling, blue tit, great tit, and the common chaffinch.
Many conservation projects have been attempting to reintroduce certain bird species that used to be in Ireland but became regionally extinct. Some cases have known success, like the white-tailed eagle which was reintroduced to Ireland in 2007 after being absent for 200 years. The golden eagle was reintroduced to Ireland in 2001 after being extinct for 90 years. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that the first golden eagle chick would be born in Ireland. It is planned to attempt to reintroduce the common crane to Ireland in the future. However some bird species such as the osprey and marsh harrier have been returning to Ireland of their own accord.
About 375 fish species are present in Ireland’s coastal waters and a further 40 freshwater species live in Ireland’s lakes and rivers. Fishing is a fairly popular activity in Ireland and attracts many tourists. Some popular fishes to catch are the red sea bream, cod, mackerel, rainbow trout, roach, pollock, and the Atlantic salmon. (although you need a licence to fish Atlantic salmon) Other notable fish species found near Ireland are: basking shark, hagfish, cuckoo wrasse, ocean sunfish, boarfish, conger eel, and thresher shark.
It is estimated that there are 11,500 species of insects in Ireland, though there is a likelihood that there are far more than that. Among these, some notable invertebrates are: freshwater pearl mussel, freshwater crayfish, Kerry slug, marsh fritillary butterfly, white prominent, and diving bell spider.