At the later stages of this Ice Age, animals such as the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus lived in an Ireland with a climate similar to ours. They shared their landscape with woolly mammoths, spotted hyenas and brown bears.
Ireland has few mammal species, compared with other European countries. Only certain species travelled into Ireland before the island was separated from Britain and northwest Europe at the end of the Ice Age. Since then, some familiar species have been introduced by humans. For example, the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which was brought to Ireland by Anglo-Normans in the 12th Century.
The diorama of a family group of badgers (Meles meles) on display in the Museum is one of a series of very popular exhibits made by the Dublin taxidermy firm of Williams & Son. These mammals are characteristic of the Irish landscape. Badgers are active at night, seeking out pastureland where they feed on earthworms, fruits and even hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) as part of their highly varied diet. This brings them into contact with livestock. They share a disease with cattle, which is known as bovine tuberculosis, although the link between infection in badgers and cattle has not been confirmed, even after many decades of research. The suspected role of badgers in the infection of livestock has put them under pressure, with many thousands killed in programmes aimed at controlling the disease.
Many species of Irish birds and birds that visit Ireland feature in the exhibition. Bitterns (Botaurus stellaris) have a distinctive booming call, which may be heard over long distances in wetlands. As reed beds were reduced owing to the drainage of many Irish wetlands over recent centuries, the bittern has ceased to breed here. Nowadays it is the turn of the Corncrake (Crex crex) to be threatened by changing farming practices. These birds are the subject of a campaign that may see corncrakes survive as a breeding bird in Ireland.
Francis Ledwidge (1887 – 1917) wrote a lament for his friend Thomas MacDonagh, who was executed in Dublin in 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising. It opens with the famous lines:
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky where he is lain
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
Predators that compete with farmers have always been under threat. Brown bears (Ursus arctos arctos) and wolves (Canis lupus lupus) have been cleared from Ireland over the centuries, but golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) were common until the late 19th Century. By the late 20th Century, a programme to reintroduce golden eagles was under way in County Donegal.
Many mammals are most active at night and thus are a tempting food source for predators adapted to the dark. Large eyes and sensitive ears give owls a head start in catching prey. The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) is one of many birds that live in Ireland for part of the year. Voles are its favourite food in other countries, but they are not native to Ireland. Bank voles (Myodes glareolus) were introduced to the Cork/Kerry region in the mid 20th Century, and short-eared owls are now found in high densities in this area.
Female peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are heavier than males. They use their weight to build up speed, dropping from a great height to crash into their prey with talons at the ready. Like many birds of prey, peregrine falcons saw a dramatic reduction in their numbers during the 20th Century, but they are now making a comeback.
Sea and river Life
Once common in some Irish rivers, the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifer) has been under pressure for many years because of the pearls that are occasionally enclosed in its shell. Just like oysters, these shellfish sometimes produce a small ball of shiny shell material around an irritating object. Freshwater pearls are not as highly prized as those from saltwater shellfish, as they are considered to be less lustrous. Most modern pearls are produced in shellfish farms.
New animals are still arriving in Ireland and making themselves at home here. Zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) are freshwater shellfish that originated in rivers around the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. They spread across Europe as canals were built, reaching Britain in 1830. It was not until the 1990s that zebra mussels started to spread through Ireland. They are now a major pest, occurring in huge numbers, up to 100,000 per square metre. Alien species often upset the balance of nature when they are moved to new areas without their normal predators.
A record specimen of a trout (Salmo trutta) was taken from Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath, on 15 August 1894 by William Meares. It weighed 11.8kg when caught and still holds the record despite many challenges. One challenge came from a fish known as Pepper’s Ghost, and, at more than 13.8kg, it had claimed the record since 1861. Scientific examination of its scales confirmed that Pepper’s Ghost was in fact a salmon (Salmo salar). This story shows another use for the Museum’s collection – finding the truth behind fishy tales!
Occasional oddities on display included a lobster (Homarus gammarus), which has developed with normal coloration only along one side.
Ireland has about 12,000 different species of insect. One of the key roles of the Museum is to help scientists identify animals. It is important to identify each species correctly in order to control pests. Many insects play an important part in keeping nature in balance. They pollinate plants and control other harmful insect species. Regular monitoring of insects gives us a measure of the health of our environment. The common blue butterfly (Polyommatus icarus) is an indicator of healthy grasslands.
Irish Fauna is located at:
The animals found in Ireland today inhabit a landscape that was scoured by ice on a number of occasions over the last 100,000 years.
+353 1 677 7444