Fota isn’t just about the flora and fauna, though these are spectacular throughout the seasons. It’s also about nature, birds, bees, butterflies and some elusive animals. Here are some of the creatures we happily share Fota with.
The Red Admiral arrives in Ireland from May onwards. It migrates from the Mediterranean, moving northwards across Europe. It’s one of our largest butterflies, with a wingspan of around 60mm. It lays its eggs on nettle plants. Once the eggs hatch, the young caterpillar pulls the nettle leaf around itself, binding it with a silken thread to make a protective sheath where it can feed more safely. As it grows, it moves from leaf to leaf, making larger protective covers. While they bring wonderful colour to our gardens, few survive the Winter here, so their appearance in May heralds the start of Summer.
This lively bird is widespread throughout Ireland. It nests in old buildings, under the eaves or in cavities in walls. It’s a relative of the finch, with a large head and sturdy bill. It’s upper parts are dark brown with darker streaks and grey underneath. The male has a chocolate brown nape, grey crown and large black bib. The female is plainer with a buff stripe extending back from the eye. Sometimes they can be seen and heard in large, twittering flocks. Currently this bird amber-listed in Ireland and there has been a decline in European breeding flocks in general. It feeds on seeds, grains and worms (when feeding young) and, as many gardeners will tell you, likes to eat buds also.
Rabbits came to Ireland with the Normans who brought them here as a food source. Their Scandinavian name for the animal is Koinin. The Irish adapted this to Coinín. Coney Island in Sligo (and the one in Co. Down immortalised by Van Morrison) take the name from the Irish for rabbit, as does The Cunnigar in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. It’s even possible that the famous Coney Island in New York was named after rabbits by the early Dutch settlers as the Dutch word for rabbit is Conyn and the area was originally called Conyne Eylandt. Whatever the origins of these placenames, they all had one thing in common, large colonies of rabbits. We don’t know how large our colony is in Fota but they can be a nuisance in the Frameyard, as Bernard our gardener will attest. They’re herbivores and can live on grass but love soft vegetable or plant leaves and make regular raids (like their original Norman breeders ) on nearby gardens.
On our Easter Egg Trail at Fota this year, one of the questions that stumped most people was “What is a baby rabbit called?”. Most people suggested “bunny” but in fact it’s called a “kitten” or “kit”. A female rabbit will produce around 7 kits per litter. If the life span of this female is 5 years, she could produce 350 kits. However, most live for about a year, as rabbits are at the lower end of the animal food chain and despite their long ears (for detecting preditors) they are eaten by foxes, stoats, badgers, minks and birds of prey.
This Grey Heron is a frequent visitor to the Lily-pond at Fota. They are widespread and year-round residents in Ireland, sometimes joined by Scandanavian species in Winter. They are usually seen standing on the edge of various wetland habitats, solitary and still, feeding on aquatic creatures. They have adapted well to urban settings as many people with fish-ponds will know. This ability to adapt is demonstrated by a group of herons who arrive every morning between 5 and 7 at the gate of the English Market in Cork City, looking for fish scraps. They nest in heronries high in trees and a good example of this is on the small island on the Atlantic Pond on the Marina in Cork City. The blue-green eggs are incubated over 25 days and the chicks fledge after 7 or 8 weeks. These young will start breeding themselves from the age of 2. They make a distinctive loud, harsh croaking sound which can be heard around their colonies. It’s elegant in flight, sometimes gliding. Like swans, they were considered a delicacy in Medieval times and in 1465 the Duke of York was reputed to have served 400 roast herons at a banquet.
Bumble bee nests can be found in a variety of places. They favour dark, dry cavities under sheds, in old mice holes or in compost heaps. But some species might use nest boxes, lofts or trees for their nests. Unlike the honeybee, the bumble bee only produces enough honey to feed its young, so their honey is not harvested for commercial use. Because they don’t produce a large amount of honey and store it, they are never more than a few days away from starvation. Their powerful wing muscles allows them to feed within a radius of 5 km but they generally feed closer to their nests. Though they are larger than honeybees, they are generally less aggressive and the male (drone) has no sting. If the female does sting, it won’t die or lose its stinger like the honeybee. In Ireland, there are 20 native species, 6 of which are cuckoo bumble bees. As their name suggests, they will lay their eggs in the nest of another bumble bee who will then rear these young bumble bees with their own. 4 of Ireland’s bumble bees are considered to be endangered and 2 more are vulnerable. But the good news is that a new species was discovered in Ireland in 2007. This is called the Cryptic bumble bee, Bombus cryptarum.
This butterfly isn’t as colourful as the Red Admiral. It is also much smaller but then it doesn’t have to fly as far, as it overwinters in Ireland. The Speckled Wood is dark brown with creamy yellow spots. It is the only brown butterfly with three small, cream-ringed eyespots on each hindwing and one on each forewing. It flies in partially shaded woodland with dappled sunlight. It is very territorial and the male usually perches in a small pool of sunlight, from where it rises rapidly to fight off any intruding butterflies or insects. While butterfly numbers have been decreasing due to habitat issues, the Speckled Wood is one of the few which has been thriving in recent years. In the UK,conservationists have recorded a 71% increase in distribution and an 84% increase in numbers over the last 40 years. A survey in Ireland in 2010 found that the Speckled Wood is widely dispersed. Ironically this is due to climate change and global warming. This butterfly loved to feed on aphid honeydew. But can also be seen feeding on flowers earlier or later in the year when there are fewer aphids.
One of Ireland’s most familiar birds, this member of the thrush family is easily recognisable with its yellow bill and the yellow circle around the eye. The males are black and the females brown. Females and young birds have marking similar to the thrush, with streaks across the breast. Like the song thrush, it is a wonderful singer and its song can be heard late into the evening in summer. Street lighting in cities means that they can sometimes be heard singing in the dead of night. They feed on a variety of foodstuffs, from berries to worms, grubs and even kitchen scraps. (One volunteer, Mary, tells of eating outdoors in the recent warm weather and when she went inside for a minute, a blackbird helped himself to some of her food). They also love fruit as many gardeners who are forced to put up fruit cages will know. But they are also great foragers and their presence is often signalled by the sound of leaves rustling underneath bushes. Their eggs hatch after a 2 week incubation period. The young fledge after a further 2 weeks but the adults continue to feed them until they learn to forage and feed independently. Adult blackbirds generally remain in the same area and mate for life.
The history of the red squirrel in Ireland seems to be a story of constant fluctuation. While it’s not definite when the red squirrel was introduced to Ireland, it is mentioned in relation to shipping records in the 1600’s, where it is reported that thousands of squirrel skins were exported annually. The decline in these exports coincided with the deforestation of Ireland, during the great ship-building period of the Tudor era. This led to its almost complete extinction until it was re-introduced in the 19th century. The American grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) was introduced to Ireland in 1911, in a single location in Co. Longford. This started another period of decline for the reds. Greys are bigger, stronger, more adaptable and have more offspring than reds but most importantly they carry squirrel pox which does not harm them but can kill a red squirrel in days There is no direct aggression between the species but there is fierce competition for food, with the smaller red inevitably losing out to the grey. The grey squirrel has the advantage of staying longer at ground level to forage. However, this habit in itself causes problems for the grey squirrel exposing it to attack from Pine Martins, who, by preying on the greys, have become unlikely allies of the red squirrels. Red squirrels need a medium to large concentration of trees in order to establish a habitat, so Fota is an ideal location for them. Breeding usually starts in the first few months of the year but the start of the breeding season is largely determined by the seed crop available to the squirrels in the previous autumn. If the squirrel has a good hoard then breeding can start early, with the females having enough time to wean the first litter and produce a second litter in early summer. A poor autumnal haul will usually mean the production of one litter. Currently the population density of red squirrels is low in Ireland and they are mainly found in isolated wooded areas especially in the south and east.
In the sky over the Frameyard last week we watched a Sparrowhawk surrounded by a group of Swallows. They were doing their best to drive off this predatory bird. They succeeded. Sparrowhawks depend on the element of surprise and once they are spotted they only have seconds to catch their prey as its alarm calls will send out a warning to any bird or small animal in the area. Only about one in every ten attacks results in a meal. They build their nests in woodland areas between April and May. The hatching of their offspring is designed to occur when there is an abundance of other species’ fledglings, ensuring a plentiful supply of food. Fledglings make up around 40% of a sparrowhawk’s diet. Females are larger than the males and can catch larger (pigeon sized) birds. As they are a small raptor, their size makes them ideal for hunting in confined, urban spaces. They can often be seen feeding on their prey in gardens. They’re agile flyers but will also pursue their prey on foot. During the 1900’s, the use of pesticides like DDT had a detrimental effect on these raptors. They accumulated toxic poison by feeding on other animals who had eaten contaminated grains or grasses. They have since pulled out of this decline and nowadays it is estimated that there are 11,000 breeding pairs in Ireland.
A pair of Moorhens on the Lily pond at Fota have produced three chicks this year. They can be seen walking on the lily pads or swimming around the pond. Although they are widespread in Ireland and can be seen in parks and on riverbanks, they’re shy birds who sometimes exhibit nervous behaviour, such as a twitching tail, neck or grinding their backs. They are members of the rail family (Rallidae), in the genus Gallinula (Latin for “little hen”). When you watch them walking, it’s easy to see why they got their name. Their longish legs are yellow/green and they have long toes, not webbed like other water birds. The adult has a bright red beak and forehead. The male bird courts the female by fanning out his tale and bringing her water weeds. The underside of their tails are white and quite striking against the dark plumage. The mating pair build several bowl-shaped nests which they line with leaves and other plants. Once the brood of eggs are hatched, these precocial (mature and mobile) chicks are cared for by both parents and sleep in the extra nests at night.
In the Frameyard we’re acutely aware of the inter-dependent relationship between man and nature. The red squirrel’s habit of burying its autumn harvest of nuts and seeds is important to the ecosystem of wooded areas as this activity spreads tree seeds over large areas. A walk around Fota House grounds will reveal many small saplings, particularly oaks, which have sprung up from one of the red squirrel’s buried hoard. Bumble bees are more effective pollinators than honey bees of many crops, including apples. So we love to see them in the Fota Orchard. Their form of “buzz pollination” (where flowers need to be vibrated to release pollen) is very effective on tomatoes, peppers, blueberries and other fruit. While butterflies are not as efficient as bees at pollination, they do transfer pollen that sticks to their legs as they fly from flower to flower. Above all, we respect and admire our natural companions. Yes, even when those rabbits eat our radishes and lettuces, or when the Frameyard swallows leave their droppings for us to clean up. There’s a place for everything in Fota.
All photographs copyright Fotaframeyardblog. Photograph of the red squirrel by volunteer George B.