Sunday 24 February 2013

A scramble in the woods

Faithlegg Woods are too vertical to plagiarise Bill Bryson and title this post 'A walk in the woods'.  They are also located in one of Ireland's magical corners: just opposite where the Barrow meets Suir and the river(s) turn sharp right and heads South for Waterford Harbour and the sea.  It's long been known for magical properties as the townland which incorporates the headland just East of the village of Cheekpoint is called Russianside - which must be Ros an sídhe: the headland of the fairyfolk.

ANNyway, yesterday a pal of mine from Russianside way organised for Andrew Harrington of the Mammals in a Sustainable Environment project to give a guided walk along the marsh and up through the woods to look for evidence of otters (Lutra lutra), pine-martens (Martes martes), red-squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), bats (Chiroptera), and the introduced bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus) which is quietly displacing the native wood-mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). We saw and inhaled the heady aroma (new-mown hay and/or rotting fish to the aficianado) of some otter spraint (poo to you) on the edge of the marsh and other evidence of mammals from the other end of the digestive tract up in the woods.  Turns out that squirrels and mice access the nutritious bits of hazel nuts and pine and larch cones in distinctive ways - the bits they leave behind are quite diagnostic.

You have to be real quiet to see mammals which in any case are rarely out and about at noon in February, so the MISE folk document them with other, non-invasive means.  We've come a long way in the techniques of identification from my days as a jobbing field biologist live-trapping voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) in Massachusetts meadows, and taking a capillary-tubeful of blood from the infra-orbital vein.  Actually, in those days I was the 'prentice, handing capillary tubes to the real biologists who were poking about in the tiny eye-sockets.  Now they use appropriate technology solutions (covered runway with wet poster-paint and white paper to capture foot-prints) to census the species; and high-tech molecular biology like PCR to identify individual animals from bits of fur.  The fur is not gathered randomly from the bushes but hoiked off with sticky patches inserted into baited tubes.  Very clever.

Things are looking up for an appreciation of science and the natural world if, from a very small community, you can get 40 people from tots to pensioners out in the woods paying attention, when they could be in Tesco paying for groceries.


  1. My manliness squirms at the notion of being from fairy land! Though it might explain how Ellen sometimes gets money under her pillow even when she forgets to put a tooth there!Wonder was it a fairy that took a chicken last night from the coop?

    What a lovely thought as a means of taking blood from a specimen. a syringe through the eye socket - surely some of your superiors came across with the Nazi diaspora after ww11 to help America conquer the world?

  2. Nononono, the infra-orbital vein was thought about long and hard and researched before implementation on a wide scale. It was much less traumatic in the long-run than getting blood from the tail-vein and everywhere else is all furred up and hard to find (so really traumatic to access). That being said in defense of the times and techniques that were in it 30 years ago, modern PCR-based methods, where you can get all the DNA you need from a hair-follicle, are much better for everyone and everysquirrel.

    1. I have to say either the eye or the "tail end" make me wince! Here here for PCR!!! and the hairy mammal!

  3. And here's a mad example of synchronicity. This morning I was trawling through the tiny corner of the blogosphere wherein I lurk and found this link about squirrel dreys.