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We can all be citizen scientists

Outdoor Living

RED ALERT Local photographer Kenny Sloan recently sent in this photo of a red squirrel in woodland not far from Foxford. Ireland’s endangered red squirrel is making a comeback thanks to rising numbers of another native species – the pine marten – which prey on the non-native, less-agile grey squirrel. Thanks to Kenny, and to fellow Mayo News reader Marie Burke, who sent in a photo of another red squirrel she saw near Carnacon.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

It was a cold night, with fog creeping in off the lake and frost edging the road. Overhead, hanging branches sparkled in the light of my torch. Something moved in the field beyond the fence. It became a momentary shadow, then a hare, the same one that ventures into the garden when he wants, probably to nibble at the calendulas, which have continued to flower winter long.
The animal preferred its darkened world to my artificial light and loped away to find comfort.
There are still bats at the day’s end, hawking for insects along the lakeshore. They should be hibernating, but warm days don’t help. How will the lack of proper winter torpor affect them? Or does it even matter? I heard their wings frittering air and when I shone the torch overhead they came to investigate.
Four hundred yards from the house the vixen’s cold cry pierced the air, and I stood to listen as she came my way. Over and again she called, her sound repeated each half minute until she fell silent. I know she drops by now and then for food. There is competition in the orchard: feral cats, an occasional badger, pine marten, a multitude of birds and the neighbour’s dog – all get their reward by turn. It depends who gets there first.
The fox fell silent. I could imagine her crunching chicken bones and hunting the scraps of bread and cheese I have taken to leaving out. But then a bloodcurdling scream cut through the quiet. Long and shrill, painfully drawn out and horribly child-like, it had me striding back the way I had come, although I knew for certain I was too late.
I was only halfway home when my torch picked out the yellow eyes of the fox among the trees as she hurried away with her prize, and now we have a fresh vacancy and must wait for a replacement hare. It’s a hard world out there. That fox would eat well for one night, or maybe two. She will soon need to kill again though, and doubly so. Those calls were for her mate. There will be hungry cubs in a few weeks.
It is difficult to get a realistic estimation of fox numbers, as is the case for most animals that move by night. Judging by the few sightings made by friends I do think there are more locally than there have been for years.
There is certainly no shortage of runs along the roadways. Smaller lanes that don’t carry a lot of traffic might have a splash of green here and there, where an animal crossing the road has consistently left muddy pawprints to nourish a smatter of vegetation. A trained nose will tell you if you have a fox traveling that way, and if so you should be able to make acquaintance, especially if you take to leaving scraps of food close by. Foxes are creatures of habit, but also extremely cautious. Patience is needed.
Citizen Science is becoming increasingly popular. It is also invaluable. Every anecdote or observation adds to our collective knowledge, and while the red fox is certainly not an endangered species there are others that are struggling.
According to the Vincent Wildlife Trust the number of pine martens in Ireland is somewhere between three and four thousand individuals. We have in the region of 10,000 otters and 140,000 red squirrels, which sounds like a lot but really isn’t. Just try and find one!
As stated on the Earth Challenge website (earthchallenge2020.org), Earth Challenge 2020 is the world’s largest ever coordinated citizen-science campaign, by means of which we can all make a valuable contribution.
The website explains: ‘Starting in April 2020, the campaign will use a mobile app to collect billions of observations in air quality, plastic pollution and insect populations, providing a platform and valuable environmental insight…’.
The goal is to promote policy change, which is understandable, and all the more so as we hear strident alarm cries from scientists around the world. Whether we agree with the politics or not, Earth Challenge 2020 gives us a unique opportunity to understand our impact on the world as never before. Getting out there and sharing the things we find can only be good for us.
In the meantime, thanks to the readers who sent reports and photos of red squirrels, one from Carnacon and another in the Foxford area.