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Ireland's ecosystem is home to almost 16,500 species - here are 7 you may not have spotted

And importantly, how you can protect some of them.

Prof Jane Stout Director of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital

EVERY YEAR, SCIENCE Week encourages people around Ireland to ask questions about the world that they inhabit. This year, the focus is on climate action – what should we know about the world’s changing climate? To address this, we’ll hear from the country’s leading scientists about the minor but meaningful changes we can make to protect our world.

A landmark report from the UN recently found that over one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. So, which species should we be worried about in Ireland? 

Ireland is home to some wonderful species – big, small, common, scarce, thriving and threatened. Some species in Ireland are very rare and at risk of extinction, and they’re not necessarily the ones that most people would recognise. Among them are curlewsfreshwater pearl mussels and European eels (which are all critically endangered in Ireland), along with great yellow bumblebees which are categorised as endangered.

We have such amazing biodiversity and most people don’t see it. I was asked to highlight some of our less well-known, but wonderful species of mammals, plants and insects. So, here are seven of the lesser-spotted species to keep an eye out for…   

1. The pine marten

shutterstock_751163488 Source: Shutterstock/Vaclav Sebek

These are among the rarest Irish mammals. They’re related to stoats, badgers and otters and their populations are quite isolated and fragmented. They’re found mostly in the western counties and the midlands. Pine martens live in forest and scrub habitats, and are threatened by destruction of these areas.

2. Irish lady’s-tresses

shutterstock_1269638539 Source: Shutterstock

These wildflowers are among Ireland’s rarest species of orchid. They’re found in grassy habitats in Northern Ireland, Galway and Mayo, mainly in damp meadows and bog. This species is found in Ireland and western Britain and nowhere else in Europe, despite being widespread in North America. Irish lady’s-tresses are protected and categorised as “near threatened”.

3. The red squirrel

shutterstock_738806041 Source: Shutterstock/Keith K

The red squirrel is our native squirrel species. It is still found throughout Ireland, but the introduced grey squirrels can be more familiar to people, particularly in the east of the country. Red squirrells are totally dependent on woodland habitat, preferring trees like hazel, beech and spots pine. They tend to stay up in the canopy rather than feeding on the ground, and so are more difficult to spot. 

4. The lesser horseshoe bat

shutterstock_459616861 Source: Shutterstock

One of our smallest mammals is the lesser horseshoe bat. This species lives in underground caves, cellars and mines during the winter, and roosts in old, uninhabited buildings in the summer. They tend to hunt in dense woodlands and mature hedgerows. They are incredible animals that people may not often see and that are confined to Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick, Cork and Kerry.

5. The great yellow bumblebee

olympus-digital-camera Source: All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

People tend to forget about invertebrates when we think about animals at risk of extinction. One of our threatened insect species is the great yellow bumblebee which is one of our largest bee species. It used to occur across Ireland but now it’s just found in tiny patches of rich grassland in the west. I’ve studied bumblebees for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen it in the wild.

6. The cockchafer

shutterstock_1548163277 Source: Shutterstock

Also known as the ‘May bug’, adult beetles of this species can get up to three centimetres in length. Adults fly in May and June and seem quite clumsy when in flight as they are powerful but not very agile fliers. They live in woodlands, parklands and woody urban areas in Ireland. People might be familiar with them but when they do see them their size can come as a bit of a shock!

7. The marsh fritillary butterfly

shutterstock_649418824 Source: Shutterstock

This butterfly is the only insect species that’s legally protected, which seems crazy given that many insects in Ireland are endangered. Its caterpillars feed on a single plant species that is found in open, wet grasses and boglands, mainly in the midlands and the west of Ireland. It is threatened by the destruction of bogland and it’s endangered across Europe.

So, what can we do about protecting their habitats?

What many of our threatened species have in common is that the habitats they depend on for survival are being destroyed. We need to leave more space for wildlife, not just in the countryside but in our towns and villages too.

For example, if you’re looking to encourage pollinating insects, you can use resources such as the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. With this, you’ll be able to identify areas in your garden or local community where bees can nest and feed. What that can really help is to mow our lawns less frequently and let native plants like dandelions and clover flower.

We need to stop using pesticides in our gardens – the arguments for their use for producing food may be strong but there is no need to use them in the garden. If you are managing your garden for wildlife, be prepared for it to look a bit scruffy. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has signs to let your neighbours know why you’re not mowing the grass.

Another way we can protect our species is through our diet choices and consumer choices. For example, we can think about the chemicals we use at home which get washed down the drain when we’re finished with them and can have profound effects on water quality and the organisms living the the water systems and soil that they enter.

But the bottom line is that we need to consume less and make space for nature. Not only is it wonderful and fascinating, it’s our life support system and we need to protect it. 

Jane Stout is a professor of Botany in Trinity College Dublin. She’s also the chair of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital and the deputy chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan

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About the author:

Prof Jane Stout  / Director of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital

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