Wildlife in Northern Ireland

An overview of some of the wildlife native to Northern Ireland including hedgehogs, badgers and stoats

Rabbits are not native to Ireland but were introduced by the Normans in the twelfth century as an important source of meat and fur. They quickly became established in the wild and became numerous over the next 200 years. Domestic and wild rabbits formed the basis of an important skin export industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Rabbits are generally regarded as pests, causing major damage to crops and newly planted forests. The laboratory developed disease myxomatosis was released to control rabbits in the 1950s, and proved extremely successful. However, rabbits have increasingly developed resistance to this disease.

It is not clear when and how the hedgehog reached Ireland. It was certainly present in England about 10,000 years ago, and may have been introduced to Ireland by man sometime in the thirteenth century as a source of food. Hedgehogs have been persecuted for their predation on eggs of game birds and waders, although actual damage is small.

The hedgehog is one of the most common road kill animals, with large numbers of deaths occurring during periods of peak abundance and at certain hotspots. Hedgehogs are particularly vulnerable to garden pesticides and many are poisoned by eating slugs fed on the poisonous bait put out by gardeners. They also frequently become trapped in garden ponds and cattle grids. The hedgehog’s main natural enemies are foxes and badgers.

It is not known exactly when the stoat arrived in Ireland, although it was probably present 35,000 years ago. Confusingly, stoats in Ireland are often called weasels, although the weasel is a smaller animal that has never been native here. Stoat numbers declined with the fall in the rabbit population due to myxomatosis, but now that the rabbit has become resistant to the virus, this food source is once again available in large numbers.

Stoats can be found in many locations including woodland, farmland, mountain and hedgerows. The stoat is quite a ferocious animal and can kill prey more than five times its own body weight. However, small mammals such as mice and rats make up the majority of its diet.

Badgers have been present in Ireland for approximately 10,000 years. They make their setts in woodland, scrub, hedgerows, moorland, open fields, embankments, and occasionally under buildings. In Ireland, which has the smallest percentage of tree coverage in western Europe, badgers are normally found in hedgerows and scrubland.

Badgers are truly omnivorous, their diet depending upon availability. Small mammals such as rabbits, rats, mice and hedgehogs may be consumed, as well as slugs, snails, large quantities of earthworms, and large insects. They also eat vegetation, plant roots, and an assortment of fruit.

The badger does not appear to be under any major threat in Northern Ireland. However, bovine tuberculosis is present in about 8% of badgers. As a result, many cattle farmers view all badgers as a potential source of disease and a general cull is threatened as part of a government experiment. Current threats to badgers include property development and the illegal practice of badger baiting, quite significant on a local scale.

Fox bones have been found in archaeological sites in Northern Ireland dating from about 5000 years ago, although they may have been present before this time. Foxes are becoming increasingly urbanised due to their ability to scavenge on discarded food.

Foxes are generally considered vermin and every possible means has been used to kill them in Northern Ireland. From the early 1940s to the late 1970s, a bounty was paid for each fox killed and approximately 200,000 dead animals were submitted. Today, foxes may be affecting the numbers of breeding waders in some parts of the country, and may also be having an impact on Irish hare populations.

© The Cave Hill Conservation Campaign 2003