The pine marten, buzzards and other predators

pine-martenContributors to the media are constantly seeking news that will capture the reader’s attention. For writers of headline stories, shock items are their bread and butter and for these, one need look no further than the natural world for an endless supply of suitable material. Invasions of aliens such as grey squirrels, mink, muntjac deer, harlequin ladybirds, zebra mussels, gunnera or giant rhubarb and Japanese knotweed have all featured prominently in recent years. This time it is the turn of the formerly scarce pine marten to receive attention and merit headlines that were previously used to describe the spread of mink.

The pine marten is still Irelands rarest wild animal although numbers are slowly increasing across much of the country.  It hunts by night and spends most of its time in trees, hence the name “cat crainn”. Most of us have never seen a pine marten and although they are now becoming more widespread, they are understandably very wary of humans and their presence is often only noticed by traces of their scats or droppings. In some parts of Ireland they are referred to as marten cats being about the same size as a cat but have shorter legs with strong feet and claws for climbing. They can live up to seventeen years and are fierce hunters and predators. They are mainly meat eaters but will devour almost anything they can catch which includes rats, mice, rabbits, small birds, beetles and thankfully, grey squirrels. Given the extensive damage the grey has inflicted on Irish woodland, the reappearance of a native predator that might reduce its numbers is widely welcomed. Apparently, the grey squirrel, being heavier than our native red, finds it difficult to escape the marten. The red is better able to get away due to its light body weight which allows it to gain safety on light branches. Pine martens are of course major predator of birds when they are nesting and this is causing some alarm in Scotland where game birds such as grouse and pheasant are so important to the rural economy. Like the fox and mink, the marten is also not adverse to a feed of farmyard fowl and chicken runs are now being visited by it with rather greater frequency than before but let us keep a sense of perspective here and give the marten a break. He is one of our few true natives and was widespread centuries ago before being hunted and almost exterminated for his fur.

Generations of poultry keepers have suffered from raids by that wiliest of predators, the fox and for decades, mink, formerly released from captivity, adapted all too well to life in rural Ireland and have caused havoc, especially where game birds are kept temporarily in pens. It is odd that we don’t hear much about the mink these days even though they are still plentiful as is that lethal predator, the feral cat which kills large numbers of song birds. Along with these, the huge increase in the numbers of buzzards is a cause for concern and even seagulls are beginning to attract some unwanted criticism. It is not easy being a song or game bird these days but carefully erected electric fencing will at least keep any chicken run safe from ground predators and it is relatively inexpensive and simple to install. The fox, for whatever reason is now loved by the urban community and we frequently read letters from city dwellers about how they enjoy feeding the foxes that visit their gardens. Fox hunting is being demonised and not a word is now written about the countless numbers of hens that have fallen victim to Reynard as he has almost been raised to the status of household pet. The BBC programme Countryfile tends to portray foxes and grey squirrels as adorable friends despite the fact that when allowed to breed unchecked, they cause serious damage. The alien grey squirrel has for years caused serious damage to our broadleaved trees and he is my public enemy number one. For that reason, I welcome the pine marten and wish him and his children, a long and happy future.

JB

 

Grey Squirrels

Grey Squirrel PicIf you want to find a hazel tree, follow a squirrel. If you want to get a crop of nuts off it, shoot the squirrel. So says celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who then suggests that as grey squirrels are both plentiful and delicious, let’s eat them.

When I wrote on this topic a few years ago, some people were horrified at the thought of eating an animal that is classified as vermin. But then so are rabbits which are also scrumptious. We even did a piece on Ear to the Ground where we demonstrated how to cook a squirrel casserole but again, not everyone was convinced. Then squirrel began to appear on the menus of some British restaurants and one enterprising chef called them “flightless grouse” to overcome any negative perception of what the dish contained. Perhaps if “Southern Fried Squirrel” was available in our fast food outlets it would rapidly become popular and walk, or rather scamper, off the restaurant counters.

The European Squirrel Initiative www.europeansquirrelinitiative.org produce an excellent magazine which highlights the damage that greys cause throughout the continent and the most recent issue contains further recipes which include Black Forest Smoked Squirrel and Fruited Squirrel. Check out http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,1-0,squirrel,FF.html for more great dishes.

It is estimated that over ten million pounds worth of damage is caused annually in Britain by greys and the European parliament are about to introduce legislation to help control them. Greys have not yet reached France but forests in Italy have suffered huge damage and cobnut producers in Kent lose approximately one third of their crop each year to what we fondly call “the tree rat”. Nut growers there each spend on average £3,000 annually on crop protection and their spokesman stated that the public should be made aware of the dangers of feeding greys. The damage they cause is still not fully understood outside farming circles and he recommended that all nut producers who sell online should post a warning to the public on their websites.

Having spent the past fortnight marking hardwood trees for thinning, I was reminded forcibly of the appalling damage they had suffered.

The sycamore had been so badly hit that perhaps 50% were reduced to useless scrub but having removed most of these in the process of respacing two years ago, the majority of the remainder are not too bad and may well produce worthwhile timber in another 50 years or so. In the meantime, further thinnings will provide excellent wood fuel. Just in case readers are not familiar with the damage greys can cause, imagine a young tree that you have carefully nurtured for a decade or more and suddenly you look at it one morning and notice that the bark has been stripped from the trunk, usually about two meters above ground level. Frequently the stem of the tree is completely ring barked so it dies above that point. Instead of the tall, straight specimen you had envisaged, it then regrows in to an unsightly bush, hardly even useful for firewood. Happily this was all in the past as by constant trapping and shooting we have managed to reduce the population of greys to negligible numbers. Also, the arrival of buzzards and possibly some pine marten have helped ensure that the woods will now remain safe. We are keeping a close watch however and will continue to trap until the hoped for day when native red squirrels will reappear and recolonise the woods. Here in Meath the oak have also suffered badly and I found while marking them that perhaps half of what were potentially final crop trees will have to be removed due to ring barking. It really is heart breaking to see this happen so if you want to help protect our native trees, cook some squirrel for Christmas.

All the good meat on a squirrel is on the back legs or haunches and like pigeon breasts, it is hardly worth the trouble of preparing the rest of the carcass.

A simple recipe from my game cookbook goes as follows.

Take two skinned squirrels and wash, dry and joint them.
Add 50g chopped rashers plus 2 chopped onions and some nutmeg and thyme with salt and pepper to taste.
Add 1.5 litres of water or chicken stock and place in an oven proof dish.
Having covered the dish, cook in a slow oven for 1.5 hours.
Remove the squirrels and reduce the sauce by simmering and serve with vegetables of your choice.

Anyone for turkey stuffed with squirrel?

JB

Recycled Bumper Bags

berrybags

We are grateful for all the empty Log On Firewood bags that are returned to us. The bags are recycled as much as possible but even when they are torn we find a use for them! See picture opposite of an old Bumper Bag been used to grow strawberries, Yum!

This idea came from Nicky Kyle who is an organic gardener. For expert advice on all aspects of the organic lifestyle, check out Nicky’s website: http://www.nickykylegardening.com/

 

 

 

 

Christmas Deliveries

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Christmas Deliveries

In the Dublin area the last Bumper Bag deliveries will be made on Tuesday, 24th December and will start back again on Saturday, 28th December.

Jumbo Bag and Handy Bag deliveries will finish on Sunday, 22nd December and start back again on Saturday, 28th December.

For Nationwide deliveries, orders placed by Wednesday, 18th December will be delivered by Monday, 23rd December. Nationwide deliveries will resume again on Friday, 3rd January.

Woodland Classrooms

2013 proved to be another good year for our woodland classroom project.

Schools-Visit-to-Log-On-FirewoodWe have been hosting school visits for a number of years now and this year six separate schools enjoyed a day in the woods where the children are able to learn about the benefits of trees for both the environment and for use in construction and as the ultimate sustainable fuel. We hope to expand on this further in September when the schools reopen and have enlisted the help of wildlife experts Dale Treadwell and Natasha Calvas to assist in teaching the kids about how important trees are and how all the many species of birds, insects and mammals depend on them.

We have had great feedback from the school principals and lovely letters from the kids saying how much they enjoy these visits. One mother wrote to us to say that her eight year old son stopped her cutting nettles in their garden saying “Don’t cut them, caterpillars eat them and then they turn in to butterflies”. That’s the kind of reaction we want and our aim is to always make learning fun. We do this by mixing games with quizzes and demonstrations and to date the kids have responded enthusiastically.

Our next project is to construct a woodland classroom for use on wet days. It will be sited down in the woods among the trees and we hope to construct it using only natural materials and with a grass roof. If you feel your local school would like to visit, check it out with the principal and then email us and we will try and fit them in to our schedule.

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