The Earl of Meath, Jack, is a forester, he is also a keen observer of wild life, a passion that he has carried for almost four score years and so he is keenly aware of how nature is fairing on this estate.
Winter / Spring 2021
Lord Meath’s Killruddery Nature Diary
In my late father’s time, after he returned from World War II, his land at Killruddery was rich in biodiversity. There were many people manually working the land both in the garden, the farm and the woods. My father did not possess a heavy-duty tractor until he bought two secondhand single-cylinder 26hp John Deere tractors in 1948.
As a boy and even as a young man I was aware of and interested in wildlife. My father would tell me about the barn owls and corncrakes in the 1950s and 1960s, which I experienced myself. From the agricultural point of view, the rabbit was the big enemy. They were everywhere and ate everything of vegetable matter. The ground was bare up to 10 meters round the boundaries of the wheat and barley fields because of the rabbits. However they provided a staple diet for country folk. We snared, shot, hunted them with dogs and bolted them out of their burrows with ferrets. Every burrow held half a dozen rabbits. When I came back from boarding school in the summer of 1956, I wandered round my usual haunts with a gun but did not set eyes on a single rabbit. What had happened? I was told that a great plague called myxomatosis had descended on the land and that 90% of the rabbit population had been exterminated in 12 weeks. Mentally this had a big effect on me. I have always been keen on the natural environment and the sustainability of wildlife but would only take out a gun with a dog to hunt where there was an surplus of a specific bird or mammal legally permitted.
From 1956, biodiversity began to decline. Red grouse and grey partridge lived on Bray Head and the Little Sugarloaf. The rough grassy areas coupled with heather provided good nesting cover on the hill slopes and they could be seen flying from one place to the other. These species suffered as more land in the area began to be reclaimed for agricultural production. The grey partridge held on until 1972/73.
In the early 1960s corncrakes were common on the farm but disappeared rapidly once silage became the normal winter ensiled food for the increased number of cattle and sheep. May 1963 was the last time I heard a male corncrake sing. Hay cocks and hay-making, except in two small fields, had ceased by 1962.
The pressure on ground-nesting birds has been getting steadily worse. On the estate we have lost the skylark and we are down to possibly only two pairs of meadow pipits on the Little Sugarloaf. We still have some goldcrests though I have been unable to locate a nest. I have not heard the cuckoo on the farm for two years, or seen one for probably four years. The estate is fortunate in having a Biodiversity Manager, who culls the enemies of the ground-nesting birds such as foxes, grey crows, magpies and jackdaws. Rats are a big problem to ground-nesting birds. The likable badger also makes life difficult for them, as well as hunting the hedgehogs. We are down to probably only one pair of resident woodcock on the farm and we have lost the snipe as a ground-nesting bird. Wild duck are suffering from habitat loss and have a disastrous fledgling survival rate. The Ace of Clubs pond is no use as a habitat for water birds due to loss of water levels, we are currently working to rehabilitate this pond and hope its habitat can regenerate.
The afforestation of the Sugarloaf has chased out the stonechat and wheatear, which no longer breed there. The swallow population has plummeted due to the lack of nesting sites, in spite of nesting boxes being put up for them. The kestrel no longer nests on the Estate. The last barn owl was seen in about 1992. In the 1960s and even well into 70s and 80s we always had kestrels, beautiful little falcons and the most common bird of prey. Buzzards have become more common than kestrels and I believe we do have two pairs nesting this season. Sparrowhawks are holding their own. Every year we see a peregrine falcon overflying the estate on its journey to Bray Head where it has a nest site.
In 1975 the estate lost its small heronry of five pairs, nesting in tall European silver firs beside the front avenue, disturbed by an egg collector.
There was a small rookery in Hart’s Wood which flourished until the old pine trees died and fell over. 2001 was the last year the rooks nested. We have replanted more pines but it will be 40 years before the rooks may return.
Grey squirrels have increased and invaded this space. In 1992 the first grey squirrel was seen in the gardens. By the year 2000, grey squirrels were located all over Killruddery. These alien creatures are of the rat family (rodents) and should not be confused with the red squirrels which are of an entirely different family. The grey squirrels cause serious damage to young trees, both deciduous and evergreen. They eat birds’ eggs and unripe fir cones, which deprive the red squirrel of its winter supplies and can carry disease (squirrel pox) which kills the reds. We have found dead red squirrels in January and July. However there is a small piece of good news: our Biodiversity Manager has evolved a good strategy and has been able to get on top of controlling these pests, utilising both traps and shooting. Red squirrels are now being seen on the estate and would appear to be increasing, albeit very slowly.
Until 1970s we had no deer on the estate. We did have a herd of fallow deer walled in the Deerpark; however the wall was breeched in 1920s and the deer escaped. We now have sika and sika/red crossbreds which like the grey squirrel have increased greatly since the early 1990s. Deer cause severe damage to young forestry plantations. Again the Biodiversity Manager has to cull the deer to a balanced level to mitigate the damage to valuable timber products and our vulnerable landscape with its beautiful collection of broadleaved and conifer tree species.
The reappearance of the pine marten is to be welcomed. This handsome species is a useful predator against the grey squirrel, though it is still rare. We are ruthless in our wipeout of mink which occasionally make an appearance. The other mustelid which occurs occasionally is the otter. The Swan River, which is culverted by urbanisation north of Killruddery, is one route for their journey to arrive into the estate. We still have eels which also must swim up the culverts. Our only fish are perch with newts in the garden ponds. Minnows and sticklebacks are found in the Ha Ha which separates the gardens from the farm.
We do seem to have a good population of hedgehogs in the gardens where we try to keep rough patches of herbage about in order to facilitate them. The Irish hare is also in reasonable shape though I worry about another nasty recently manufactured laboratory disease known as ‘red heart diarrhoea’, which was developed to wipe out rabbits. I am reliably informed that this can also kill hares.
One bad factor which the natural world, particularly ground-nesting birds, has to contend with is disturbance. The countryside is becoming a noisy place. Please remember that the birds, animals and insects are the inhabitants of our hedgerows, rough pastures, woodlands, waterways, gardens and open spaces. During the breeding season from April right through to the end of July, birds and mammals are nesting, breeding and rearing their fledglings and young. They all deserve as much right to our space to live in as any human being. Can you imagine what a barren world it would be to walk in a space without the scents of the countryside, birdsong or the fleeting glance of a hare or red squirrel?
This time of year you will hear our greater spotted woodpeckers actively drilling nesting holes mainly in old deciduous trees. Likewise our long-eared owls are active in utilising certain large holes high up in tall trees or making use of buzzard or sparrowhawk nests. Our owl population appears to be stable.
During Covid lockdown many people have been able to walk and appreciate the fresh air. They have signed up to being members of Killruddery. Please respect the wildlife of this space. We owe it to future generations to cherish our natural world in order to hand it on to them. Please remember to keep to the vehicular roads only, and above all to keep your dog on a lead, to prevent them from flushing ground-nesting birds or scattering their helpless young. Once the mother has lost them it’s unlikely she will be able to gather up her young again to brood them.
Thank you for having the patience to read this. Thank you for being a member and I hope you have an enjoyable experience in this patch of land which is left to us.
Summer / Autumn Report – 2020
Lord Meaths Killruddery Nature Diary
Weather pattern: Very little rain from 13th March through to 2nd June. June had showers and good sun. July had somewhat wetter weather. August alternated between warm and cool with a lot of heavy rain.
We have been thrilled to restore the old Horse and Diary Yards at Killruddery, creating space for Estate Visitors to enjoy Cafe, Shop, Farm Market and Events, this progress has not been without its challenges to migrating birds, swallows seem to have had difficulty finding suitable nesting sites. Having said that swallows all over Ireland are reported to have been very late arriving this year and to have arrived in lower numbers, talk has spread of Swallow netting in regions far South of Ireland. The first swallow I saw was on April 20th and the main lot did not arrive until May. In spite of my purchasing artificial nesting boxes for swallows in February and arranging for them to be installed on the South facing wall of the new farm shop area, they have not appealed to the swallows. I am hoping the nests will be more user friendly next year. We only had about five pairs, two of which were successful in rearing broods in the Horse Yard, despite the renovations. The young swallows when they first leave the nest line up on the cables to practice their flight and I see them return to their nesting site every evening until they are strong enough.
Due to covid restrictions our Dawn Chorus walks were cancelled this year. If they had taken place the weather was much kinder than last year. My son, Anthony, put up a 24 hour camera and sound recorder on the roof of the main house overlooking the long ponds to record the dawn chorus. The first bird called at 5.40 a.m. and was soon joined by a great outpouring of joyous bird song which filled the air and continued undiluted by any commuter traffic, there wasn’t any, until after 9 a.m. The camera revealed a shadowy figure on all fours which explored the ground, a feral cat.
As for the Home birds, in the Gardens the following have reared young: wren, robin, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, pied wagtail, grey wagtail, black bird, thrush, gold finch, green finch, collard dove, jackdaw and rooks. My great sadness was a complete absence of wild ducklings in the gardens. This is the first time in fifty years or more that this has occurred. Feral cats are possibly a problem, also disturbance by film units during February and March in the Wilderness area with their bright lights during the day and night time.
On the Estate, no ducks nested on the Ace of Clubs pond which has a punctured bottom reducing water levels and choked with duck weed. Ducks are early nesters and need to brood their eggs for 28 days as from early March and will therefore hatch during the first fortnight of April. In the Old Wood I did see a pair of Mallard who may have nested in part of the aqueduct but I only saw them twice in March. I also saw a woodcock in breeding plumage in the Old Wood but I do not know if there was any success in breeding.
Woodpeckers were heard in three locations in the spring. Once April comes they become much more silent. I had hoped to view the young woodpeckers in late June, early July but failed to find any of their nests sites or to hear any, I am hoping they did well as they were so active in Spring.
This is the third year running I have not heard a cuckoo. I do generally see one in June. At Killruddery the ground nesting meadow pipits on the Little Sugar Loaf were the main nest hosts where the cuckoo laid her egg. Some lands have been afforested on the slopes here thus denying nesting habitat for meadow pipets.
Every year we seem to host a long eared owl pair who nest within the garden bounds. When the owlets fledge the nest they perch in different locations in the gloaming keening loudly to their parents, almost deafening one. As they mature they venture further and further afield. You can hear them in late June and July for a period of approximately two to three weeks.
There used to be a small herony here in the Ardee plantation. They would nest in the tallest evergreen Silver Firs. The last two nests were occupied in 1975. Imagine my surprise on twice seeing a heron flying over the house with a long stick protruding from its beak, heading northwards towards the Pig Wood during early April. However nothing occured which led to a nest. Herons are very vocal and are busy in February/March building nests.
Raptors, birds of prey, are to be seen on most parts of the Estate. In the 1960s and 70s the kestrel was common, possibly as many as ten pairs. From 1980s sparrow hawks became more common and overtook the kestrel numerically. What is unbelievable now is that since about 1998 the buzzard has become the most common raptor at Killruddery. However because of modern farming laws (no carcasses allowed to be left out on the land) there is not enough food for them and in the past we have found very thin young fully grown dead birds. Our rabbits have almost disappeared, possibly to red heart diarrhoea. We have no voles in Co. Wicklow only brown rats, house mice and field mice so I think in competition with the owls, buzzards are finding it hard to rear young successfully.
Hedgehogs found the spring hard work as it was so dry and cold, not conducive to ground bugs after their hibernation. Badgers would find them easy prey. However some do survive every year in the garden and surrounds.
Red squirrels increase slowly but we have to keep culling the grey squirrels which are of the rat family and eat anything. Pine marten have been seen on the Estate and these shy creatures certainly have an effect on the grey squirrels.
Butterfly species are improving. We have seen orange tip, large and small cabbage white, holly blue, grizzled skipper, red admiral, tortoiseshell, speckled wood, peacocks, common brown, heath both large and small. Compared to 50 years ago their numbers are small but hanging in there as long as we restrict our herbicides.
Olly, who keeps honey bees on the estate was very pleased with the dry sunny April and May, he drew wonderful spring honey, however, late summer honey was reduced due to excessive summer rain. Bees, bumble bees, wasps and flies all add up to the biodiversity required for everything to live and we saw these creatures thrive well on the estate this Spring.
Later in the Summer the rain was more hostile to the honey bees quest.
As I write this report in September it is a glorious, sunny, fresh, warm Autumn day. Noisy swallows have ganged up and are busy flying around the building complex and the gardens. They will soon depart for Africa. I wish them well and safe return.
Winter / Spring Report – 2020
Killruddery Nature Diary by Jack Meath
The Garden looks very well. No wind or rain to spoil the magnolia and rhododendron blossoms. The display was magnificent (the best I’ve seen in 20 years!) as indeed were the cherry blossoms – always over too soon. Thousands of spring bulbs have been planted, producing a display of narcissi, daffodils, crocuses, wild anemones, violets and or course banks of yellow primroses; bluebells are the May prize!
The first swallow arrived in the sky over Killruddery on 20th April. This is later than usual and also their numbers were drastically down last year, with a very mediocre breeding season. Renovations of the old farm buildings have destroyed old nesting sites. I have attempted to remedy this by erecting six artificial nests with protective eaves on a south facing wall of new Farm Shop.
Our raptors and long eared owls are hanging on but I wonder if they have enough prey to rear their young? We badly need more rabbits to help our raptors. I have not seen a kestrel here for four years. In the 1960s we had a dozen pairs, minimum.
On a positive note our red squirrels continue their slow increase (largely due to the culling of grey squirrels).
Herons can be seen on the banks of the Long Ponds hoping for fish or baby ducklings. They used to nest here and breed until 1975, using the tall silver firs in the Ardee wood.
We try to keep the areas of woodland which surround the Gardens somewhat unkempt, which makes good habitat for our numerous hedgehogs.
11,000 trees were planted in the Sugar Loaf Plantations this year, of which 3000 are broadleaves (hardwoods with flat leaves, producing seeds inside of fruits). A further 1000 trees have been planted in Geoff’s wood. I do hope you enjoy looking at the forty shades of green around you in all their freshness.