In early March, we received a phone call from the producers of ‘Big Week on the Farm’ asking the VWT to take part in this year’s show to discuss the pine marten live on RTÉ One! The programme celebrates the start of spring every April, running nightly over the course of a week. There are live studio demos, discussions, hatchings and births amidst the chaos of spring calving and milking. The Shalvey family farm in County Cavan was this year’s chosen location, and is home to a vast array of wildlife: great-crested grebes, heron and kingfisher inhabit the farm’s lake – Cavan is said to have a lake for every day of the year; buzzards fly in search of carrion and small mammals; and elusive mammals like otter, pine marten and deer inhabit the surrounding hills and woodlands. With animal behaviour experts, zoologists and hidden cameras, the Shalvey family and the viewers at home learned about the covert lives of some of Ireland’s most fascinating wild animals whilst exploring new technologies in farming using drone technology, sensors and genetic research. Patrick, Geraldine and their three children were the perfect hosts to a film crew and 150-strong live studio audience on the rolling drumlin hills overlooking the farm.
Blessed with a range of hedgerow, grassland, woodland, wetland and open water habitats, it was unsurprising that Ross, the cameraman filmed otter, fox, mink and also pine marten. Patrick is a member of the local gun club and raises a small number of pheasants on the farm, so this was a valuable opportunity to discuss the importance of good animal husbandry, and to bring some key facts about martens to a national audience. In the weeks leading up the live show, some of the pheasants were killed within the enclosure, and part of my role was to travel to Cavan prior to the show to determine whether the enclosure could adequately keep out a carnivore, in particular a pine marten. Unfortunately this was not the case, as the gaps in the wire would have easily enabled a marten, or similarly sized carnivore to climb through. The enclosure was not protected with electrified netting – an important first line of defence. Mammals are inquisitive and, often under the cover of darkness, have ample time to find and enlarge a pre-existing hole in wiring or chew through rotten wood. Electrified netting takes away the opportunity to investigate for weak points. The enclosure was netted over the top, which is essential because the site was surrounded with trees and martens are agile climbers.
The live show approached quickly and there was a great buzz around the farm on the day of filming. The Shalvey family and crew had been a pleasure to get to know and it was great to see them again. I had a short rehearsal with the presenter Ella McSweeney, and before I knew it the show began and it was time to be fitted with my microphone! Patrick and I discussed with Ella the loss of his pheasants, with a view to identifying what may have happened. The truth is that we cannot be entirely certain without having footage of the incident taking place. It may have been a pine marten or another of the carnivores we know are in the area. Martens have a very wide ranging diet – insects, berries, small mammals, frogs, bird, and also carrion, and with inadequate protection could have entered the enclosure. In essence the message is the same, good animal husbandry, electrified netting and quality steel mesh with protection over the top of a pen are essential when rearing birds in an enclosed space. As a native, protected and necessary part of our natural ecosystem, martens are slowly returning to our forests and woodlands. Their return can pose some challenges for us, and the VWT and partners are researching and trialling solutions to these challenges. Such an approach is the very principle of living in harmony with a native mammal, and one which belongs in our landscapes and woodlands. Nature enriches our lives and Big Week on the Farm helped us to celebrate this.
Ruth Hanniffy, Ireland Projects Support Officer