Species Extinction in the Montiaghs

Vol. 3 No. 1 - 1975

Species extinction in the Montiaghs

by Edmund O'Hara

Until fairly recently the value of this study would have been questionable, however, in an era when conservation has become the 'in' thing, species extinction takes on a new significance.

Under the umbrella of conservation there has been a dramatic rise in the number of new nature reserves and it is this single fact that now makes this study worthwhile. For if it can be ascertained why any one species became extinct in an area, it may be possible to provide conditions in these new reserves that would encourage the re-establishment of that species. Firstly, it would have to be established why the species left the area. If the reason proved to be climatical, little can be done, but if disturbance and loss of habitat due to man was paramount in its disappearance, steps could be taken to rectify the position.

Marsh Harrier

This would not be possible however when large tracts of land were involved nor socially desirable in the case of the wolf but others such as the Bittern and Marsh Harrier could well return to the Montiaghs if the right habitat was provided.

The Montiaghs is an interesting area, as its diverging habitat provided a good cross-section of our indigenous species throughout the ages.

As you will probably already appreciate, the area with which I am dealing is small, nationally speaking, and it was therefore difficult to obtain hard facts about which species was definitely present or not. To give a precise account of species extinction would therefore prove impossible but with what data there is, I hope to convey to you a broad outline of events. Most of the records relate to mammals and birds. Concerning plants, which have disappeared, we know very little and the same can be said of the invertebrate fauna. To prove extinction in the fishes was also dogged by a dearth of information with only one species believed lost in modern history.

The Montiaghs as we know it today took on its present shape as a result of the last Ice Age, and it is to this period in time that we go back in order to enumerate species extinction. Firstly however, I will try to explain the ice phenomenon and the very important part it played in laying the foundations for the early fauna of the area.

The Ice Age

One million years ago, the ice fields around the North Pole surged southwards, glaciers covering huge tracts of the Northern Hemisphere, including Ireland. This era which officially ended circa 8,000 BC was marked by just as great retreats by the ice back to the Poles. It expanded and contracted nine times in varying degrees of extent. In between the glaciations the climate got warmer, comparable to our own climate, these mild spells lasting for thousands of years. It is to the penultimate phase of the last glaciation called "Wurm B" around eighty thousand BC that the study begins.

During Wurm B a sheet of ice covered most of Northern and Central Ireland to the thickness of one hundred feet and more. It lasted for twenty thousand years, joining Ireland to Britain and both to the Continent.

During the final stages of Wurm B it is now thought that the early mammals crossed over to Ireland on the last remaining ice bridges from Britain and Europe. The reason being that no fossil remains date back any further than this date. The ice retreated as the climate became gradually warmer, and between 60,000 to 20,000 BC, the early fauna flourished on the richer vegetation. For the last time, the glaciers began moving South again in 20,000BC; the increasing cold now began to effect the early fauna, some survived but others became extinct.

This last glaciation, known as Wurm C, lasted for ten thousand years but was not as extensive as the previous glaciation though still covering most of Ulster.

The animals that would probably have inhabited the area before Wurm C are listed in Table 1. Moving South with the ice came other mammals in search of the tundra like conditions created by the ice. The ones we know of are Arctic Lemming (Dicrostonyx Huseli), Arctic Fox (Alopex Lagopus) and the Mammoth (Mammuthus Primigenius). The ice withdrew around ten thousand BC and leaving with it, the Arctic mammals that came in its wake.

Table I
  • Wolf (Canis Lupus)
  • Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos)
  • Lynx (Fells Lynx)
  • Wild Cat (Felis Sylvestris)
  • Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta)
  • Lemming (Lemmus Lemmus)
  • Red Deer (Cervus Elaphos)
  • Wild Boar (Sus Scrofa)
  • Horse (Equus Caballus)
  • Field Vole (Microtus Agrestis)
  • Field Mouse (Apodemus Sylvaticus)

Regarding the native animals of Table I, only a few survive: Wolf, Brown Bear, Wild Boar and Field Mouse - the rest a supreme example of evolutionary extinction.

The bird life of the area between these glaciations was abundant with only two fossils that are worth mentioning at the moment, the Magpie (Pica Pica) and the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos Major). The former only in the last few hundred years having recolonised Ireland while the latter is no longer known in this Island.

As the ice retreated Northwards the Arctic Tundra type vegetation gave way to the heath vegetation. Most of the low lying country became covered with grasses and herbs with intervening scattered copses of birch, Juniper and Dwarf Willow. The land surface was characterised by frequent lakes and ponds which collected in hollows between the undulating ridges of sand and clay left behind by the ice and many of which became choked with a vigorous growth of aquatic plants which were gradually transformed. into bog. This lush carpet of vegetation attracted the larger mammals back to Ireland via the land bridges with Britain.

The Giant Irish Deer
Giant Irish Deer

The Brown Bear, Boar and Wolf are some of the species that returned again but the animal that is synonymous with this era, is one of our most majestic mammals, the Giant Irish Deer (Megaloceros Giganteus). It was a huge beast weighing some 700 lbs. with antlers spanning 11 feet across, such an animal would have had few enemies yet its stay in Ireland was a brief one (9500 BC - 8300 BC).

The reason for its disappearance is thought to be either, a virulent disease or the increasing coldness of 8500 BC. From 8500 - 8300 BC a mini ice age enveloped Europe, though not as severe as previous glaciations. It did affect the Irish fauna, possibly cutting off food supply to the Giant Deer and others that migrated in search of food to and from Ireland and Britain.

The other significant event of the period was the rise in sea-level of some 46 fathoms in 8,300 BC making Ireland an island once more. Therefore our present fauna either immigrated to Ireland near the end of that cold period or they survived the ice, whereas the Giant Deer and others were ecologically unable to do so.

The vegetation returned quickly as the temperature got warmer, once more forests covering the Montiaghs as the last great invasion got underway in 7500 BC; Homo Sapiens had arrived at Toome Bay. It's quite possible Brown Bear and Wild Boar were contemporaries with man, though how long they co-existed is unknown. Certainly they were extinct by 500 AD when the next reference to Irish fauna are dated. As man spread out from Toome Bay to colonise other areas of the Lough shore, eventually he would have arrived in the Montiaghs to hunt the deer that he existed on. If the Bear survived the Ice Age he certainly did not survive the early hunters and would probably then become extinct by 2000 BC.

Flooding in the Montiaghs

From 7500 BC to 400 AD the Montiaghs saw a lot of changes as you would expect in such a vast expanse of time. At various times the Lough level rose to flood the Montiaghs, this wet-dry situation affecting the vegetation with different trees dominant as conditions favoured one more than the other. Over the years the trees fell and slowly began to form the bog-land which has now become synonymous when speaking of this area. During this era man's influence was minimal, hunting being his only reason for entering the woods, which by around 2000 BC had developed a fauna of wolves, deer and badgers and, of course, all the birds that we now associate with forest habitat. As we arrive at the Dark Ages circa 400 AD the Wolf, Red Deer, Greyhound, Pig and Pine Marten were still extant in the area, in good numbers.

The swamp habitat was abundant in bird life - ducks and marsh birds, providing food for the people living on its perimeter. Ironically the Dark Ages (400 - 1000 AD) provided more insight into the probable fauna at the time of the plantations than the centuries that immediately preceded the settlements, for two distinct reasons. Firstly, was the excavation of a village belonging to a lake dwelling people at Lagore in Co. Meath (750 - 900 AD). The ambient habitat of the village was similar to the Montiaghs therefore species found at Lagore should correlate with the study area. As would be expected, most of the fossil remains were of water fowl all of which are still to be found in the Montiaghs today. There are, though, a few fossils that merit some words later on as possible subjects for species extinction.

The second source of information was the writings of the early scholars, for at the latter end of the dark ages was a period of Renaissance - the Irish-led Christian culture. For the first time Irish fauna was being recorded in print by the biographers of the early saints, and the great affection shown to the animals around them by these holy men is commented on in various passages.

Two such passages were St. Columba caring for an injured Crane, and St. Mungo reviving a Robin after it had been killed by one of his fellow pupils. Both sources mention the crane which is interesting in that it was extinct at the time of the plantations. Although the habitat of bog and swamp suited this bird it is now believed to have been exterminated by man around the fourteenth century. The Greylag Goose is mentioned also from Lagore, and was certainly breeding in the Ards at this time and probably in this area; also becoming extinct as a breeding bird in the early fourteenth century.

These were birds of the isolated swamp and, due to the encroachment of man into this area, disturbance and mortality at the hands of the hunters sealed their fate and they were lost forever to us as breeding birds. It is interesting that the Townland of Derrycorr in the Montiaghs means "The Oakwood of the Cranes." it is not certain what bird is alluded to but my own guess is the Common Heron whose colloquial name is the Heron Crane.

The area was still fairly uninhabited at the beginning of the 1600s, wooded enough to contain wolves and, as one observer put it at that time, "a very woody and boggy place." When William Brownlow was granted the area in 1610, he found it more important in the first years of his ownership to stabilise his position rather than to clear the area of the profitable timber. The Irish, forced to flee into these woods around 1610, began the serious and strenuous task of scraping out a living in the woods, at this point the Wolf came under pressure and was probably extinct when the natives emerged from the woods temporarily in 1640. The last of the native Red Deer are thought to have perished then also. With the area once more settled in 1650, the task of clearing the woods began in earnest; by the early 1700s the task was nearing completion but at a price.


The Capercaille, a large woodland Grouse, and the Pine Marten became extinct as their habitat was removed. A large woodland bird of prey, the Buzzard, was lost as well as the Greyhound Pig, a domestic pig gone wild, once very common in the woods of Ulster before they were cut. So to sum up on the first one hundred years of the plantation, at least five species disappeared from all woodland, reflecting the early emphasis on clearing the land.

Land clearance and tenant allotments

From 1700 to 1850 the population increased considerably. For the first time the land was systematically cleared and tenant allotments set up, the old order was gone and the fauna and flora had now to adapt to sustained pressure from man rather than the casual interference of previous centuries.

The mammals that were left after the clearances adapted well; the fox, badger and otter for example. They posed no serious threat to crops and life as would have the larger mammals. In fact no mammal has disappeared from the area since the early 1700s to my own knowledge.

Regarding fish, only one species is known to have become extinct, the Char. It had been commonly taken with the Pullan [pollen] up to the early 1800s but by 1834 no specimen had been taken for nearly ten years previous. As to the Char's exit from these waters I have as yet found no ready explanation.

Concerning Flora only one plant is thought to have disappeared, Subularia Aquatica. This plant existed in a constant wet-dry situation and it is believed the drainage schemes of the eighteenth century were responsible for its disappearance. But the greatest change of all came to the birds of the bogs and wetlands. Because the area was now low lying it was prone to flooding during wet weather by the River Bann and Lough Neagh. In fact for most of the winter months large tracts of the district were under flood water. This environment attracted large numbers of water birds to feed on the floods, with the higher and drier bogs providing breeding areas close to a food source.

To the new farmers this continuous flooding had to be curtailed if they were to farm successfully, so they began to dig drainage ditches to alleviate the floods. This action robbed the birds of a major source of food. Simultaneously their breeding grounds in the bogs became threatened as the exploitation of the turf got under way. Wetland birds are very wary and this sustained presence in the bog by man would have driven them away while the coming of the shotgun did not help matters. Hence by the 1800s, the bogs that once held large numbers of breeding birds, were home only to a few, while some species more susceptible to disturbance than others such as the Bittern and Marsh Harrier became extinct. With the population increasing, more habitat was converted for dwellings with even more disturbances for those species still having a small foothold in the area.

So we can say that from 1700-1850 the bird life of the Montiaghs went through a massive phase of redistribution, reduction in numbers and in some cases extinction. Birds such as the ducks, which formerly nested in the bogs, now bred near the lough shore for safety.

From 1850 up to our present time possibly two birds have been reduced to the verge of extinction, the Yellow Hammer and the Night jar with a third that may have been extinct but is now happily breeding in good numbers again, the Great Crested Grebe. But first the position of the Night jar; this bird survived the extensive cutting of the bogs which were its breeding grounds but in much reduced numbers. However disturbance has now reduced it to only one remaining pair, last seen two years ago. No sighting was made last summer.

The Yellow Hammer is now down to a few pairs, when only twenty years ago they were numerous. Some believe the cutting of the hedges to be responsible as this Bunting prefers thick bushy hedges but the reason may lie elsewhere. The case of the Great Crested Grebe is interesting in that we have a bird which was almost extinct at the turn of the century due to its feathers being in great demand by the hat trade but luckily the fashion died out before the Grebe did. It may possibly have died out in this area but has now recolonised with over 160 breeding pairs.

Species extinction continues today. By the end of 1975 the following could well be added to the list: - Night jar, Yellow Hammer, and Ringed Plover.