There are a number of mammals and amphibians you can encounter in the Irish uplands that you may well be familiar with from lowland or urban environments. However, the waterlogged ground in wetland habitats is not always conducive to den-dwelling animals, and so many may forage there before returning to their dens in drier or scrubbier areas. Deer and other grazing animals are common in the uplands, feasting on the grasses, heathers and other vegetation. Smaller mammals such as rabbits and rodents are important food sources for birds of prey. All of our Irish mammals and amphibians are protected under the Wildlife Acts 1976-2021, and it is important to keep dogs on a lead at all times in uplands areas, to prevent chasing or harm.
Irish Name: Giorria Éireannach
The Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) is our native hare species, and is endemic to Ireland (i.e., only found here). It is between 50 and 65cm in length. During the summer months, it has reddish-brown fur that becomes more grey-brown in winter. Found in almost all habitats across Ireland, their diet varies depending on the habitat; in the uplands, heather and sedges form a large part of their diet, as well as grasses in the grassland areas. Hares may be seen boxing with each other during the breeding season. Hare babies are born above ground and their mother leaves them hidden throughout the day, returning in the evening to feed them. Easy to distinguish from the rabbit because of their size and much longer legs, Irish hares are a protected species, in contrast to rabbits and should not be interfered with by people or pets.
Irish Name: Iora Rua
Red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) are quite small, with a body length of up to 22cm. They are our only native Irish species, present in Ireland since before the Ice Age, but outcompeted in many habitats by the introduced grey squirrel. They have orangey-red fur, with large bushy tails and distinctive tufts on their ears. They tend to forage for nuts and pinecone seeds high up in the tree canopy, and in the upland areas you are only likely to see them in forested areas such as conifer plantations. They are a protected species whose numbers are thankfully starting to improve thanks to the increase in forestry plantations and a rise in pine marten populations.
Irish Name: Dallóg fhraoigh
Another native species, the pygmy shrew (Sorex minutus) is Ireland’s smallest mammal, weighing less than 6 grams (about the same as a 20c coin). They have thick brown fur fading to a lighter mushroom colour on their belly. They have a thick hairy tail, and are found in a range of habitats including grasslands, wooded areas and very commonly in peatlands, where they use the dense ground cover to remain hidden from birds of prey as they forage both day and night. They eat a variety of insects, including spiders, beetles, woodlice and other bugs. Because of their tiny size and their high metabolic rate, pygmy shrews have to eat 125% of their body weight every day, just to survive!
Irish Name: Cat crainn
Agile climbers, pine martens (Martes martes) are roughly the same size as a domestic cat, with chestnut brown fur and a creamy yellow chest. Their tail is long and bushy, and used for balance when climbing and jumping through the trees. In the uplands, they are present only in wooded areas such as Sitka forestry plantations. They’re mainly active from dusk and into the night. Pine marten are mostly carnivorous, eating squirrels, rabbits, rodents and birds. They will also eat eggs as well as fruit and berries. The presence of pine marten in an area helps red squirrel populations to re-establish in some areas. Grey squirrels tend to feed and nest at lower heights than red squirrels, making them easier for the pine marten to catch, and giving the red squirrel population a chance to recover.
Old Irish Goat
Irish Name: Gabhar fia
Although not widespread, wild goats (Capra hircus) can be found primarily in Wicklow, the southwest, west and the north of Ireland. Most of the wild goats in Ireland are a mixture of the original Irish Goat and escapees from goat farms. Following a long campaign the government has now recognised the Old Irish Goat as a rare breed with particular physical characteristics.
The Old Irish Goat will travel across most habitats in the uplands, feeding on grasses, heathers, bracken, and small shrubs. Their taste for small shrubs make them ideal conservation grazers controlling the growth of trees in heathland and reducing the productivity of tall heather to reduce fire risk. Males can reach 90cm in height and up to 85kg, with female smaller in height and weight. Both sexes grow horns and they have shaggy, multicoloured coats with a stocky appearance and a very long beard. Females lead a herd in wild groups, with males forming separate bachelor groups except when breeding.
Irish Name: Coinín
Smaller than a hare with a rounder body and shorter legs, the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is grey/brown with a whiter underbelly and tail. An invasive, introduced species, adults weigh up to 2kg and measure between 30cm to 50 cm in length. They eat mainly grasses, plant roots, and wildflowers, and are a valuable food source to the likes of foxes and birds of prey.
Rabbits possess excellent hearing, eyesight, and a sense of smell for detecting dangers. They breed from June to August and can have 3 to 7 litters per year with 5- 10 babies, called kittens, per litter. Their average lifespan is up to 6 years, but this can vary depending on their habitat. They’re found in grassland areas of the uplands, and will avoid the more exposed areas and wetlands.
Irish Name: Sionnach or Madra rua
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a wild dog-like animal with a rusty red-brown coat and white underbelly. They have a thin, pointed snout, large fluffy cheeks, and a long bushy white-tipped red tail. They typically feed on small rodents, rabbits, birds, and other small mammals, though they’re extremely adaptable to their surroundings and can thrive even in urban areas, scavenging household waste. In the uplands, they will hunt for ground nesting birds, rabbits and small rodents in grassland and heath areas. They can also be spotted foraging in the bogs, although foxes will not make their home (called a den) there, due to the waterlogged ground.
Deer are grazers and typically feed on a variety of shoots, lichens, mosses, grasses, herbs, heathers, roots, and crops. They may be seen in most upland habitats where there is ample grazing vegetation such as grasslands, heaths and blanket bog.
There are 3 common species of deer which you may encounter in the Irish uplands – red deer, fallow deer, and sika deer.
Irish Name: Fiadh Ruadh
The red deer (Cervus elaphus, or Fiadh Ruadh in Irish) is our only native species of deer and is protected under the Wildlife Acts. It sports a red coat in the summer, turning greyer in the winter, with a greyish underbelly. Males grow antlers in the spring, which mature by summer, ready to fight or ‘rut’ during the mating period in October. They then shed their antlers and regrow them the next spring. Red deer are our largest deer species, standing approx. 120 cm to the shoulder. They can be found mainly in the mountainous areas of Mangerton, Cores and Torc and Killarney National Park, though they can also be spotted in Wicklow, Donegal, Galway and Mayo.
Irish name: Fia buí
Fallow deer (Dama dama, Irish name Fia buí) are the most common deer species in Ireland, having been introduced in Norman times, and the only species where bucks have palmate (broad flattened) antlers. Although the name ‘fallow’ suggests their colour to be light brown, their pelts can actually be quite varied, from yellow through to almost black, with a white underbelly and rump with black outline around their tail. Smaller than red deer but larger than sika, they stand at 85-95cm to the shoulder. You may spot them in upland areas in Wicklow and to the west of Ireland.
Irish Name: Fia Seapánach
Sika deer (Cervus nippon, or Fia Seapánach in Irish) are another common non-native deer species, and originated from north eastern Asia (Japan). They are our smallest species of deer, with stags standing at around 80cm to the shoulder. Sika have summer coats of light brown with a white patch on its rear and white underbelly. Most that you will see are hybridised sika-red deer crosses, but there is a pure sika herd near Killarney.
Irish Name: Loscann
The common frog (Rana temporaria) has a soft, spongy body with webbed feet and strong hind legs, with adults growing to 6-9cm. They have dark markings across their back and near their eyes, and vary in colour from dark olive/brown to green as they can make their skin darker to suit their surroundings. As they are the only species of frog found in Ireland, they are a protected species. They spawn in March, can be seen as tadpoles from April to May, and adult frogs from June onwards. In the uplands, frogs can be found in bogs, pools, streams, and wetland areas feeding on insects, worms and slugs. Because of the small amount of food in bogs and upland areas frogs are always very small.
Irish Name: Laghairt choiteann
Our only native species of reptile, the common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara) reaches a body length of between 10cm and 16cm. It has a long, thin scaled body and a tapered tail. Its colour varies from brown to bronze or green. Its diet consists of insects, slugs and snails, beetles, and worms, and will also eat small fruits, clover and thistles. You may see it sunning itself in grasslands, dry and wet heath, and bogs. Interestingly, its tail will regenerate if it is lost or damaged.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service funded the development of the Irish Uplands Forum Upland Biodiversity webpages through the Peatlands Community Engagement Scheme 2023.