Study warns action needed to save Irish hare from extinction
The Irish hare is one of a number of native species facing extinction if action is not taken to control the invasion of foreign mammals in Ireland, according to new research.
The red squirrel and red deer are also in danger.
It follows research by academics from Queen's University in Belfast.
They carried out a two-year study on two introduced species now thriving in Ireland - the bank vole and the greater white toothed shrew.
Researchers found that the native pygmy shrew has completely vanished in the parts of the island where foreign species are found, while wood mouse numbers have dropped by 50% in places where the bank vole is fully established.
The study on so-called "invasional meltdown", published in the international scientific journal Biological Invasions, claimed that if the rate of invasion continued as at present, native small mammals in Ireland would die out in at least 80% of their available habitat.
Professor Ian Montgomery, lead researcher from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's University, explained the importance of small mammals in the established food chain.
He said major changes in species composition have both top-down and bottom-up effects in the ecosystem, affecting bird and mammal predators as well as the invertebrates, seeds and seedling that small rodents feed on.
"The introduction of alien mammals to Ireland over the last 100 years has had major detrimental effects, threatening our indigenous habitats and species," Professor Montgomery said.
"The American grey squirrel, for example, passes a deadly virus to native red squirrels, whilst European hares threaten the ecological and genetic integrity of the native Irish hare through competition and interbreeding.
"Governments, both north and south of the border, are urged to work together to address the overall problem of invasive mammals throughout Ireland, and ensure that we understand both the mechanisms of invasion and the impacts of these aliens."
Professor Montgomery said the authorities needed to take a broad view of the problem.
"It is no longer tenable to treat each invasive species as an isolated case," he said.
"We should establish a realistic plan identifying the mammal species that are key to maintaining our unique biodiversity and ecology and those that we should eliminate or control."