Michael McCarthy: Ireland rises up the pecking order

Fancy a Christmas quiz question? Here goes. What sort of wildlife doesn't occur in Ireland? "Ha!" you cry. "Know that one! It's snakes! St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland!" And of course he did. Or maybe he didn't, the creature.

But at any event, it is the case that the island of Ireland is entirely snake-free. But here's a harder one. What other sort of wildlife doesn't occur in Ireland? Any idea? No, not gibbons or salt-water crocodiles, don't be daft, what sort of wildlife that you would think ought to occur in Ireland, doesn't? Nothing come to you? No idea? Well here it is: woodpeckers.

A curious anomaly of European natural history is that Ireland is as empty of woodpeckers as it is of vipers. A plausible reason: Ireland has the lowest proportion of its surface area covered by woodland of any country in Europe, at about seven per cent (and a century ago it was very much lower).

Indeed, as you go eastwards across Europe, you find a sort of forest-cover gradient, which is neatly paralleled by what you might call a woodpecker gradient. Ireland is seven per cent wooded (and used to be only about one per cent) and has no woodpeckers. Britain is more than 10 per cent woods, and has three sorts of woodpecker. By the time you get to Poland, which is nearly 30 per cent woods and forests, you find all 10 European woodpecker species.

The woodpeckerlessness of Ireland may not be an issue which has caused people lack of sleep in the past, but here's an interesting fact: it may be ending. For the past couple of years, great spotted woodpeckers, the handsome black, white and scarlet birds which are Britain's commonest species, have been heard drumming in the spring in various Irish locations, although breeding could not be proved.

Last July, however, a juvenile great spotted was seen on a bird feeder in a garden in south Dublin, and that was quickly followed by several more sightings of juveniles in nearby County Wicklow. Birdwatch Ireland feels "an historic event is taking place". St Patrick, one feels sure, would have let them stay.

Majestic visions

Ireland's birds are thought by some to be a bit thin on the ground, but there are remarkable highlights, including the largest colony in Europe of the world's loveliest seabird, the roseate tern, on Rockabill Island, off County Dublin.

Furthermore, three majestic birds of prey, the golden eagle, pictured, the white-tailed eagle and the red kite, are all being reintroduced. A hundred thousand welcomes to them, or as they like to say over there, Cead mile failte.