It’s another article in my series on invasive species, but this one is a little bit different. This one is a very personal tale. That’s right, it’s time I wrote an article about my time amongst the marsupials on the Isle of Man. Everyone wants to hear about that, surely?
Some time ago, in the distant past of my infancy as an ecologist (well, in 2008), I found myself losing a boot in bog land on the Isle of Man. As I sat with a damp foot and a furrowed brow, I became aware of a crashing through the scrub behind me. Could it finally be, that after 3 days of roaming around 200 hectares of marsh, willow carr, grassland, scrub and woodland at ungodly hours of the day that I was finally going to get my first glimpse of my target? I turned around just in time to see a rustling in the bog myrtle and what could have been a large tail disappearing into cover. Foiled once again!
For those 3 days, the Wallabies of Ballaugh Curragh had been my white whale. I had washed up here in the Isle of Man as part of my dissertation. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t miss and one that suited me much more than some quadrat study on a windswept saltmarsh. It was all going to be so easy. How could I fail to find and record an accurate population count of the most inconspicuous of alien species? But I hadn’t reckoned on this. The thick, almost impenetrable bogs, the almost ethereal gift for concealment my marsupial marks had displayed to date. They were never the stealthiest of animals when moving through dense scrub, and a crashing sound in the distance was a dead giveaway that they were wise to your approach. But they could move around quite swiftly, padding around with little noise when moving through grassland or older woodland.
By the forth day, I was getting nervy and when I spoke to a regular visitor to the site about them, my fears were compounded. ‘How many have you seen?’ I asked. ‘2 or 3’ came the reply. ‘And how often do you visit here?’ I continued, nervously. ‘Oh, about once or twice a week for the past ten years.’ Oh dear. This was not looking promising. An Assessment of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby Population wasn’t going to be much of an assessment if I couldn’t find any of them. Still, I’d found plenty of scats, so the secondary purpose of the project, to analyse their diets, was still on target.
And then on the fifth day, my luck changed. Either that or the Wallabies became accustomed to my unique scent. I’d scouted out my 12km of line transects over the preceding weeks and now it was time to begin. I arrived at 4 am, cycling to the site in the gloaming murk, lumbered with too much kit and nearly falling off at least once. I walked the first transect through lush and long acid grassland and birch woodland. Nothing. My second, through willow carr. Nothing. My third…well you get the idea. It was late morning when I found a small glade and laid down to take an early lunch. I don’t really like early mornings (what sane person does?) and drifted off to sleep. When I woke, I had a strange sense of being watched, and there, at the edge of the glade was my first sighting. O frabjous day. I can’t quite describe the feeling of coming face to face with something quite so out-of-place. Maybe I hadn’t really believed in them until then. I probably looked quite perplexed. The Wallaby looked supremely nonplussed as it chewed leisurely, hoping off in a most laid-back fashion while I fiddled ineffectively with my camera.
After this, they started to appear with almost obedient frequency, to the point that a new sighting almost, almost became mundane. Walking 60 km of transects, I made 74 sightings over the next month and the final population estimate returned was around 90-100, much higher than anyone had previously estimated*. I’d been sunburned, rained on, fallen over in bogs, but it had all been worth it.
The second part of the study was not quite so glamorous, as I began the study of wallaby fecal matter. This involved transporting 20 scats back to England in a cool bag (I’m still not entirely sure that this was legal, as it came mid-foot and mouth scare. I don’t think they’d written anything specific into the legislation for Wallabies, though). I then diluted, strained (with a tea-strainer) and dyed my samples in my kitchen back in London, after having stored them in the freezer for a month. Not very scientific, in retrospect, and my wife was not best pleased when I told her. I still don’t think my other housemates at the time knew (sorry if you are reading this now). My samples sat on top of the fridge for months after (completely sterile though, you understand).
How the Wallabies came to be there is a confused story and is not the only example of such a population in the UK1, but through my research project I was able to determine that they were causing no real damage to the Ramsar site and (hurray) would not have to be controlled at their current level.
They’re perhaps not the first species to come to mind when you ask a conservationist to name an invasive, but they’re certainly the most charismatic I’ve come across. So what’s the future of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby population? Well, I hope that they will remain free to enjoy the fragrant bogs they call home and remain unmolested2 by scatologically obsessed ecologists for at least the foreseeable future. They’re certainly a unique addition to the UK’s flora and fauna and one that is sure to provide a sense of surprise and wonder to anyone fortunate enough to see them3, and in the end, isn’t that what conservation should be about4?
*Unfortunately my study was then followed successive harsh winters, and the population is probably smaller than this at the current time.
1An Assessment of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby Population available on request. If you have a particularly masochistic streak.
2I did not molest any Wallabies during my time on the Isle of Man.
3Wallaby spotting tours of the Ballaugh Curragh site available on request. Possibly.
4No, it isn’t.