IT’S a long way from the deciduous forests of North America to a garage in rural mid-Cork... especially when your very name stems from a native American word.
But here is the cast-iron proof of a rumour that’s been spreading around rural communities east of Macroom for months: We aren’t seeing things, there are DEFINITELY raccoons in our midst!
The main picture here was taken by my neighbour, Anne-Marie Lyons, of Canovee, who stumbled upon the animal in her garage after hearing noises.
It had entered through a cat flap and Ann-Marie took the photo before it fled the scene.
She said: “It was a frightening sight to see, it was very big and I was worried it would attack my cats. My first thought was that it was a raccoon.”
But Ann-Marie Googled ‘raccoon’ and said: “The first thing I saw was that it was a native of North America, so I just assumed I had got it wrong! Then I looked at the photo again and realised it had to be a raccoon.”
Her sighting was one of several that have been logged in the past five months, in an area stretching from Caum and Carrigadrohid, all the way to Farran. The area contains some forestry, the animals’ natural habitat.
The first sighting was made in May, by Deirdre Young, from Carrigadrohid. She was woken at 2am by the sound of her cat screaming. The raccoon had entered her utility room by the cat flap and was causing havoc, running up bookcases and leaving paw prints “like hand prints”.
Deirdre managed to get him out and said: “It registered with me that it was a raccoon, but then I thought I was hallucinating — it was 2am! I checked online and it was definitely a raccoon.”
The alien invader has also been spotted at the home of Theresa Hartnett a few miles down the road in Caum. One night, she and her husband, Christy, saw one in their garden, feasting on a packet of discarded fig rolls!
“We had thrown them in the bin as they had gone off,” said Theresa. “We looked out of the window and saw he had got them out of the bin and was eating them one by one.
“Another night, just last week, the raccoon briefly got stuck in our empty recycling bin and was making a terrible racket. I think he hurt himself because he was limping as he ran off.”
The Hartnetts took amazing video footage of their visitor, which can be viewed on our website at www.eveningecho.ie
Since I wrote this article, more sightings have been confirmed in Macroom itself, via the Red FM Neil Prendeville show.
The CSPCA has confirmed the sightings are raccoons. Spokesman Vincent Cashman said: “If a householder traps one in an enclosed space, such as a shed, we will neuter them, micro-chip them and try to re-home them.”
He suggested that people could use something like cat food to lure them into a shed, before calling the CSPCA on 021 4515534.
Anyone who makes a sighting can log it on the Biodiversity Ireland website — www.biodiversityireland.ie — and click on ‘Submit sightings’. Any information they receive could be key to locating them and re-homing them.
Many locals are speculating that there must be at least two raccoons in our locality, given that there have been sightings on either side of the River Lee around Carrigadrohid just a few days apart. If these happen to be a male and female, the repercussions hardly need to be spelled out.
Raccoons can swim, and have been known to travel up to 18km in a night — they are nocturnal — but it seems unlikely a solitary one would cross a broad section of the Lee on a regular basis.
On a more serious note, there are suspicions that the raccoons, whose name comes from the native American Powhatan language, have slaughtered hens in recent months — one of which involved our own coop.
A few weeks ago, my wife awoke to the distressing sight of all six of our hens dead, with their necks eaten away.
Our initial suspicion, naturally enough, was that a fox , a rat or a mink were to blame, but to hardly eat the prey, or even take them away from the scene of the crime, seemed odd.
We believe this attack, and at least one other we have heard about locally, was the work of a raccoon with a blood-lust. In the other attack, the raccoon bit a dog as it made its escape.
This would also clear up the mystery of how a predator entered our coop — raccoons are fiendishly clever beasts and can untie knots and open doors!
Reports of alien animal species setting up home here in Cork have grown more common in recent years. They are brought in initially either as pets or as attractions on pet farms, then escape or are freed — although it is against the law to release non-native species into the wild in Ireland.
Often, these animals survive and thrive in our habitat because they have no natural predators.
Mink are a good example: Irish ones were originally escapees from mink farms in the 1950s.
In June, there was a sighting of a ringtailed coatimundi, a native of South America, in Ballygarvan, while in recent years, coypus, a large rat-like creature, have been spotted near the Lee Fields.
The raccoon was first listed as an invasive species in this country in 2011, by Biodiversity Ireland, with a first sighting in Cork that April. As they are nocturnal and mainly live in forests, it’s possible they could have happily lived among us for years undetected.
However, it’s fair to say the raccoons in my locality must be recent arrivals — they have been spotted causing a nuisance so often, and are so distinctive, that they surely wouldn’t be able to hide for long.
Although they have a cuddly appearance, they can do great damage to our ecosystem.
Almost half their diet is made up of small animals and birds’ eggs, and they can be harmful to bird and amphibian numbers, while they are a carrier of a roundworm that can endanger other species. There are also concerns that raccoons could transmit infectious diseases to humans.
The animals are renowned for their almost ape-like intelligence. One zoologist said they were more cunning than the fox. In a study, they were able to open 11 of 13 complex locks in fewer than 10 attempts, and had no problem repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down. Is this how they enter well-protected chicken coops? Numerous studies have also shown they can remember the solutions to tasks for at least three years.
If raccoons breed unchecked in Cork, they may become a permanent fixture here. They have settled in Germany after being introduced there, and a stable population exists in northern France after several pet raccoons were freed by members of the U.S. Air Force near an Air Base in 1966.