Newcastle is a large village as villages go, and it has a remarkably open plan, with many green spaces and large fields, side-by-side with various kinds of housing right in the centre of the village. For this reason it is extremely special, because various kinds of wildlife not only happily enter the village, but in many cases they are living among us all the time. For the most part they are unseen residents, and can best be described as different species of villagers.
Birds are the most obvious, with most gardens whether large or small providing habitats for an array of interesting species including Blackbirds, Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tits and the chattering, bobble-like Long-tailed Tits. Then there are finches, such as the chaffinch (especially common in the trees along the Sea Road), Greenfinches, Bullfinches, Goldfinches. We also have a wonderful resident population of Rooks, Jackdaws, Grey (aka Hooded) Crows and Magpies, which are extremely intelligent birds often taken for granted, or considered a pest because they have such similar tastes to we human beings. In winter months they can be seen migrating to different parts of the village to forage for assorted different foods. Newcastle also has small murmurations of Starlings, acrobatic flight displays involving at least fifty or so individuals, and those numbers are likely to grow.
Most people will be particularly interested in the birds-of-prey found around the village – Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, Buzzards, Red Kites and Peregrine falcons can all be seen flying above or about the village itself. In the wild areas bordering the village it is sometimes possible to see Hen Harriers, and tiny Merlin and Hobby falcons. Ospreys and Marsh Harriers are rarer visitors but they are definitely known from the coastal areas.
But although they’re not as noticeable there are many mammals around too. Herds of the so-called Wicklow Red Deer can be seen in the fields and scrubland around the village, sometimes leaping across the road in front of cars. In the late 19th century the Japanese Sika (‘Sika’ means ‘deer’) was introduced as an exotic game animal to the Powerscourt Estate. Up until recently it was assumed the Sika was a completely different species to the Red Deer found in Ireland, but we now know that they are simply a different breed of the same species, and have successfully interbred giving Wicklow its own very distinctive, small in stature breed of Red Deer. Along the coast you can often see dolphins and Harbour Porpoises, and both Common Seals and the larger Grey Seals. Enormous bull Grey Seals over three metres long can often be seen snoozing close to shore in the afternoon sun on bright, calm summer days.
In the middle of the village voracious Hedgehogs can often be seen running along the roads on summer nights, hunting for slugs and snails and anything else they can get down their necks. They especially love dog and cat food. Along the pathways that run throughout the village you can see the most fierce of all predatory mammals, they tiny Pygmy Shrew, a thumb-sized predatory mammal that must eat its own weight in prey every night in order to stay alive. The best time to see them is on summer nights after a heavy shower of rain when the earthworms climb onto the concrete of the paths. The pygmy shrews come to hunt them. The pygmy shrew is not a rodent but a relative of the hedgehog. Hedgehogs also have huge appetites and require several acres of insects and invertebrates in order to stay alive.
Foxes can be heard calling across the hillsides in the outskirts of the village throughout the year, and often wander around the quieter areas of the village centre at night. They are especially fond of the Community Centre, and the grounds of the church. Badgers too are found in Newcastle, and in winter will wander down from the surrounding hills to break open older piles of cow and horse dung in order to get to the beetle grubs and earthworms inside. They have a wonderful cackling call which most people assume is made by some strange nocturnal bird.
It is also possible to see Otters right in the middle of the village, in the Newcastle Stream which runs past the pub, under the road and down alongside the Sea Road. They come upriver in pursuit of fish, and it has to be said the stream is filled with large Brown Trout most of the year, which is a sign of its health – Brown Trout can’t tolerate pollution. However, even more remarkable is the presence of a tiny fish distantly related to sharks and rays, which is one of the rarest species of freshwater fish in all of Europe because it is so sensitive to pollution – the Brook Lamprey. This tiny fish looks like a miniaturised sock puppet and has an eel-like body, but likes clear shallow water with lots of pebbles and stones, and in springtime they can easily be seen from the footpath gathering to mate in the middle of the stream. They are tiny though, the width and length of a pencil, but ribbon-like. They also have no lower jaw, only a ring-like sucker mouth with tiny teeth which allow the lampreys to feed on even tinier invertebrates.
Many of the most spectacular creatures found in Newcastle are the smaller ones, such as butterflies and moths. From spring right through summer into autumn there are many species of butterflies in the vicinity of the village – medium-sized butterflies such as the Speckled Wood, Orange-tip, Meadow Brown, Wall Brown, Comma, Ringlet, Small Tortoiseshell, Small White, Green-veined White and, along the sandy banks by the sea in late summer, the Clouded Yellow; the large species such as the Red Admiral, Peacock, Painted Lady, Large White and, slightly less common, the Silver-washed Fritillary; the small species such as the Wood White, Common Blue, Holly Blue and Small Copper, and the miniscule Small Heath.
There are so many moths there is no point attempting to name them, but especially interesting are the Hummingbird Moth which visits in summertime and looks just like an actual hummingbird, and is even larger than the smallest species of hummingbird. These moths fly in the day, hovering over flowers along hedgerows, especially buddleia bushes. One of the largest species of moth in Europe is also found in Newcastle, the huge Convolvulus Hawkmoth, which usually flies into view on very dark damp nights and it is as large as a small bird or bat, which most people imagine it to be when they glimpse it.
Newcastle is filled with spectacular and important insects of many kinds – bright green Speckled Bush Crickets can be found almost everywhere in the summer, but are so perfectly camouflaged that it takes luck or great patience to find them. The green areas of Newcastle village are filled with the song of their smaller relatives, the grasshoppers throughout summer, but most people don’t see them until they leap and glide from long grass. These grasshoppers are also superbly camouflaged.
Newcastle is also home to some important pollinators – the beautiful ruby red furry Tawny Mining Bee makes small volcano-like mounds in flowerbeds, lawns and along embankments for a few weeks in spring and Newcastle is the first site in Ireland in which a colony was recorded. And Newcastle is also one of the few places in Ireland in which the Norway Wasp, a species which nests in shrubs and trees, has been recorded. There are few villages in Ireland to rival Newcastle for biodiversity.