The Many Names for Ireland's Mustelids & Their Curious Connection to the Bison
The most familiar, and by far the most numerous, members of the order Carnivora that inhabit the island of Ireland today are those companions so many people share a home with – dogs and cats. But these mammals are not native to the island, being domesticated species which arrived with human aid. If we look to those native species inhabiting the wild, we find that the dog's family, Canidae, is poorly represented, consisting of just one species – the red fox, Vulpes vulpes – while the cat's family, Felidae, has no representative in the wild at all. The undisputed power in the wild as regards the order Carnivora, then, is not the family of the cat or the dog, but that of the weasel – the family Mustelidae.
The mustelids are one of the largest groups of terrestrial mammals in Ireland, their four native species placing them in joint second place with the rodents behind the bats, which are way out in front with nine species. The weasel family is also represented in Ireland by some non-native forms that have arrived in relatively recent times, and altogether these mustelids are a fascinating bunch, being quite diverse and having some very interesting names. These names reveal all manner of amazing facts about the mustelids, not least that this family can be linked with, of all things, the European bison.
In any case, we can begin by explaining the name of the order the mustelids belong to, Carnivora, which is derived from the Latin words carnis, meaning ‘flesh’, and vorare, ‘to devour’. We should also note that the fact they belong to the order Carnivora means their closest relatives in Ireland include not only the native red fox and the domesticated cats and dogs, but the seals and walruses that splash in the waters off its coasts.
The family Mustelidae, though, is named after the weasel, the Latin for which is mustela, and though the true weasel, Mustela nivalis, does not live in Ireland, many of the mustelids that do are quite similar to it in appearance. The word mustela itself perfectly evokes the slender, long body of typical members of the mustelid family, coming as it does from a combination of two Latin words, mus, meaning ‘mouse’, and telum, meaning ‘spear’. This form can be seen very clearly in species like the Irish stoat and the pine marten, both of which look a bit like elongated cats with pointy faces. Indeed, the name for the Irish stoat in Irish, easóg, also directly refers to its long, slender shape, as eas is the Irish word for ‘eel’.
The English word ‘weasel’, though, probably refers not to shape but to smell, and it is not a flattering reference. ‘Weasel’ is thought to derive from the Old English weosule or wesle, which can be traced to the Proto-Germanic wisulon that is thought to come from the same base root as the Proto-Germanic word for ‘bison’, wisand – denoting a ‘stinking animal’, as both of these mammals have a foul, musky smell. This explains, then, where the other name for the European bison, the wisent, comes from and reveals a fascinating connection between these hulking bovines that live far from Ireland and the island’s members of the weasel family, even if the link is only a linguistic one.
A name which reveals a far more obvious connection between the weasels in Ireland and faraway lands, though, is that of the American mink, an invasive mustelid species found almost everywhere on the island. The fact that its Irish name, minc Mheiriceánach, is simply a direct translation of its English name hints at the fact that this species has not been in Ireland very long. Indeed, the ancestors of the feral American mink living in the wild in Ireland today only arrived on the island in 1951 when they were imported to be farmed for their fur, but within a decade escapees had already begun to thrive and breed.
Like the true weasel from which the name of the mustelid family derives, the American mink was until recently considered to be a species of Mustela, Mustela vison, but is now known as Neovison vison, although some argue that it should be returned to the genus Mustela after all. In any case, its species name is quite straightforward, with vison simply being the French word for ‘mink’.
Unlike the invasive American mink it shares Ireland’s lands with, though, the native Irish stoat is still classified as a species of Mustela, Mustela erminea, but its species name is derived in a similar manner, erminea coming from hermine, which is the word for ‘stoat’ in Old French, while this species is also sometimes referred to as the ermine in English. This, then, is also where the word ‘ermine’ comes from in terms of the fur that was once used as trimming for ceremonial robes, as this trim was fashioned from the white winter pelts of stoats, which are thicker and longer than the normal pelt. It seems quite suitable, then, that another Irish name for the stoat is an bheainín uasal, 'the little lady/noblewoman'.
However, on that note, a peculiarity of the Irish stoat is that its coat does not usually turn white in winter, which is just one of a number of ways in which the native stoats of Ireland differ from those living in other parts of Europe. In fact, the Irish stoat is deemed to be sufficiently different from its European counterparts to qualify as a distinct subspecies, hence its full title: Mustela erminea hibernica. These differences between the Irish stoat and its European colleagues are due to the fact that the stoat was one of the first mammals to recolonise Ireland after the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 26,000–19,000 years ago), and thus has been evolving for thousands of years on its own separate path.
The Irish stoat can be found in a wide range of habitats in Ireland, however it is most often found in open woodlands, and it is among the trees that you will also find its similar relative, the pine marten. The pine marten’s scientific name is Martes martes; the word for ‘marten’ in Latin being, unsurprisingly, martes. It is the Irish name, cat crainn, that really captures the nature of this mustelid, though, as it means ‘cat of the trees’. The pine marten is very well adapted for life in the trees, being an excellent climber, and can nimbly leap from branch to branch, sailing through the air using its long bushy tail for balance.
But while the pine marten may be the cat of the trees, its mustelid relative the otter has a number of Irish names which refer to it as a ‘dog of the water’. One of these is madra uisce, or ‘water dog’, while the other, dobharchú, can be translated as ‘water hound’ or ‘river hound’, the latter part of the name being derived from cú, meaning ‘hound’ in Irish – which is probably most familiar to many people from the name of that great hero in Irish mythology, Cúchulainn, ‘the hound of Culann’. As for the otter’s scientific name, Lutra lutra, this is another straightforward derivation from Latin, lutra being the word for ‘otter’.
However, while the otter is roughly similar in form to many of the other members of the weasel family on the island, with a long and slender shape, the last native member we must meet bucks the trend somewhat with a stocky and robust body with a short bushy tail supported by powerful legs. This is the badger, whose scientific name, Meles meles, is derived, in a similar fashion to that of some of its relatives in Ireland, from the Latin name for the animal, with meles simply meaning ‘badger’.
However, its English and Irish names are more evocative of its particular form. It is not known exactly where the term ‘badger’ comes from, but a number of possibilities have been advanced, one relating it to the distinctive stripe, or ‘badge’, on its face, that makes it look a bit like a cartoon burglar when viewed from the side. And while we're on the subject of the Irish mustelids' links with larceny, the species name of a recently arrived invasive form, the feral ferret (Mustela furo), derives from the Latin fur, meaning 'thief', furo being the diminutive form and so translating as 'little thief'. The English word 'ferret' also derives from this root, and such a connection is more obvious in the modern French word for 'ferret', furet, and the modern Italian furetto, while the word for 'robber' in Italian is furone.
Anyway, getting back to the badger, another possibility regarding the origins of this name holds that it may derive from the French word becheur, meaning ‘digger’, referring to one of the chief characteristics of the behaviour of this mustelid species, and some badger setts excavated in Ireland have been found to be monstrous constructions, with one found near Dublin containing a series of passages and tunnels which extended for over 260 metres.
The other name for the badger in English, ‘brock’, is derived from the Old English broc or brocc, itself a borrowing from Celtic languages and, indeed, broc is the modern Irish word for ‘badger’. The words ‘brock’ and broc, then, are thought to ultimately derive from the Old Celtic broccos, which, in turn, is thought to derive from the same base as an ancient Greek word meaning ‘grey’ or ‘white’, presumably referring to the colour of the badger’s coat.
As it happens, the word ‘brock’ also neatly brings us back to the linguistic connection between weasels and wisents, as the definition of this word in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: ‘A badger: a name, in later times, associated especially with the epithet stinking.' Like the bison, then, the badger is known for its stink, as are the rest of Ireland’s mustelids. And yet, as we have seen, their names capture far more qualities than this, sparking more than one sense and opening our eyes to a fresh view on these wonders of the weasel family.