A trip around Ireland to celebrate Ireland’s wildlife
Ireland’s wildlife gets bad press. Almost always, conservation is presented negatively; controversies about developments that damage wildlife, gloomy reports of species under threat of extinction, compensation for managing land for conservation, and so forth. It is a personal frustration of mine that rarely is Ireland’s special wildlife presented in a positive manner, or all that is good about wildlife celebrated. We have a unique and special natural heritage – this tour presents a personalised perspective on some of what is special about Ireland’s wildlife and an attempt to share this experience with a wider audience. Continue reading →
I never thought that I would pay much attention to roads. They are, after all, what I try to get away from in my efforts to experience nature up close. Yet as I travel around Ireland experiencing the diverse landscapes of the country, I realise that roads themselves are very much part of the landscape. So here are some roads which show well the changing character of the Irish landscape.
Hidden away between the small villages of Kilmaganny and Hugginstown, at Aghaviller in Kilkenny, is a wonderful local woodland amenity. Castlemorris Wood forms part of the 2,000ha of woodland owned and managed by Coillte in the locality. It once formed the estate of Castlemorris House, one of the largest houses in the country, but was razed to the ground in 1978. All that remains now are some remnants of the stable yard and a curious assemblage of trees.
The woodland probably doesn’t support anything very exciting in terms of rare species (but I don’t actually know that for a fact), yet that is not to diminish its biodiversity value. The woodland has a nice mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland. But the woodland does have the appearance of not being aggressively managed for its commercial value (which is a good thing!); the scrubby undergrowth and plenty of dead wood giving it a ‘natural’ appearance in places. The network of woodland paths and narrow tracks that weave their way through the estate provide a very pleasant walk and are well used by locals. A 7 km loop walk around the wood is one of the routes promoted as part of the the Trail Kilkenny initiative.
But the naturalness of the wood is deceptive for much of the estate is planted with beech, a species which is not native in the true sense of the word, as it was introduced to Ireland sometime in the last 1,000 years. There are mixed opinions on the biodiversity value of the ‘non-native’ beech, but for me this is an entirely esoteric debate for it is now naturalised over much of the country. And the patches of woodland that remain in Kilkenny add important diversity to the farmed landscape dominated by intensively managed grassland and cereal fields.
Castlemorris Woods looks really beautiful with the autumnal colours. It has been a particularly good beech mast year, with mast carpeting the woodland floor. Currently the mast is being devoured by woodpigeon, but will become increasingly more important for finches as the winter progresses. Perhaps it will attract in brambling, the winter relative of the chaffinch that arrives to Ireland from Scandanavia and Siberia each year. The woods also have many majestic sweet chestnut trees, and these too have produced a bountiful harvest this year.
Now is the time to explore the many different species of fungi that grow in abundance on the woodland floor, and sprout from rotting timber. Even up to the end of October, shieldbugs, butterflies and hoverflies were to be seen basking in the late autumn sunshine.
But the woods hold something of interest at all times of the year. For me, the chance of seeing a red squirrel is always an attraction as there is still a healthy population here. But the mammal population of Castlemorris Wood is changing. Recent years has seen the arrival of the beautifully elusive pine marten, a species which fortunately is expanding its range greatly in Ireland. It is thought that this expansion is due to the increased forest cover in Ireland, but be that as it may, it can now be seen in farmland away well away from woodland. And the pine marten expansion has coincided with the contraction in range of the invasive grey squirrel who seems to be moving out of areas when pine marten arrive. As pine marten like to eat grey squirrels, it is understandable that grey squirrels tend to find their environment less desirable with their new neighbours. But the theory is that red squirrels can live in harmony with pine martens as they are lighter and, by moving to the extremities of branches, can keep out of reach of the pine marten. Hence, it seems that the advance of the pine marten has benefited the red squirrel, to the detriment of its larger and brasher American relation. And pine marten droppings (or scats) can be seen in places at Castlemorris Woods, so the prospects for our native red squirrel looks quite good here.
And in the undergrowth things are changing too. Another non-native mammal, the bank vole, was first recorded near Listowel, Co. Kerry in 1964 and is expanding its range in a north-easterly direction. It now is found over almost half the country and has made it as far as Kilkenny city. Castlemorris Wood has been colonised by the bank vole in recent years and it is known that wood mice are being replaced by the bank vole where they invade. What impact this replacement is having on the ecology, however, is still unknown.
Castlemorris Wood is a wonderful local amenity and there are always people out walking and enjoying the site, no matter the weather. Coillte manages woodland sites like Castlemorris Wood all across the country and it is easy to take these local amenities for granted. It is only when amenities like this are threatened that their real value is appreciated. A short time ago there was a very real possibility that Ireland’s forest resource was to be priviatised and the open forest policy adopted by Coillte would have been placed in jeopardy. Fortunately this did not come to pass, and hopefully it never will. Sites like Castlemorris Wood are valuable natural assets, and Coillte does a good job at managing them on our behalf. Long may it continue.
Did you ever spare a thought for the jellyfish? I certainly haven’t, but there is far more to a jellyfish than meets the eye. Jellyfish have been quietly living their lives, roaming the great oceans of the world for at least 500 million years. They evolved during the Cambrian Explosion, a short period in the Earth’s history that saw a great flurry of evolutionary activity. While other organisms joined this evolutionary rat-race to go on to become dinosaurs and a myriad of other creatures, the jellyfish, happy with its lot, shunned evolution and retired to the peace and quiet of the high seas. This may, in part, be due to the fact that they are without brains, or at least brains as we typically think of them. Their bodies, of which more than 95% is water, comprise two basic layers of cells. One forms a loose network of nerves called the ‘nerve net’ which is considered the most basic of all nervous systems identified in multi-cellular organisms. This primitive system allows jellyfish to sense their environment, such as changes in water chemistry indicating food, light sensors to detect the presence of light, and balance sensors to let them know if they are facing up or down. Basic, but effective weaponry, which has allowed jellyfish to prosper down through the millennia.
It is a misconception that jellyfish just aimlessly sail the high seas at the whim of ocean currents and tides, for the manner in which certain species are geographical spread suggest they have some habitat preferences. Around the Irish coasts, for example, the barrel jellyfish each year forms enormous smacks (a ‘smack’ is the collective noun given to a group of jellyfish) off Rosslaire and Wexford Harbour, but is rarely seen elsewhere in such numbers. And the Lion’s Mane jellyfish seems to prefer the cooler waters off the coast of Dublin.
The knowledge of jellyfish around Irish coasts has increased in recent years thanks to research done by Tom Doyle, Damien Haberlin and colleagues at the Coastal Marine Research Centre at University College Cork, research that was spurred on by the apparent worldwide population explosion of jellyfish. It is thought that the removal of top level predators through over-fishing may have created conditions to allow jellyfish to flourish. Similarly, changes ascribed to climate change have also been implicated for this increase. There is no hard evidence to show that jellyfish have increased in any great numbers in Irish waters, however, the closure of beaches in Dublin in 2005 due to a Lion’s Mane jellyfish infestation, has raised the issue in the collective consciousness.
If your only encounter with a jellyfish is an unexpected eye-to-eye one when swimming, you could be forgiven for not being their greatest fan. Not all jellyfish are small unspectacular blobs of jelly, but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Lion’s Mane is a majestic reddish-brown gelatinous bulk over 1 metre in diameter with masses of long tentacles. Also spectacular are the wonderfully coloured and shaped Compass and Blue Jellyfishes, both roughly the size of a dinner plate. The Barrel Jellyfish is a huge mass of solid ghost-white jelly. Tom Doyle and his colleagues found one specimen that was 80cm in diameters and weighted in at 35kg. Now that’s a lot of jelly(fish).
Then there are the other jelly-like creatures found around the Irish coast. The wonderfully named ‘Portuguese Man-O-War’ which has a Cornish pastie shaped balloon as a float. Riding the waves with the balloon above water, it somehow resembles an old warship at full sail. But the Portuguese Man-O-War is not a jellyfish, nor is it even a species. Rather it is a colony of creatures that work together to eke out a living, much in the same way that marine corals do; scientifically they are referred to as Siphonophorae and are related to jellyfish, corals and others. But as its name suggests, give the Portuguese Man-O-War a wide berth for its body and tentacles, which can extend for 50m, contain a serious sting. Portuguese Man-O-War made the news headlines in 2012 when some were found washed ashore in Waterford and Cork, but fortunately they normally live further south and only venture north when unusual weather conditions persist.
But there are many other, less spectacular Siphonophorae living in Irish waters, beautifully shaped jellyfish of varying sizes, each with its own delicate shape and function. And jellyfish do serve important functions; because of their sheer abundance they eat vast quantities of plankton, crustaceans and fish, and in return vast quantities of jellyfish are themselves preyed upon, thus fuelling the marine food web. And jellyfish can be quite the delicacy; the leatherback turtle apparently likes nothing better than to feast on jellyfish, and has been known to swim all the way from the Caribbean to Irish waters searching them out.
So next time you meet a jellyfish spare a thought for how they have done so well for themselves in this rat race of life on earth.
Running along the eastern bank of the River Barrow is the old tow-path. Built in the 18th Century to tow barges plying the waterway, it has long since become redundant for its original use. The picturesque tow-path is now used by locals as an amenity, and is increasingly promoted as an amenity to encourage activity holiday-makers to visit the villages that straddle the Kilkenny and Carlow border; Goresbridge, Borris, Graiguenamanagh and St. Mullins, beautiful unspoiled villages with unique Irish charm.
Ballytigelea Bridge provides access to one of the nicest stretches of the Barrow. Downstream the river flows along the wonderful semi-natural deciduous woodlands of Borris Demesne, linear patches of wet alluvial woodland backing onto to majestic ancient oaks. North of the bridge the river valley opens onto pastoral farmland with beautiful luxuriant species-rich hedgerows and areas of waterlogged ground and pools, each with their own special character. The grassy tow-path is maintained to keep it free for walkers, but the level of intervention is minimal, so it retains is natural feel.
This is a strange time of year. Winter is almost upon us yet on some pet days it still feels like summer. Today along the Barrow the temperature was in the high teens with plenty of bright sunshine. A flock of about 20 swallows were feeding over the river, a surprise, for in most years by now they would have left on their migration south.
Near Ballytigelea Lock, red admirals were basking in the warm sun and, much to my delight, I also came across a couple of comma butterflies. These look for all the world like small tortoiseshell butterflies with badly frayed wings. But the comma is a relatively new addition to the Irish fauna. It was first recorded 2007 or 2008 in County Wexford where it gained a foothold and has continued to expand its range. It now occurs over most of Wexford and has spread into Waterford, Wicklow and Dublin, and is expanding northwards along the river network. There are established populations along the Slaney and Barrow Rivers, and Ballytigelea seems to mark the limit to its range at the moment. I hadn’t seen a comma so far this year, so seeing one so late in the season was an unexpected treat.
The juxtaposition of butterflies basking in the sun and shrubs laden with autumn fruits is a reminder of the changing season. The autumn colours are everywhere; the rusty brown bracken and bramble, vivid red dog rose and guilder rose berries, the carmine guelder rose foliage and the curious vivid orange spindle seeds breaking out from their deep pink shell. Less spectacular but more abundant are the blackberries, haws and sloes, and even the crab apples are almost the size of eating apples this year. A natural bonanza for the birds this winter.
The natural tow-path along the Barrow is a wonderful resource for local and visitor alike, and serves as a huge natural artery for wildlife. Walkers, joggers, anglers and boaters all use and enjoy the amenity, in perfect harmony. The low-level management of the tow-path and the discrete signage make for a experience in keeping with the character of the amenity. It came as a shock to me, therefore, to read a notice pinned on a gate at Ballytigelea, that Waterways Ireland are seeking planning permission to resurface the tow-path with limestone filling. There may be some sound reason why Waterways Ireland are seeking to do this, but for me this would be a huge act of vandalism and totally unnecessary. The Barrow tow-path is an extremely valuable natural asset for the locality – by all means help and promote greater use of the resource, but lay off changing the character of the experience. I’m sure there are better ways of spending the money.
Well the Wild Ireland Tour is completed and I deliberately left writing an ‘epilogue’ for a short spell to take time to reflect on the month long odyssey. First of all, to present some of the statistics of the cycle:
Distance cycled – 3,200 km
Number of days cycled – 30
Elevation gained – 28,794 metres
Time in saddle – 128 hours
Calories used – 60,131
Approximate revolutions of pedals – 600,000
Punctures – 2
Falls from bike – 1 (don’t ask! – but no harm was done).
Before I left, I had set myself a wishlist of 10 species I wanted to see. By the end of the month, I had only seen four of the ten; Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Natterjack Toad, Dorest Heath and Twite. I had expected to fare better on this quest, but that I didn’t reinforces the fact that nature is not something that can (or should) be available on demand or, indeed, taken for granted. In one way I am pleased with this outcome, for it means that the Wild Ireland Tour has unfinished business that I should follow up on, and it provides the germ of a new adventure at a later date.
Since I finished, people have been asking me ‘what was the highlight of the Tour?’.This really isn’t a question I can answer, for the Tour was just a continuum of experiences, each different from the other. Certainly, some days were easier than others, but it would be wrong to categorise them superficially into highlights and low points. Some of the days that made for the most difficult cycling conditions, for example, gave me a greatest sense of personal satisfaction for being able to deal well with the conditions.
But there are two messages that I will take from this journey, one relates to the wonderful landscape we have and the other to lessons for nature conservation.
The Wild Ireland Tour took me through some of the most special landscapes and natural heritage sites in Europe. But no matter how stunning these areas are, without having people to share their knowledge and passion for their locality, and to serve as champions for nature, these place remain fairly sterile, inert areas. Yes, one can certainly be moved by the awesome power of waves breaking on the shore, or feast on the kaleidoscope of colours of a hillside, but it is only by seeing localities through the lenses of people who care, that places come alive and are imbued with character. Certainly investment in marketing and infrastructure is needed to unlock some of the value in our special landscape, but investment in people who can unlock the knowledge of the landscape is far more important if we are to gain the full benefits of our unique natural heritage. I don’t think this elemental precept has even begun to be appreciated.
I also realise that those of us who have an interest and appreciation of the rich biodiversity of the country are a fortunate lot. The differences that separates one grassland type from another, or one woodland habitat from the next, are subtle, nuanced differences. We are privileged to be able to view the countryside through this prism of detail, but we must understand that this is a world invisible to many. If we are to build a greater constituency for nature conservation we have to look at ever more novel ways to communicate the value of biodiversity, and break down the barriers that have become established between conservationists and the rest of society. How we do this, I’m not too sure, but do it we must.
The Wild Ireland Tour has been a fantastic experience. Bella and I enjoyed each other’s company for the entire month, an experience that we will both cherish. We met with some really inspiring people along the way, some of whom are working for conservation under difficult circumstances. I often heard it said that Ireland is a country of begrudgers; we found the exact opposite to be the case. People we approached to meet during the Tour could not have been more supportive or done more to help us along the way. Thank you all for your support, it is really appreciated.
There are two people I must thank for their special support. When first I broached the idea of cycling around Ireland to my boss, Gearoid O’Riain, Managing Director of Compass Informatics, he said two things; first, you’re mad, and second it was a great idea. (Actually he also said a third thing about the state of my backside, but that is not fit for sharing!). Without hesitation he agreed to sponsor the venture, sponsorship which made the Tour possible.
And of course, my wife Josephine for her huge support. In a weak moment last autumn, I first mooted my idea for the Wild Ireland Tour. When I conveniently put the hare-brained scheme out of my mind, it was Josephine that kept reminding me of the idea, and took it as a given that the Tour would become a reality. And she was also understanding (well most of the time anyway!) of the need for me to spend many long hours training since the beginning of the year.
I hope the blog was worth following, and that it helped in some small measure to promote Ireland’s special biodiversity. This effort is finished and I must move on; I think the lawn needs cutting.
Well, we have arrived at the 31st and last day of the Wild Ireland Tour, only requiring a tour of Co. Wexford before finishing where we began at the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford. I headed off from Garrettstown to the Raven Nature Reserve to meet with Christopher Wilson, for it would be impossible to pass this way without saying hello. I really only became interested in bird conservation in Ireland in the mid 1980s, by which time Chris was one of the stalwarts of Irish ornithology. I didn’t know it back then, but ornithology was only a relatively new departure for Chris at that stage, as his early career was as a police officer in London. Chris always had a passing interest in bird watching, but it was only with a bit of good fortune that he was asked to take up the mantle of Irish organiser for the final year of the Atlas of Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. And he must have taken to the task like the proverbial duck to water, for his contribution to nature conservation ever since has been enormous. His early interest was in birds, but this quickly expanded to include, butterflies, dragonflies, plants; in fact, almost all aspects of wildlife. Today he showed us his butterfly transect at the Raven that he surveys each year as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
He is a powerful communicator, being able to instil his love of wildlife in a wide audience, to which he did to good effect when hosting a wildlife slot on local radio. He also worked closely with artist Don Conroy to produce many wildlife educational books. And as I saw how Bella was captivated by Chris telling her stories about the Raven Nature Reserve, about its special wildlife like the Red Squirrels, Natterjack Toads and Adder’s Tongue Fern, and personal stories about his late father, I realised there and then, just how good a communicator he is.
And Chris has always been interested in imparting his knowledge of wildlife to others. It was this drive to share his knowledge that led him, together with colleagues Lorcan Scott and Jason Monaghan to set up the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club, 10 years ago this autumn. The Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club has gone from strength to strength over the 10 years, and now boasts 150 or so members. It runs a range of activities throughout the year, based around a monthly evening talk and weekend field excursion for members to come and learn about Wexford’s wildlife. But it is also actively recording and documenting the wildlife of the county and has already published a guide to the Lepidoptera of County Wexford and is planning on a similar publication on the county’s Dragonflies. The Club is one of the more active Field Clubs in Ireland, and there is a strong collaboration between it and the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and colleagues of mine are regulars on its programme of events. The Club uses the Pump House at the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve for most of its evening talks and some of its workshops, so it was only appropriate that it was there that I met with some of the members to say hello. It was really nice to spend some time with the Club members and to hear about the work the Club is doing. Thanks to its work, there is a far greater awareness and appreciation of Wexford’s wildlife now, than there was 10 years ago.
After lunch we met up with Zoe and Pete Devlin. Zoe is well known for the huge contribution she has made in recent years to raising the profile of plant recording in Ireland. Her website, Wildflowers of Ireland, brings brightness and a splash of colour to the subject of plant recording, and provides a rich resource for anyone interested in identifying and recording plants. Her two books, Wildflowers of Ireland – A Personal Record and Wildflowers of Ireland – a field guide are of a similar vein, effortlessly releasing some of the mystique surrounding Irish botany. Ever since she was introduced to the beauties of a wild orchid when she was eight, Zoe has been fascinated by wildflowers. She has photographed wildflowers for decades, and has amassed a very large collection over the years. It was on the prompting of her daughter that she set about using these photographs and creating a wonderful website around this resource. And her creations are a wonderful tribute to the many long hours that she has spent on pulling the information together, and to her desire to share her interest and knowledge with others. Of course, Zoe was ably assisted in this by her husband Pete who claims he had little or no role in this, but I suspect played a far greater role than he lets on.
And it was Pete who cycled with me for a good part of the journey through the Wexford countryside, and who regaled me with stories not about wildflowers, but about cycling. A man after my own heart, for I think I have had sufficient talk of wildlife for a while.
I realise that people with an appreciation and knowledge of wildlife are privileged, for they can see the subtle characteristics of different types of woodlands or grassland, or can detect minute features that separate one species from another; a level of awareness and observation that others don’t possess. This interest in wildlife that people have is usually attributed to some inspiring individual or mentor who opened up the wonderful world of wildlife for them. It is the likes of Chris and Zoe or the many, many other naturalists who want to share their knowledge and fascination of the natural world with others that need to be lauded. And groups like the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club who provide many opportunities at the local level for people to become involved and enjoy the learning experience. In a world where everyday life is becoming increasingly detached from the natural world, the work of these wildlife champions is of vital important to help build a support base for nature conservation.
And so I headed for the car ferry at Ballyhack, and from Passage East back to Waterford. Arrived back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, from where I had left one month earlier to complete my cycle around Ireland. I was delighted to get back home to a very warm welcome, and to pop open a bottle of champagne for Bella and I to celebrate a job well done. Prost!!
My cycle through Wicklow was a leisurely affair, and as today’s theme was bird conservation and I was amongst birders, my gene pool, it made for a really enjoyable day. Met up with Steve Newton of BirdWatch Ireland to give me the latest update on some of the conservation efforts on seabirds, and was joined by two other BirdWatch Ireland staff, Caoimhe Muldoon and Niall Tierney, for most of today’s cycle. Was really nice to have their company and to hear their enthusiasm for nature conservation. Organisations like BirdWatch Ireland are well served when they have such high caliber staff to draw on.
There is a narrow stretch of shingle shoreline just south of Kilcoole in Wicklow where another conservation success story unfolded this summer. Along a 500 metre stretch of the shore 120 pairs of Little Tern, Ireland smallest and rarest breeding tern, fledged 219 chicks. This was the largest number of fledged chicks for some decades, and contrasting fortunes to 2012 when the colony suffered a total wipe-out. The success was due to the dedicated work of a team of four wardens who set up electric fencing and signs to stop mammals, of all kinds, interfering with the breeding birds. The fencing stops foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs, mink, dogs and humans from destroying, either intentionally or unintentionally, the extremely well camouflaged eggs laid on the ground. But the eggs and chicks also suffer aerial bombardment from crows and birds of prey, so that the colony needs protection around the clock, 24 hours a day for the six weeks or so they are nesting. And not only did the wardens chaperone the largest number of chicks this year, they also managed to put colour rings with unique codes on 60% of the chicks. This is a new dimension to their studies for it generates information on movements of Little Terns away from the nest sites, something about which very little is known. And already, only a couple of weeks after departing Kilcoole, reports have been received of sightings of three birds, two in England and a third in France.
It is still way too early to see the success at Kilcoole as any significant change around in the fortunes of Little Terns in Ireland, but it does show that short-term intensive wardening of colonies can produce significant results. And this has already been well proven at Rockabill Island, out from Skerries in County Dublin where I passed yesterday. This summer, 1,241 pairs of Roseate Terns were crammed into the tiny island, making it the most important breeding site for this species in Europe. Not only that, but this population forms about 80% of the total Europe breeding population, so what happens here is fairly important for Roseate Tern numbers in Europe. Breeding numbers had plummeted during the 1960s and 1970s, but thanks to an intensive management programme by BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS, involving the building of nest boxes and the warding off of predators, this time avian predators such as gulls and birds of prey, numbers have been increasing steadily. The 1,241 pairs that bred on Rockabill Island this summer was a record number, which is very good news indeed. So the future prospects of terns in Ireland looks good, but it does depend upon the continued funding of wardens to work intensively at sites, to give these beautiful birds a bit of a helping hand.
When Richard Nairn, one of Ireland’s best known conservationists, got wind that the Wild Ireland Tour would be bringing me through Wicklow, he suggested that I really should take a short detour via Avoca to see the Red Kites. And I did as he suggested, and both Richard and fellow Red Kite enthusiast Mark Lewis, joined the peleton for the cycle to Avoca. And his advice was good advice, for Mark pointed out about three Red Kites as we cycled, and many locations where Red Kites nested earlier in the season. The graceful Red Kite became extinct in Ireland around 1790, because of a combination of loss of woodland and hunting of the birds. Thanks to the Golden Eagle Trust, a programme of re-introductions of some of Ireland’s lost majestic birds of prey is underway, with Golden Eagle, White-tailed Sea Eagle and Red Kite once more gracing Irish skies. The Red Kite reintroduction programme began in 2007 and brought about 100 young chicks from Wales. The birds were caged and fed for sometime before being released, in a controlled way, to the countryside around Avoca. This area was chosen as it most closely resembled the Welsh landscape from where the birds were brought. It is a landscape of rolling hills, mixed forests, and grassland and arable fields surrounded by well wooded hedgerows. The reintroduction programme has been very successful, and somewhere between 25 and 30 pairs of Red Kites now breed in the sweep of country between Rathdrum and Avoca.
Some conservationists are sceptical about these raptor re-introduction programmes as they see them as in someway deflecting attention from the hard work of having to turn around the fortunes of our remaining extant species. I don’t see it this way, as I feel the good news and enthusiasm generated by success stories like this can help build support for some of the less glamorous conservation work that desperately needs strong political and financial commitment.
Cheek by jowl with Ireland’s most densely populated area is a wildlife site of international importance. Surrounding Dublin city is Dublin Bay to the east, Sandymount Strand to the south and Bull Island to the north, making Dublin one of the luckiest cities in Europe for its natural setting. Imagine the good fortune to be able to board a bus in central Dublin and within about 15 minutes be able to watch flocks of thousands of Knot and Dunlin performing aerial displays from the safety of a public road. The jewel in the crown of this natural complex is Bull Island, probably Ireland’s most protected site. It is a Wildfowl Sanctuary, Nature Reserve, Ramsar site, Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation, Special Amenity Area Order, Biogenetic Reserve and crowing it all, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Bull Island itself is a fairly recent addition to the coastline, having formed after the construction of the North Bull Wall in 1790. It established as a sandbar behind the newly constructed wall, but over the 200 or so years, it has matured into a sand bank with at least 18 different habitats, an astonishing 10 of which are protected under European nature conservation law. And many rare species grow here, including Lesser Centaury, Red Hemp-nettle and Meadow Saxifrage, which are afforded legal protection under the Flora Protection Order and a further 13 species that are under threat of extinction in Ireland. Its birdlife too is astonishing, with up to 27,000 wildfowl and waders present at times.
Two features that make Bull Island particularly interesting is the strong habitat zonation apparent around the site, and the fact that the dunes are still expanding by the continuing accumulation of sand. These characteristics and of course its location within Dublin city make the site of remarkable amenity and educational value.
The international importance of this wonderful site was recognised in 1981 when Bull Island was included in the world network of Biosphere Reserves. Biosphere Reserves attempt to manage conservation, development and knowledge in a structure based around different management zones. Clearly for an urban-doorstep site with heavy recreational, amenity and development pressures the management issues for Bull Island are challenging. And until recently at least, the treasure that is the biodiversity of Bull Island has not been given the attention it deserves. However, long overdue plans are now being prepared for a much more integrated and ambitious approach to protect and recognise the special biodiversity value of Bull Island, managing it as just one important component of the ecology of the wider Dublin Bay complex. What is proposed is really quite exciting and ambitious. My arrival at Bull Island happened to coincide with a visit by Meriem Bouamrane of UNESCO, Paris to hear about these ambitious plans. I was invited along specifically to see how the Data Centre could contribute to the Biosphere Education Network element being proposed for the Reserve by Dublin City Council, and being championed by Maryann Harris. I really hope that this initiative gains the political support it deserves to make it a reality and that much greater effort is put into promoting the educational and nature conservation of this special city site.
An added bonus for me was being welcomed to Bull Island by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke to mark the occasion of my cycle around Ireland. For me, this was the ceremonial end of the Wild Ireland Tour and really quite an honour. It is not everyday a Lord Mayor welcomes me to town.
Nature conservation problems can be particularly acute in urban areas, but on the northern end of Dublin Bay, at Howth Head, there is a positive news story to relate. The negative impact of invasive non-native species on Ireland’s biodiversity is well known, yet there is little that can be done to stop the spread of many. However, the National Botanic Gardens noticed that the Hottentot Fig, a popular garden plant of South African origin had become established at a number of sites along the east coast of Ireland. Growing at Howth Head since 1962, it really only began to vigorously invade large areas decades later. Rather than just noting its colonisation, the National Botanic Gardens took the proactive step of seeing if they could stop its spread; to nip it in the bud, so to speak. Under the supervision of Noeleen Smyth patches of Hottentot Fig were spot treated with a glyphosate and diquat mix, and almost immediately signs of dieback were apparent. Surveying the sites the following year, Noeleen was able to report on a 97% kill rate and the active recolonisation of the treated area by native vegetation. Any remaining areas were re-treated with the result that Hottentot Fig has been eradicated from Howth Head. It is really heartening that Noeleen and her colleagues at the National Botanic Gardens took the decision to deal with the threat of the Hottentot Fig before it became too big an issue to tackle.
The final call for the day was Blackrock to the offices of Compass Informatics, who kindly sponsored the Wild Ireland Tour. Compass Informatics is a SME employing more than 30 people, providing mapping and information management systems to a large number of clients in Ireland and the UK. This is the company that runs the National Biodiversity Data Centre on behalf of the Heritage Council, and employs all the Centre staff. Bella and I were treated to a very warm welcome by our colleagues and we greatly appreciated the chocolate cake.
Today I decided to put in a long day’s cycle and covered 165 km from Newcastle to Drogheda. The route had no significant climbs and a good road surface so though I would take advantage of that.
But I must have upset all four of the wind Gods at some stage for they are conspiring together to keep a healthy wind in my face, and changing daily for maximum effect.
The first part of the cycle took me along a beautiful road with Slieve Donard towering over me to my right and the wide expanse of Dundrum Bay to my left. At Rostrevor, a combination of lovely mixed woodlands and open scree on the western side of the mountains provides the village with a stunning backdrop. The Mourne Mountains are designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, a designation which we don’t have in the Republic. The designation doesn’t appear to have much teeth, but it is a beautifully positive way to promote a beautiful landscape. The Mournes have also been proposed as Northern Ireland’s first National Park, but progress on this appears to have stalled due to local resistance.
Carlingford Lough straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and is yet another of our bays of high conservation value. The northern side of the lough has extensive mudflats and salt marsh vegetation, valuable feeding ground for our migratory wildfowl. The southern shore is remarkably different, as it is more exposed to currents and onshore winds. It forms a narrow band of pebble, shingle and rocky shoreline, but equally important for the pebble and drift line habitats it supports. For these are rare habitats at the European level, and while they support sparse vegetation, the plants found there are specialised.
Plant typical of this drift shoreline, for example, include Sea Rocket, Sea Sandwort, Sea Spurge, Sea Mayweed and the rare and protected Oysterplant.
As I cycled along the southern shore at high tide, I spotted a small island of land above the tide line, used as a roost by Curlew, Redshank, Gowdits, Oystercather, Little Egret, Grey Heron and gulls. All were crammed in, orderly segregated by species to their allocated area – a lovely sight.
The final part of the cycle took me along the shore of Dundalk Bay. Although referred to as a bay, it has the characteristics more of an estuary with vast expanses of sand, mud and saltmarsh exposed at low tide. Thanks to the efforts of a large number of volunteers, the birdlife of the area is counted regularly each winter as part of the national Irish Wetland Birds Survey,
organised by BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS. This is a huge undertaking for it involves counting wetland birds at more than 600 wetland locations, inland and coastal, once each month from September to March. And what is more remarkable is that more than 80% of the counts are done by volunteer birdwatchers who give of their expertise and time freely. As a result of this effort, an accurate picture of the most important wetland sites in Ireland for birds is obtained, and any changes to populations from year to year are identified.
Dundalk Bay is of inordinate importance for wading birds as it supports well in excess of 40,000 waders each winter,
more than double the number that would qualify it as a site of International Importance. More than 12,000 Oystercatcher alone winter here. But surprisingly few wildfowl use the site in winter, despite seemly ideal feeding habitat. It seems that wildfowl find conditions elsewhere more to their liking.
Today was scheduled as a Rest Day, but I decided to cycle the 50km to Newcastle just to keep the legs spinning but also to shorten tomorrow’s leg of the journey. The coastline here is already full of waders, but will become even more important over the next few weeks as the winter visitors arrive in force.
Newcastle sits on the southern end of the wide expanse of Dundrum Bay. Just north of the town lies Murlough Nature Reserve, which holds the distinction of being the first formally designated Nature Reserve in Ireland, when it was established in 1967. It is an old fixed dune system, extending over 280 hectares and provides the best example of dune heath in the island of Ireland. It was immediately apparent that this was different to the other younger and more mobile dune systems that I visited so far on this tour, for the vegetation was dominated by thick tall heather and dense stands of bracken. I’d say that management of the bracken was an issue as I noticed that large patches of it were recently cut, but it is hard to see how it could be kept in check. The reserve does manage a herd of Exmoor ponies to manage grazing, but I didn’t see any when I visited.
Devil’s-bit Scabious was incredibly abundant in some of the grassland pockets, giving the grassland a blue hue.
As this is the food plant of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, it is hardly surprising then that this is an important site for this protected butterfly. Indeed, Murlough is extremely important for butterflies and moths, with a remarkable 600 species in total recorded here. But one butterfly species, the Wall Brown, a conservation priority species in Ireland, has not been recorded for a number of years. It is feared that despite the best conservation efforts it has become extinct as a breeding species at the site.
The site looks really well managed, with a large network of boardwalks running through the site. This means that people visiting the lovely long beach here can access the beach without having any impact on the vegetation of the dunes.
In fact, watching many families walking along the boardwalk I did wonder, did any of them realise that they were walking through such a precious habitat?