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.