Summer in the city: natural wonders
You don’t have to leave the city to commune with nature, and July is alive with mammals, flowers and marine life
VERY RARELY, things seem to happen on cue. Recently, I spent a couple of happy hours in Dundrum library researching books on nature in the city. As I walked to the Luas station afterwards, I barely glimpsed something small but boldly colourful in a scutty patch of pavement grass.
I bent down and found that the little burst of purple was a pyramidal orchid. The point that wonders of nature can often be found in apparently unlikely urban contexts could hardly have been made more clearly.
It’s surprisingly easy to find several species of orchid, sometimes in dramatic numbers, within Dublin’s city limits. The dune paths adjacent to St Anne’s Golf Links on Bull Island are often carpeted with them in spring and summer. You may also find them in railway cuttings, where benign neglect fosters many wildflowers. But even for someone who has learned to look at the ground a lot while walking in cities, this streetwise bloom was a show-stopper.
Urban wildlife has had good exposure here in recent years: foxes stalking the suburbs, peregrine falcons nesting in shipyards and gasworks, and otters fishing in abandoned industrial ponds have all made headlines. It’s a welcome reminder that we don’t have to travel to remote sites to find solace and interest in nature.
The notion that the city is itself an ecosystem (or rather, a rich mosaic of different ecosystems) is gradually taking hold among a broader public. But naturalists have known this for a very long time. Robert Lloyd Praeger, the doyen of early Irish natural history writers, dedicated some memorable pages of his classic book The Way that I Went to this phenomenon in Dublin and Belfast.
He does not just write about obviously “wild” sites within the city limits, such as Howth Head and Belfast Lough. He pays a lot of attention to the famous winter wagtail roost on O’Connell Street (recently migrated to Bachelors Walk). And he remembers the profusion of fern species that flourished between Leinster House and the National Museum until, as he puts it, “some unfortunate tidying up was done”.
City authorities today deserve credit for having learned, at least in some cases and places, to suppress this urge to “tidy up”. City parks and canal banks now often have some unmown patches. Wildflowers, once regarded as weeds, get a chance here to outcompete the ubiquitous grass of the manicured lawns.
And even where the urge to tidy seems irrepressible, nature is remarkably resilient. Someone regularly applies herbicide to the angle between pavement and terraced brick walls on my little street in Stoneybatter. Within weeks, in spring and early summer at least, 20 or so species of wild plant, including several of Lloyd Praeger’s beloved ferns, bravely raise their heads again.
So we can find nature everywhere in the city, but obviously some places are better than others. Éanna Ní Lamhna has described many of the capital’s biodiversity hotspots very well in her beautifully produced Wild Dublin (O’Brien Press). Her immediate recommendation, for those looking to visit such spots, especially with easily bored children, is the first stretch of rocky shore on the south side of Dublin bay, which is a short walk from Seapoint Dart station. “At low tide, you can find lots of periwinkles, crabs, mussels, and sea anemones. It’s good for birds, too, with cormorants drying their wings in the sun.”
She also urges visits to sandy shores to find lugworms. You need to watch out for a hole or depression inches away from the squiggly “cast” the worm’s burrowing leaves on the surface. Then dig very quickly.