Should Ireland be returned to the wild?

Sat, Jan 19, 2013, 00:00

ANOTHER LIFE:At what better time in the past, I have wondered, would my Mayo hillside have been more “natural”? And, then, more natural in what way? Without going back to the start, as it were, to Jurassic dragons in fern forests, where to begin? Not, certainly, within cultural memory, as conjured by tumbled gables and grassed-over lazy beds. In that time, with most of eight and a half million people in the countryside, the hillside was black, under intense cultivation: potatoes and oats in summer, weeds in winter. On the hilltop, cattle in the heather; on the shore, much carting of seaweed and shell sand.

Turf mined anywhere within donkey distance and cut right down to the stones.

Inland, outside of the big-house estates, hedgerows stripped of anything burnable.

Before that, and the western irruption of people, our corner of Connacht was, indeed, pretty wild, though the old maps came up with a scatter of early townland names. Shreds of old vegetation linger in difficult folds of the land: oaks crouched under cliffs; hazels dwarfed along the boreen to the sea. Pine roots carved from the bog, raw and red as butcher’s bones, speak of ancient, native forest but also of climate change as the postglacial ocean rose and the smothering mosses swelled up with rain. Somewhere between, the landscape found room for eagles and last wolves, along with a sprinkle of people.

Within Europe, visions of “natural” landscape aspire to a grander scale. As rural populations wither and marginal land falls back to scrub, the Rewilding Europe movement ( urges its designs on areas as big as Ireland. Western Iberia, the Polish Carpathians, Croatian mountains (still scattered with landmines), all are offered a future as managed wilderness, part for biodiversity, part for human society. Natural grazing by wild horses, bison, elk and deer would cut the risk of bush fires; hunters would have more to shoot; tourists with binoculars would flock to BBs on former farmland.

The scale can be smaller. In the Scottish highlands, at Alladale, a posh hotel promotes a wilderness reserve, well furnished with indigenous pines but now boasting elk, red deer, ospreys and eagles in the course of “ecological restoration”. This is now a buzzterm in conservation management, but it raises the questions I began with. Restoration to what nature and when? As most of our mammals were imported by human people at various postglacial times, some fine judgments would be needed before adding any one of them to the view.

Even birds, it seems, can be asked for their passports. At Christmas, I reviewed a new bird book by Anthony McGeehan, Birds Through Irish Eyes (Collins Press), that challenged as “unethical” the release of red kites in Co Down – a species the author strongly suspects “was never here”. Gordon D’Arcy’s earlier book, Ireland’s Lost Birds (Four Courts, 1999), seemed to allow that kites might have roamed north from Leinster.

No room for rewilding

But McGeehan was really raising a bigger argument. How many reintroductions – of charismatic birds of prey, for example – appeal more to human pleasure (and thus the human purse and support) than improving the natural world for its own inherent value? Get existing habitats right, he urges, and pioneering wanderers will find them – or not, as nature decides.

He cites rediscovery of Leinster woods by the great spotted woodpecker and the new spread of buzzards across a more tolerant countryside.

Ireland has virtually no wild habitats, except the strip between the tides (and not always then). Most of the nature we know is a human construct, both in what we’ve added over centuries and – much more often – what we’ve taken away. Even the kind of natural world we might prefer is put together from Victorian books and paintings. The line between ecological repair and much-derided “wildlife gardening” can be lost in a confusion of science and human aesthetics.

At Ireland’s size, we have no room for rewilding: there are far too many deer already, and a few introduced wild boar are now hunted as an “invasive alien species”. Conservationists can argue that bringing back kites and eagles helps to turn people on to nature, respecting and preserving the homes of lesser creatures as well as filling BBs. It heals a few scars from our gamekeepered past while ignoring, too often, the modern rise of predators – mink, rats, foxes, grey crows – that are wrecking the landscape’s natural inheritance of species.

Red kites, meanwhile, once the specialist scavengers of every European city, have been paying a high price for their reintroduction to the northern fringes of Dublin. Following the success of introducing kites from Wales to Wicklow, beginning in 2007, 39 young birds were released in Fingal in 2011 and quickly spread out between the coastal estuaries and Meath. By the end of their first winter, nine of them were dead, most poisoned by rodenticide in rats they had scavenged. Go to the Golden Eagle Trust website ( for advice on taking greater care.

Eye on nature Your notes and queries

Before Christmas we saw two flocks of birds on the high tide at Lacken Strand. Our bird book helped us identify them as scaup. They were dabbling and upending as ducks do. We had not seen them before.

Anne McCormick Carrowmore-Lacken, Co Mayo

They are common winter visitors from breeding grounds in Iceland and Scandinavia to this country. You find them on open coastal waters and bays.

On the Howth cliff walk on January 4th, a calm sunny day (14 degrees), I saw two red admiral butterflies on late-flowering ivy and hebe, six bumblebees and two wasps collecting pollen. Was this to feed queens or were they overwintering?

Frank Smyth Sutton, Dublin

The red admirals overwintered. The bees and wasps were queens enticed out of hibernation by the mild weather.

The moth in this photograph came to a light at my door on New Year’s Eve.

Brendan O’Donoghue Straboe, Carlow

It was a male early moth (Theria primaria) which flies January to March. The female is wingless.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email Please include a postal address

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