The Phoenix Park, says its management, the Office of Public Works, “is where Dublin goes to breathe”. But while any open green space is precious to a city, the park’s vast meadows are no great examples of the natural world. Bleak enough on grey winter days, their summers remain largely flowerless and beeless, their grassy sweeps grazed of biodiversity by some 600 alien fallow deer, introduced for hunting in the 1660s.
To the families who encircle the herds, cameras poised for selfies, and children eager to offer forbidden crisps, the deer are a happy experience of uncommonly approachable wildlife. But to ecologist Padraic Fogarty, campaign leader of the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT), they are “a Disneyfication of nature” and should be removed or greatly reduced.
His current blog on the IWT website is part of a long-considered proposal for “rewilding” the park. Thinking that its urban setting might isolate it from the seeds of the wider countryside, Fogarty had offered to provide them to the OPW. Sowing them would be pointless, he was assured, because the deer would nibble off any leaves juicier than grass.
Author of the much-admired book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature (2017), Fogarty has become a champion of selective rewilding. Discussing Ireland’s long history of deliberate and accidental introductions in the journal British Wildlife, he writes of the new ecological challenges for the Ireland of climate change: “For me this means bringing in the beavers, the wild boar, the lynx and others so that we have functioning natural ecosystems.”
The lynx, a large wildcat, is currently favoured for Irish rewilding as a means, less worrisome to humans than wolves, of controlling the nationwide plague of “wild” deer damaging forests, eating too much farmers’ grass and, in some places, carrying bovine TB.
That the lynx was ever “native” to Ireland rests with a single bone, 8,875 years-old, found in a cave in Co Waterford. And is using wildlife for economic benefit really “rewilding” at all? The wild boar certainly was native and preyed on by wolves , but any remnant of modern reintroductions is pursued by official killer squads as “invasive aliens” that might carry swine flu to farmed pigs.
Fogarty wonders why, if the native Irish otter could swim the North Channel from Scotland, the paddle-tailed beaver never did the same. Its wide reintroduction in the UK has been hailed for landscape engineering that slows the progress of floods and creates a rich biodiversity in the life of its dams and ponds.
This has had Fogarty “watching in envy”. But he has not missed the beaver’s capacity for rapid reproduction. Newly-protected in Scotland, its population more than doubled in three years, to about 1,000 in 2021, and spread to some 250 territories.
After unwelcome damage to farmland, 31 beavers were trapped in 2020 and moved to licensed and restricted projects in England. Another 115 were killed.
At the other end of the globe, in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, beavers were introduced for commercial fur farming. Lacking natural predators such as bears, their impact on forested, sparsely populated land has been considered catastrophic, prompting campaigns of eradication.
This is sometimes cited as a warning against introducing beavers, but Fogarty is confident that it could “restore naturalness” to Irish river systems canalised by arterial drainage. And further: “On the novel landscapes of the soon-to-be-rehabilitated midlands bogs, they would accelerate the rewetting of peatland and so would be climate action heroes.”
Novel landscapes create novel ecosystems, and large areas of Bord na Mona’s “discovery park” at Lough Boora in Co Offaly have developed into naturally regenerating woodlands of birch and willow – classic candidates for coppicing by beavers.
Fogarty’s hopes for rewilding the Phoenix Park, with just a few deer among flowery, butterfly-friendly meadows, regenerating trees and dead ones left fallen for insects to chew on, are in the sphere of “restoration ecology”, still the common philosophy of most working conservationists.
The natural world, however, is changing dramatically fast. Between widespread introduction or invasion of non-native species, changes in land use and projections of climate change, some active ecologists see habitat restoration as largely futile effort. They point instead to “the new ecological world order”, engaging with emergent “novel ecosystems” directed mainly for human benefit, such as flood control, carbon storage and pollination services to crops.
Some eminent figures in conservation, such as America’s Daniel Simberloff, fear enthusiasm for this concept as a possible “Trojan horse” allowing further commercial damage to nature. In Ireland, Padraic Fogarty is among campaigners working to balance and reconcile the two ecological ambitions.