Dublin's accidental island


Dublin’s North Bull Island is a rare model of harmony between diverse activities in a protected wildlife habitat, which was accidentally formed by the building of Dublin’s sea walls, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

IT’S AN APOCALYPTIC evening on the North Bull Island. A giant sky, gunmetal-black shot through with silver, stretches from Howth to Dalkey. Shafts of sunlight break through from time to time, theatrically highlighting the Sugarloaf mountain in Wicklow, a sliver of shoreline along Clontarf, or a crane in the city’s docklands.

Great curtains of rain move across the horizon at three different points at once, but mercifully stay away from the North Bull Wall, which forms the southern boundary of the island and then marches out into Dublin Bay.

It’s a great backdrop for the Pulse Triathlon Club’s Bull Wall Aquathlon. Dozens of participants, uniformly clad in black wetsuits and bright yellow bathing caps, resemble demented wasps as they huddle together for a final briefing. First they will swim off the wall and out into the channel, tracing a 750m arc.

Then they will strip to running gear, and race five kilometres up and down the great expanse of Dollymount Strand. An organiser, Stephen Moore, asks them to show consideration to other users of the wall and strand that evening. Weaving among the wet suits are elderly dog walkers, young couples, a birder with binoculars, entire families out for a stroll, and a brace of fishermen returning with the evening’s catch.

There are many remarkable things about North Bull Island, colloquially known as “the Bull”. But the most remarkable is the generally harmonious co-existence between the different human communities that enjoy it, and the parallel survival of the rich plant and animal communities for which it is famous.

People often come to the Bull for more than one reason. Aquathlon participant Kevin Scanlon says he comes out to run and swim every weekend. But he also comes out early on Sunday mornings – “you have the beach to yourself at 7.30am” – to walk his three young children, all in a single buggy.

Then he has time to pay attention to the Bull’s abundant wildlife, although “wild” may not be an appropriate word for one creature they meet on most outings. “There is a very cheeky fox in the dunes,” he says. “It walks out and right down to us, looking for Rice Krispie buns.” Others, naturally, are more focused on their activities on the island.

“I just come here to train,” says Tim Gleeson wryly. “I don’t have time to notice nature when I’m out here, because I’m usually in some sort of pain.” Siobhan O’Connor, another aquathlon participant, does come with her family to stroll the beach, but not to look for anything in particular: “It’s just a beautiful place to be.”

The Bull has a very special beauty for nature-lovers and natural scientists. An extraordinary number and variety of birds spends the winter in its lagoons, and a cornucopia of wildflowers makes its dunes blaze with colour in spring and summer. Without even walking off the North Bull Wall last week, you could see the purple heads of orchids peeping out among the grey-green dune grasses.

The island is also important for insects, and is home to a threatened population of hares (no one is quite sure how they got there) and two species of seal. There cannot be many capital cities where such natural wealth is concentrated in one place, only a half-hour from its commercial centre.

The Bull, however, has never been a “wilderness”. The island is the accidental consequence of human, industrial and mercantile development. It is a classic example of a paradox of conservation: a number of the most significant sites remaining for wild creatures are the direct outcomes of human activity.

It was Capt William Bligh who, after surviving an embarrassing spot of bother on the Bounty, first noted the existence of the nascent North Bull Island in 1800, while researching his proposal for a north wall along the mouth of Dublin’s rapidly developing harbour.

Unlike the bay’s notoriously dangerous tidal sandbars, what Bligh had observed was permanently dry and stayed in the same place. It had emerged in response to a shift in currents, due to the recent building of the South Wall on the other side of the Liffey’s mouth.

When the North Bull Wall was finally built 21 years later, the new island became attached to it, and continued extending into the elbow formed by Sutton and Howth. By the turn of the last century, it had reached something like its present size: five kilometres long and roughly one kilometre across. It is still shifting and growing – you can easily observe changes in the shape of the “recurve” at the Sutton tip of the island from year to year.

Dollymount’s spectacular strand opened up on the seaward side, with sand dunes building up behind it. Behind that again a central section took shape. It now includes an alder marsh and two golf courses. On the landward edge, alongside a lagoon, extensive salt marshes appeared, making an ideal roosting habitat for wading birds and wildfowl.

All this has occurred without much more human intervention, apart from the building of the golf courses, the Royal Dublin and St Anne’s, early in the last century, and a somewhat controversial causeway across the lagoon in the 1960s. The Bull thus offers unusual opportunities for ecologists to study everything from dune dynamics to the succession of vegetation types in near-pristine circumstances.

The Bull is protected as a nature reserve, under EU protocols, and as a Unesco biosphere reserve. Biosphere reserves differ from the traditional conservation model because they attempt to marry the protection of biodiversity with a range of human activities on the protected site. Few of them succeed in this complex balancing act as well as this accidental island.

The golfer: 'This is a win-win for golf and the environment'

GERRY CONNEELY is an active member of St Anne’s Golf Club, and his skills as an award-winning landscape contractor have played a key role in turning the tide in the battle against sea buckthorn. Standing by the club’s boundary fence, he can show where most of the shrub has been eliminated on the St Anne’s side. It is still evident in the dune system outside, although the reserve staff are slowly winning there as well.

For Conneely, the issue is not just compliance with reserve regulations, but an opportunity to restore St Anne’s as a traditional links course, part of the “Irish Links Initiative”.

“We should not be fighting against what we have here, bringing in exotic plants and using fertiliser and water inputs to create the kind of artificially green US course we see on TV. We have one of just 250 links courses in the world – one quarter of them are in Ireland – in a beautiful location.”

Conneely says the Bull’s native grasses, especially fescues, appropriate to its sandy soil, are much better for putting greens than introduced species. They grow upright, not creeping, and when mown they produce a crewcut-type surface that is “faster and truer for the ball”.

“This is a win-win for golf and for the environment,” he says. Walking through the profusion of orchids, lady’s bedstraw and wild pansies flourishing along the fairway edges, it is impossible to disagree. Environmentalists who think golfers are always the enemy should take a look at St Anne’s.

Directory: Getting the most out of the Bull

Walk: Dollymount Strand offers great exercise, great views, and very fresh air. Walk from the North Wall to the Sutton tip of the island (10km return), or from the central beach car park – accessed from the causeway – in either direction (about 5km return).

Swim: Dollymount has Blue Flag status. Dublin Harbour (off the North Wall) is less salubrious, although still considered safe. Swim Ireland organises open-water swims. swimireland.ie

Golf: St Anne’s and the Royal Dublin welcome visitors, but contact them in advance. stanneslinksgolf.com, theroyaldublingolfclub.com

Volleyball: Beach Volleyball Ireland holds open training sessions on Dollymount on Wednesday at 6.45pm, and a tournament on most Sundays at 3pm. beachvolleyballireland.com

Windsurf: For safety reasons, contact the Irish Windsurfing association for training and advice. windsurfing.ie

Triathlon: Pulse Triathlon Club. pulsetri.com

Nature: Flowers are the high point in July/August, with spectacular displays of a variety of orchids in the dune slacks. Please don’t pick them. Walk the paths in the centre of the island, all the way from the North Wall to Sutton tip via the Visitors’ Centre. Also watch out for foxes, hares, seals (on the Sutton tip) and butterflies. dnfc.net

Birdwatch: There are relatively few birds right now, compared with wader and wildfowl abundance from autumn to spring. But there are skylarks, pipits and finches in the dunes, kestrels hunting them, and little egrets (a pure white heron) and shellducks in the lagoon. Watch out for returning migrants over the coming weeks. birdwatchireland.ie

Sea Scouts: One of the most active groups in Ireland is based at the Crows Nest, but there is a waiting to list to join. iti.ms/M8J95P

Sail: The island is very beautiful from the sea. The local organisation is the Clontarf Yacht and Boat Club. cybc.ie

Guide and map: iti.ms/PgXoZH

The kite-surfers

JENNY BLANEY frankly admits to having had a stereotyped southsider’s view of Dollymount until she found Pure Magic, a kite-surfing school in Clontarf run by Frenchman Francois Colussi, on the internet.

“I had no idea there were beaches like this on the northside,” she says, ruefully. “I had these negative images of dodgy kids doing wheelies on motorbikes.”

Three years later, she is practically a resident on and around the Bull in her leisure time. A guidance counsellor in her early 30s, she now brings her pupils from Mount Anville school to Dollymount on kite-surfing courses.

“For our sport, finding a beach like Dollymount is like finding a big wave for a surfer,” says Colussi, who has pioneered the annual international Battle of the Bay kite-surfing festival on the strand.

Do these recreational users of the Bull pay much attention to the wildlife? “We notice the things that affect us,” says Blaney. “Seaweed and jellyfish, of course, but also the movements of the birds, which can tell us how the tides and winds are changing when we are having a coffee on the strand.”

Blaney is beginning to learn a new sport with Pure Magic, stand-up paddle boarding, which “looks like walking on water”. She recently enjoyed a race out to the green lighthouse beyond the North Bull Wall, with a class ranging in age from teenagers to people in their 70s. She was happy to come last, just enjoying the sunset.

Both Blaney and Colussi stress the collaborative nature of kite-surfing, because you always need someone else to help you launch. They feel this ethos extends to their respect for other users of the strand, and they are happy to keep to the zone designated for them by the park authorities.

“I’m a great fan of communication,” says Colussi, and he feels that different groups communicate very well on the Bull. Perhaps we should send our TDs out to the island for the summer break – although that may just spoil the fun for everyone else.

Irish Kitesurfing Association, iksa.ie. Pure Magic Dublin, puremagic.ie/dublin

Dublin's The reserve manager: 'Half of Dublin learned to drive here'

“MAINTAINING THE balance between the conservation and amenity values of the Bull Island means walking a fine line,” says Pat Corrigan. He is the manager of the North Bull Island Nature Reserve for Dublin City Council.

It is a line that the reserve has walked with finesse in recent years, despite meagre funding that keeps the exhibits at the visitors’ centre below par for a site of this importance. Quite bizarrely, it is closed at weekends, when most people come to the island.

The challenge in reconciling the interests of dog-walkers and birders, of kite-surfers and swimmers, of golfers and botanists, has to be met with constant adaptive management. There are only three permanent park staff on the island, which are beefed up with five beach guards for the summer.

Radical changes occasionally have to be made. In recent years, the excesses of boy racers were turning the strand into a danger zone for everyone else. Four years ago, car access was severely limited by strategically-placed boulders, “to stop anyone building up a head of steam”, says Corrigan.

There is a certain sadness in this limitation on a place where, as he says, “half of Dublin once learned to drive”. But the new arrangement certainly benefits the vast majority of the island’s visitors.

Two ongoing challenges are presented by unleashed dogs and alien, invasive plants. It’s tempting to release a dog on the open spaces. But dogs can be devastating to breeding hares, and to ground-nesting birds in summer. They often mercilessly harass brent geese in winter.

Alien, invasive plants aggressively occupy space and change the special soil characteristics that make the island a haven for rare native species.

The park has embarked on a strategy to completely remove sea buckthorn, a dense shrub originally introduced for shelter and stability on the two golf courses.

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