Another Life: Wildlife is as much a part of Ireland’s heritage as its castles are

Historic buildings and prehistoric sites are still what people think of when you mention National Heritage Week. Landscapes and wildlife habitats are taking more time to register as part of what we are

Walk to the Boheh Stone to watch the sun roll down the Reek. Try Neolithic corngrinding at the Stone Age Céide Fields. Hear the lives of lighthouse keepers at Clare Island’s cliff-top lantern tower, or the story of the doomed dry canal in the limestone environs of Cong. Watch for whales and dolphins at Downpatrick Head, build your own weather station at Ballycroy. Learn about seaweed harvesting at Claggan or conserving our last wild old Irish goats at Mulrany. Take a meditative walk around a labyrinth at Louisburgh or along the seven waterfalls of the river at Glore Mill.

For more free events in Co Mayo's share of National Heritage Week, at the end of the month, go to heritageweek.ie. I'm amazed at all that's happening, and not just along the Wild Atlantic Way. In the 20 years since Charles Haughey gave his blessing to it, the Heritage Council has proved its worth a thousand times over with Michael Starrett as chief executive.

In the wake of the crash it survived near-extinction, from budgetary cuts or being swalllowed into government. Its shrewd largesse of annual grants, supported by the National Lottery, has nourished a kaleidoscope of enterprise among local historians, naturalists, craftsmen, conservationists and community activists. Projects sampled on its website have chronicled traditional Irish boats, the stone bridges of Co Carlow’s mountain river, the mosses and liverworts of Co Kildare, and the community memories and mementoes of Dublin’s 1913 lock-out.

But what do people mean by "heritage" and why do they care – or is it simply all about tourism? Earlier this year the council commissioned Elaine Sloan, a market researcher, to explore the public's "awareness and understanding of Irish heritage". Her surveys and discussion groups probed the consensus that protecting and conserving it is, of course, a good thing. Castles, ancient monuments, historic buildings and prehistoric sites still top the list of what people think of as heritage. Landscapes and wildlife habitats are taking more time to register as part of what we are.

Shipwrecks, country gardens and inland waterways have all risen in esteem since a survey in 2004, when, at the height of the boom, the graphs suggested a measure of indifference. “There are many,” Sloan found, “who believe that community spirit was lost during the Celtic Tiger years. However, the recession helped bring some of that spirit back.”

Appreciation of heritage has deepened substantially in the past decade, even if there’s reluctance to see taxes helping its protection. Interest in “heritage” now claims about one in five people. The young have so much else to do, and families are just glad to have somewhere to take the kids so long as it’s free.

Actually getting involved depends a lot on age and lifestyle. Giving money or buying raffle tickets for a local cause is a fairly constant feature of rural life, and most people might take part in a community project “if it doesn’t take too much effort”. This is especially true of empty-nesters, when the children have left home.

“As people get older ,” says Sloan,” they do seem to engage more at a personal level with their history and heritage.” She offers quotes: “It makes you feel connected” and “This is part of me and I am part of it . . . ”

The needs to appreciate “where we came from” and to pass on Irish identity and tradition to the next generation have been intensifying steadily, from a 12 per cent endorsement in a 1999 survey to 50 per cent this year. This rates substantially higher than the 33 per cent given to the benefit for tourism.

Trailing after the 80 per cent for castles, wildlife may be slow to rank as heritage in popular regard – only 39 per cent counted it in – but this doesn’t mean it lacks interest in its own right. About 500,000 Irish people are enthusiasts, Sloan concludes, and a further 1.4 million are “fairly interested”. Here, she suggests, is a niche for the Heritage Council. For under-24s and the working class especially, “interest levels in many cases are almost twice as high for wildlife relative to anything else”, which leaves plenty to be done with the older and better-off.

Nature films on television and the excitement of primary-school projects can probably be thanked for much of the enthusiasm. So can the outreach of county heritage officers and the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford – both excellent initiatives of the Heritage Council. But, like its own website (heritagecouncil. ie), that of the data centre has yet to reach the wider public. Its newly revamped website (biodiversityireland.ie) is now brilliantly colourful, with a live feed showing the 100 latest wildlife sightings submitted to the centre, along with species profiles and maps of their distribution. Grasshoppers, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies: these, as much as ruined castles, are what the Irish heritage is about.