Capturing Dublin’s wild side

Photographer spends four years with foxes and kingfishers along the river Dodder

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Chasing the images he had seen on David Attenborough documentaries, as an amateur wildlife photographer Paul Hughes spent years travelling North America in search of the perfect photograph.

From rattlesnakes in the El Paso desert in Texas to brown bears in the mountains around Whistler in Canada, his encounters with creatures inspired a growing passion for nature photography which became a profession and an obsession.

It was only when he moved back to Ireland after almost a decade abroad that he discovered “a world of wildlife” on his own doorstep in the centre of Dublin to rival any nature scene from his travels.

A chance sighting from the Dart of a swan on the river Dodder one sunny afternoon in 2008 prompted Hughes to disembark with his camera to explore the area around Lansdowne Road station. That short stretch of riverbank between Irishtown and Donnybrook was to become his working world for the next four years.

“I was totally unimpressed by it at first. There was a trolley sticking out of the water, and rubbish strewn along the riverbank. I didn’t think there would be much wildlife to see in such a densely populated urban area.”

He returned to photograph the swans, and became “spellbound” by the place.

“It was May, all the leaves were on the trees, and the sound of the traffic was muffled down by the river. Even though I was in the centre of the city, I could have been anywhere.

“I was down at the railway bridge, with the Lansdowne Road [now the Aviva] stadium behind, and a fox vixen showed up hunting moorhen chicks. I couldn’t believe it. A heron was catching a rat, ducklings were swimming past, the otters showed up and a kingfisher zoomed by. I became hooked on the area from that moment.”

Four years

His photographs of the wildlife he encountered there over the next four years have been collected in a new book, Doorstep Wilderness: A Wilder Side of Dublin. Hughes believes nowhere else in Dublin compares to that spot on the Dodder for biodiversity.

“I put it down to the specific location – the tide comes in there so you have the salmon and sea trout coming up, and sometimes seals, and the family of otters moving down to the Grand Canal Dock area.

“The foxes come out with their cubs in plain view of all the passers-by, and there are water fowl, moorhen, mallards, kingfisher, crows, squirrels, grey wagtails. It is such a hot spot.”

Dublin City Council’s senior executive parks superintendent Maryann Harris would tend to agree that there’s something unique about urban wildlife in the area. She refers to the Dodder as the city’s “green corridor” which connects the two most significant areas in the east of the country for biodiversity – Dublin Bay and the Dublin Mountains.

“The river is a conduit for species to move around the city. Bushy, Herbert and Orwell parks and golf courses along it are pockets of local biodiversity, which are home to quite a lot of rare plants. Animals migrate up and down the river, and to other areas then through the parks and golf courses. It is a highway of sorts.”

Over the centuries man-made modifications to the river, originally a water source for the city, have in some ways enhanced the flora and fauna in the area, Harris explains.

Water quality

The river’s water quality has much improved in recent years, leading to an increase in the number of salmon and trout. The dipper – a species of bird which favours clean water conditions – has recently returned to breed along the banks.

The Dodder is also one of the only remaining breeding grounds for the kingfisher in Dublin city, but there are some concerns about the impact of climate change on their habitat. They only breed in earthen banks, and if there is flooding their nests can be washed away.

Some non-native animals have been introduced to the river by people dumping unwanted pets such as turtles and terrapins. But most of the animals thriving in the Dodder are native species which have successfully adapted to urban living, says Harris.

Very special

“The fact that you can get up close to such wild species that in other countries you would never find in a city is very special

. The fact that you have all these interconnected habitats surrounded by half a million people is quite unique.”

South Dublin County Council is currently carrying out a feasibility study for a greenway all along the Dodder from the Docklands to Tallaght, eventually linking up with the Dublin Mountains Trail at Kiltipper Woods.

Construction of a flood defence wall along the Ballsbridge to Irishtown stretch of the Dodder brought Hughes’s photography project to an end in 2012. Although his lens is now focused on the Dublin coastline, he still goes back to the Dodder to check in on the wildlife.

“My heart sank when I turned that corner the first day and saw the trees cleared. It is a ghost of what it was, but some of the vegetation is growing back, so there’s hope. It was Dublin’s best kept natural secret.” Doorstep Wilderness: A Wilder Side of Dublin is published by Collins Press. It is available in bookstores nationwide priced €24.99 l Birdwatch Ireland and Dublin City Council are working on a plan for urban birds and are appealing to local birdwatchers to report sightings of species like the kingfisher along the river using a special smartphone app. See birdwatchireland.ie

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