Michael Viney: Vital signs for Irish coastal life are not encouraging

In Richard Nairn’s second book on the Irish coastline, he has bad news to share

Little terns nesting. Illustration: Michael Viney

Robert Lloyd Praeger and his wife, Hedwig, once bivouacked for a while in a shed on the shore of Inishturk, off Co Mayo. Every morning they “stepped out of the door and [dived] head first into twenty feet of Atlantic water”. It was, Praeger wrote later, “an ideal existence, which we have repeated under varying conditions on almost every island off the coast of Ireland”.

This glimpse of the great naturalist may be unexpected, given his wider fame for endless hikes across Ireland to document its wildflowers. But islands, for Praeger, promised Ireland’s last wild places where botanical treasures might survive.

The 7,500km of Ireland's coastline can still tempt visions of an unspoiled natural world where, in Seamus Heaney's words, "things overflow the brim of the usual". They are quoted, somewhat wistfully, in Wild Shores, an engaging and ambitious new book by Richard Nairn.

The author has been on and off boats from childhood, and his feeling for sea and shore fits the new national appetite for the sea and things marine. On travels round the island (often and enviably in his ocean-going yacht), Nairn was often disappointed in hopes of finding the unspoiled havens for nature that so obsessed his hero.


The mix of birds thinned, then fell to sporadic encounters, as the "dramatic changes" described by Nairn took hold

Still, “some small wild areas remained on the salt-sprayed coasts and islands and in the untamed region between the tides where the land and sea overlap, [and] these were the places to look for the best of Ireland’s wildlife”.

Nairn is among the most industrious and successful of Ireland’s ecological consultants (hence, perhaps, the four-berth yacht). His lifelong work for the natural world was deeply inspired by Praeger, whose writings make welcome and colourful interpolations in the new book. Praeger delighted in a natural world still untouched by the loss and destruction of habitats that followed in the subsequent century.

Breeding wader

In his second book on the Irish coastline, Nairn has predictably bad news to share. Just 40 years ago, for example, he joined fellow ornithologists in surveying the special attraction of the west coast machair for species of breeding wader. Machair, a landform of lawn-like grassland behind coastal dunes, is shared between Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides. Nairn and his colleagues took a whole summer to walk stretches of machair the length of the west.

“Here we found lapwings,” he writes, “circling about the sandy grasslands with their loud, mewing calls, snipe drumming above the marshy areas, tiny dunlin with black [breeding] plumage on their bellies and ringed plovers nesting among the shells on the strandline.”

Nairn's tideline perambulations of the west met with other declines. Among them is the loss of shallow-water eelgrass meadows

His description moves me, so exactly does it recall the summer birds I enjoyed, around the same time, on the fine spread of machair at the foot of our Mayo hill. The mix of birds thinned, then fell to sporadic encounters, as the “dramatic changes” described by Nairn took hold. Among the pressures on machair, past overgrazing by sheep destroyed the tussocks of grass that many waders need for nesting.

Nairn’s tideline perambulations of the west met with other declines. Among them is the loss of shallow-water eelgrass meadows, smothered by other vegetation fed by polluting run-off from the land, or ploughed up by scallop dredging. Important seagrass habitats, now in peril globally, support abundant invertebrate life to act as nursery areas for fish such as cod and herring, and absorb remarkable levels of carbon.

Bicoastal bind

As an ornithologist long active with Birdwatch Ireland, Nairn attends eagerly to the many good conservation projects undertaken by that NGO and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

On the east coast, he was instrumental in setting up protection of little terns breeding on the shore at Kilcoole, Co Wicklow. With fencing against predators (and walkers with dogs) and wardens to lift eggs beyond the reach of high spring tides, this has become the most important breeding site for little terns in Ireland, attracting as many as 150 pairs. Nairn sails this coast in summer and now delights to find his boat “surrounded by these dainty seabirds dipping and diving into the waves”.

"It now comes down to buildings or beaches: we must make our choice"

His closing chapter, on the conservation of the coast, rehearses urgent policy gaps that have already endured for decades, such as the lack of marine protected areas and integrated coastal zone management that engages all the stakeholders. “Decision makers in Ireland,” he writes, “constantly ignore coastal conservation, focusing instead on the management of land.”

As climate change impinges on the ocean, Nairn says “the low-water mark is moving close to land and the intertidal zone is being reduced in area, thus depleting the available habitat for a whole range of animals, from cockles to curlews”.

And as new storms and rising sea level threaten beachfront buildings, “it now comes down to buildings or beaches: we must make our choice”.