Nature is all around us in the city
Iconic predator the peregrine falcon has learned to live very comfortably in urban settings
A fox in the grounds of the Garda office on Harcourt Street, Dublin. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
There is not a blade of grass, nor a square inch of soil, let alone a tree, on the street where I live in Dublin’s Stoneybatter. Our sturdy redbrick terraces open directly on to concrete pavements, and the small back yards are also concrete. The natural world was not high on the agenda of the Victorians who created such housing projects for the skilled working classes. Gardens and tree-lined streets were a luxury, reserved for the new middle-class suburbs.
Nevertheless, nature has found footholds here, though I didn’t notice some of them for a long time.
You tend to see only what you already know about. I had long been interested in birds, so I watched herring gulls beginning to nest on our rooftops. I heard the robin that sometimes seemed to sing right through the night from a patch of garden lovingly created by a neighbour on nearby “waste” land.
Only when I became interested in plants about 15 years ago did I start to notice the diversity of species exploiting tiny niches on the street.
Species that once seemed to embody the essence of remote wild places have learned to live very comfortably in cities
The angle between brick walk and pavement, enriched by nitrogen generously deposited by dogs with their urine, was often thick with chickweed. This is a pest to zealous gardeners – and street cleaners – but a lovely flower if you get in close and personal with a hand lens.
Wall rue spleenwort, a small fern with rather beautiful leaves, found enough lime in the cement between bricks, and enough moisture from a leaking gutter, to flourish behind a neighbour’s drainpipe.
I was delighted to find ivy-leaved toadflax, with its tiny lilac-mauve and yellow flowers, spilling down a wall on a nearby street.
So you don’t have to go to a national park to find “nature”. And while you have to pay close attention to find wild plants and animals in some urban settings, our cities are often far richer in biodiversity than you might expect.
Foxes have extended their range in recent decades from the countryside into the suburbs, and now are often seen in city centres. The shyer otter is seen much less frequently, but research based on their spraints (droppings) shows that they can be quite common in city rivers.
Some species that were once very rare, and seemed to embody the essence of remote and romantic wild places, have learned to live very comfortably in urban settings. The magnificent peregrine falcon is an iconic predator, and said to be the fastest flying creature on earth. It has recently nested regularly in Irish cities; it’s not fussy, the site can be a gasometer or a cathedral spire. Feral pigeons, whose urban populations often flourish to pest proportions, provide the peregrine with plenty of food, as do the vast flocks of wildfowl and wading birds on nearby estuaries.
Estuaries, the tidal marriage of great rivers and sea coasts and usually attended by a necklace of wetlands, are abundantly rich in plants, fish and birds. They are also, of course, magnets for human settlement and trade. Urban development has drained and destroyed much of these valuable habitats.
Sometimes, however, infrastructural development has accidently created new wetlands of great value. This was famously the case of the North Bull Island in Dublin. It is less than 250 years old, yet now provides a sanctuary of European significance for waders, wildfowl and wild flowers within a few kilometres of O’Connell Bridge. Most of our coastal cities have enough wetland remnants to offer great pleasure, to both dedicated birders and botanists and to casual walkers.
Increasing recognition of the value of wetlands for flood mitigation, water purification, carbon sequestration and recreation now offers a slim hope that we may see a reversal of a centuries-old trend of increasing degradation and move towards the restoration of drained salt marshes.
Urban planners, of course, have long understood the importance of more conventional green space within cities. Parks, ranging from ornamental flower beds and manicured lawns to semi-natural woodland fragments and meadows, are common features of most of our towns. Again, though, it is a mistake to imagine that wild species will only be found in the latter.
Waste land, in particular, is often a misnomer in terms of wildlife
To begin to grasp the rich gradient of urban biodiversity, it is helpful to look at the early habitat chapters of The Wild Flowers of Ireland, an exquisitely illustrated and information-rich book by Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger. These authors do not start with dunes or natural woodland, but with “weeds in flower beds”, moving on through lawns and parks, urban waste ground, and old walls and ruins, before heading to the rural locations we more typically associate with the word “habitat”.
Waste land, in particular, is often a misnomer in terms of wildlife. I’ve found newts – one of our very few amphibians, looking something like a cross between a tiny frog and lizard – in puddles along a disused railway track near Broadstone.
Industrial brown-field sites often attract interesting and fairly unusual species, like the black redstart, an attractive robin-sized bird. Disused buildings often harbour bat colonies. Insect specialist Leon van der Noll found a species new to Ireland, the robberfly Dioctria baumhaueri, in a Cork city park.
Quite a number of good books have been written about our urban wildlife; space permits mention of only a few of them. The most recent is Dublin Bay: Nature and History by Richard Nairn, David Jeffrey and Rob Goodbody, which focuses on the fascinating relationship between our capital’s increasingly built-up coastline and its shifting biodiversity over the centuries. Wild Dublin: Exploring Nature in the City is a comprehensive, useful and entertaining survey by Éanna Ni Lamhna.
There is a helpful little Self Guided Field Trip to the Galway City area, and A Unique Irish Habitat is a reminder that airports, Shannon in this case, can be adjacent to magical biological wealth. Declan McGrath has published a very informative Guide to the Wildlife in Waterford City.
You could check with bookstores, your local council, or any of our nature organisations for guides local to your own urban place. You might also want to contact groups like Kaethe Burt-O’Dea’s Bí Urban in Dublin, with an interesting emphasis on pollinators, or the Cork Nature Network.
But don’t forget that you can start discovering nature among concrete and steel right now just by walking out your front door.
WILDLIFE SITES FOR URBAN EYES
We asked local experts to pick some favourite sites, not necessarily the best-known ones, in their city:
Waterford: King’s Channel Saltmarsh (coastal plants, lapwings and herons, occasional porpoises); Waterford Quay (nesting ravens; rich plant life); the Island (birds, dragonflies, otters, badgers); King John’s River and Kilbarry Bog (breeding water birds and warblers, kingfishers, bats). From writer Declan McGrath.
Cork: Beaumont Quarry; the Lee (rare gull species, otters). From ecologist Tom Gittings.
Limerick: Westfields Park and Wetlands; Howley’s Quay and Harvey’s Quay (gulls, waders); End of Mill Road, Lax Weir and Corbally Baths. From plant science and ecology lecturer Tom Harrington.
Tullamore: O’Connor Square (swifts in summer); all along the canal; Birr: Camcor River Park (diverse wildlife, nesting dippers). From Laois heritage officer Amanda Pedlow.
Galway: Claddagh (seals out to sea, otters by piers, gulls); Merlin Park Woods (wildflowers including orchids, red squirrels). From ecologist Janice Fuller.