Scientist saddles up to see the best of Ireland’s wildlife

Liam Lysaght, the head of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, plans to cycle the island, visiting 60 protected sites

When Christopher McCandless, the "American supertramp", abandoned his educated middle-class comforts to "walk into the wild", he had hoped for a type of healing in his encounters with nature. Instead, as documented by the writer Jon Krakauer and the actor and film director Sean Penn, McCandless's quest for authenticity cost him his life, and his body was found in a disused bus in Alaska, along with a rifle and a pile of paperbacks, in 1992.

Dr Liam Lysaght has no such misanthropic idealism, no naive sense of innocence, and a far more cheerful approach as he prepares to swap office for outdoors this summer. Lysaght, who is director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford, is circumnavigating the island by bicycle in a celebration of Ireland's wildlife.

Too often, wildlife attracts a bad press, he says. “Almost always, conservation is presented negatively: controversies about developments, gloomy reports of species under threat of extinction, compensation for managing land for conservation and so forth,” he says.

He finds it frustrating. "You take the disputes over the impact of EU habitat-directive designations, as in restrictions on turf cutting on raised bogs, for instance," he says. "Yet some 16 per cent of land in the Republic has been designated as special, which means that Europe is telling us that it is unique."


The old jobs-versus-environment debate is similarly tiresome in his view, given the value placed on biodiversity – estimated at €2.8 billion annually to the Irish economy – and the high cost of its loss. One of his stops on his 3,200km itinerary will be Doonbeg, Co Clare, site of the golf course that is now part of the "Trump triangle".

"I used to work for the Heritage Council, and the council objected to Greg Norman's plan for a golf course at Doonbeg," Lysaght says. "The location has the most wonderful wild dune system backing on to a wild beach, but there was never any option given to manage it as it was." He doubts that its new owner, the US billionaire Donald Trump, is particularly interested in hearing that now.

That said, he is ever hopeful, given the discreet yet effective impact of conservationists, wildlife experts and scientists involved in initiatives ranging from Burren Beo to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group to Connemara bog and sea weeks.

“So many of these activists have winning ways, in that they shine a light on what we have that is quite special,” he says.

Connemara national park will also be on Lysaght’s itinerary, as it was here that he got his first job. He then moved to Burren National Park, as park ranger, became one of the first staff employed by the Heritage Council, and was appointed head of the biodiversity data centre when it was established, in 2007.

The centre is the national organisation for the collection, collation, management, analysis and dissemination of data on biological diversity. This data is crucial in understanding the impact of the “national asset” and in tracking changes to it. Among its many projects is this weekend’s annual Bioblitz (see panel, right).

In was in the “depths of winter” that Lysaght, a keen member of the Marble City Cyclers, came up with his plan. His employer, Compass Informatics, which runs the data centre for the Heritage Council, is his main sponsor. With him will be his 17-year-old daughter, Bella. Lysaght plans to cycle about 120km a day, visiting 60 sites in 19 counties, including six Gaeltacht areas.

There will be just five rest days, when his wife, Josephine, who runs a bakery, and Bella’s siblings, 19-year-old Seppie, 15-year-old Pauli and 11-year-old Felix, will join them.

The sunwise route embraces 19 special areas of conservation or special protection areas, 13 nature reserves, 12 Ramsar sites where wetlands are protected, three forest parks, three golf courses, a World Heritage site (the Giant’s Causeway, in Co Antrim) and the World Biosphere Reserve on Bull Island, in north Dublin.

"Fáilte Ireland packages this landscape, but it doesn't put much into managing the resource, and at the same time conservationists are not the greatest communicators," Lysaght says.

He intends to blog about the benefits of EU habitat designations and highlight the work of many experts and local naturalists – with a bit of the boffin’s eyewitness enthusiasm thrown in for good measure.

“And there are plenty of good stories to tell,” he says. “For instance, down in Kerry, ponds initiated by the NPWS to protect the threatened natterjack toad have been working very well.”

When he steps off his bicycle, he will have spent almost 130 hours in the saddle, burning about 70,000 calories in all, and taking hundreds of photographs of the seabound landscape he loves so well.