We're a wet country, so why aren't we more interested in our wetlands?

Brent geese: regulars at Dublin's North Bull. illustration: michael viney

Brent geese: regulars at Dublin's North Bull. illustration: michael viney


ANOTHER LIFE:There has to be the occasional day at this time of year when Ireland, seen from space at the right angle to the sun, would glitter all over, like one of those Victorian diamond brooches people take to Antiques Roadshow. From ditches, dune slacks, reedy lakes, estuaries, sandy bays and flooded fields, our February dykes catch the light in a generous, even excessive, celebration of water.

Last Saturday, indeed, was World Wetlands Day, anniversary of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty adopted in a small Iranian city on the coast of the Caspian Sea on February 2nd, 1971. Signed up to by 164 countries, it had as its main concern the conservation of the planet’s migratory waterbirds.

About 2,000 wetlands across the world were picked as especially important, 45 of them in Ireland. A typical one is the North Bull in Dublin Bay, where amiable brent geese do their best to ignore the traffic and the great flocks of waders that swirl against the sky.

In four decades since the signing, the importance of watery ecosystems has been extended to much more than geese, swans, ducks and waders. The Ramsar organisation, based in Switzerland, is still pressing ecological imperatives for “wise use” of wetlands, urging governments to report on progress, and spread the word to the world.

This month’s World Wetlands Day sought “to highlight ways to ensure the equitable sharing of water between different stakeholder groups and to understand that without wetlands there will be no water.”

Last summer, Bucharest, in Romania, hosted the big Ramsar conference of “contracting parties”, held every three years to fix policy. It drew almost 900 people from governments and NGOs in 143 countries.

All the big guns were there – Russia, Australia, the US, Japan, the UK, Brazil – and most of the little, even quite poor, ones. Among the absentees – Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Belize – was the Republic of Ireland. Nearly all the governments had duly filed reports on what they had done for wetlands, but the update on Ireland’s inventory remained filled with question marks.

Heavy in procedure and endlessly attentive to the concerns of far-off places – Panama, Senegal, the Islamic Republic of Iran – the conference wouldn’t have been much of a junket.

Even Ramsar’s new focus on tourism as an “ecosystem service” from wetlands could hardly have prompted Irish minds to anything but envy, as tropical beaches and coral reefs flashed up on the screen. (Wetlands, in Ramsar’s wide scope, include “areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters” – this along with fish ponds, rice paddies and salt pans.)

If Ireland doesn’t “do” Ramsar conferences, it could be just because we’re broke. And as our best wetland sites – coastal bays, bogs, lakes, winter-flooding rivers and so on – are all protected in response to the EU’s habitats and bird directives, this is where the legal authority is seen to lie.

But our failure to report to Ramsar must irk the Irish Ramsar Wetlands Committee ( irishwetlands.ie), an umbrella group set up with government financial help to spread the gospel on wetland and water issues, not least from 20-odd handbooks of Ramsar wisdom. This Irish team, drawn from NGOs, academic experts, heritage officers and local authority engineers and planners, is chaired by Karin Dubsky of Trinity College Dublin.

It has made up for staying at home by compiling a badly needed national inventory of wetland research. The first harvest is impressive: about 170 studies across the island, most to do with wildlife (birds, newts, beetles, plants) but with them a major report on a new national value for wetlands – their ability to hold back the floods.

Commissioned by An Taisce, The Use of Wetlands for Flood Attenuation is the work of the aquatic services unit of University College Cork. Here, we find, is another “ecosystem service”, as bogs and fens slow the movement of water into downhill channels, or as coastal wetlands blunt the energy of fierce waves and storm surges.

But there are false ideas about this, too. When the high bogs are full of water, as they are much of the time, they have no room for more.

Indeed, as the report points out, the drier soils of well-drained alluvial flood plains often have even more storage potential. This, of course, if we have not covered them with houses, roads and industrial estates. Even as farmland, water storage depends on the presence of rough vegetation, hedges and trees, of hollows and ditches that are so often filled in or planed away.

Did you know about the Corkagh ponds? The River Camac, a Liffey tributary, flows through Clondalkin, Co Dublin, where flooding did damage in 1993. Since then, a cluster of five lakes has been scooped out where the river runs through Corkagh Park, one filled for people to fish in and the rest as wetland meadows – hollows in reserve for future overflow.

We can only try.

Eye on Nature Your notes and queries

A bluetit has been coming to our peanut feeders for about two months. It is much fatter than the other bluetits, and it still has a few downy feathers.

Frances Lavelle Newcastle, Galway

Birds fluff up their feathers in cold weather and look bigger than usual.

I have twice seen a flock of bullfinches on grass eating sycamore seeds. There were over 20 on one occasion but only four hens; the rest were cocks.

Gerard Neville Littleton, Thurles, Co Tipperary

Bullfinches form small flocks in winter and go foraging. They break up into pairs for the breeding season in April.

On the Emo road to Mountmellick I twice saw a bird similar in size and shape to a magpie. It had a brown back and very distinctive black wings with white bar-like stripes.

Helen O’Neill Miltown, Co Kildare

It was a jay – like the magpie, a member of the crow family, but smaller.

100 waxwings were seen in Kill, Co Kildare, at the end of January.

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