If you worry about the degradation of naturally productive and diverse landscapes into urban-industrial wastelands, then Unesco’s concept of a biosphere reserve looks sensible and comforting, at least on paper.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation says that biospheres are centres of excellence for a fruitful new relationship between intense human activity and the natural world, guided by scientific conservation research, public education and engagement, and sustainable development.
So we should probably welcome the recent designation of Dublin Bay, and much of its hinterland, as a biosphere. This vastly expands the 1981 biosphere designation of North Bull Island alone.
But then we should surely ask: what difference will this designation really make to biodiversity in the region, and to public engagement with it? Indeed, how many people ever knew that the Bull was a biosphere reserve, and what impact did this status have on an area that was already highly protected and already heavily used for recreation?
Short on specifics
Last month’s announcement of the expanded biosphere by Minister for Jobs, Industry and Innovation Richard Bruton was high on fanfare, as “a great boost for the people of Dublin”, but decidedly short on specifics.
Not a single major new project was launched. And, unlike other conservation designations by the Government and the European Union, the Unesco "accolade" imposes no restrictions on human activities within the reserve, nor declares any particular conservation targets for species or habitats. It carries zero legislative punch.
But according to Leslie Moore, parks superintendent at Dublin City Council, which has driven the move towards the expanded designation, the lack of statutory big sticks may be an advantage in winning public support. Indeed, Moore favours dropping the word "reserve" from the title, and he just refers to Dublin Bay biosphere. "This is not about imposition," he says. "It's not a place to keep people out of. It's a place to get people involved with nature."
Jenni Roche, whose appointment to the new position of biodiversity officer for the council is the first concrete outcome of the designation, agrees. "There's too much association of nature conservation with negativity, with the word 'no'," she says. "This is an agreement by diverse groups to work together, to engage as many people as possible."
The biosphere will be managed by a partnership that includes the two other local authorities involved, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Dublin Port Company, and it will liaise with bodies ranging from conservation NGOs to businesses, from universities to youth groups.
How effective the partnership will be remains to be seen, but its very existence, with a modest annual budget of €90,000, and the early appointment of a biodiversity officer, is still an advance on the situation since the Bull Island became a biosphere 35 years ago.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service was nominally in charge of that project, but there appears to have been no active management body or policy to advance biosphere aims.
In fact Unesco was becoming concerned by the lack of information from Dublin’s biosphere until the city council, which had long been tasked with managing Bull Island for both nature and people anyway, picked up the baton and proposed the current expansion.
“When we looked at what was actually happening on the Bull,” says Moore, “many activities were indeed appropriate to a biosphere, but they were not co-ordinated.”
Roche adds, “In terms of biodiversity research and education there is a lot already going on at all levels. Our job is to pull it all together.”
This echoes a call by Declan Doogue, a distinguished botanist and leading light in Dublin Naturalists' Field Club. He points out that a vast amount of nature research has been done on the bay area over many years but that it often exists only on hard copy on some dusty shelf. If the biosphere can digitise and analyse it all, he says, it could make a real contribution to informing policy and saving rare habitats and rare species.
Our clash with nature
Humans and nature often clash in Dublin Bay, and heavy industry isn’t the only culprit. The bay is internationally renowned for its enormous flocks of wintering waterbirds. But
warns that some recreational activities – even walking unleashed dogs on beaches – put these flocks under severe stress. Their strength is critically depleted by repeated disturbance, especially when they are trying to feed up for long-distance migration.
The 1981 biosphere designation had little impact, she agrees, but she hopes that the expanded area and new partnership will significantly raise public awareness of nature conservation and change damaging behaviour. “There is a little meat, and a lot more energy, behind this project now,” she says.
She points out that BirdWatch already partners the city council in a number of biosphere-type initiatives, from establishing nest boxes for swifts to providing bird guides for Dublin Bay Cruises.
Eamonn O’Reilly, chief executive of Dublin Port Company, has pioneered a refreshing approach to resolving conflicts between humans and nature: he invites conservationists to advise the company on the potential effects of proposed developments in advance rather than fighting them in court after the fact.
He welcomes the biosphere development. “It’s a challenge to us all, to pool resources, expertise and enthusiasm, deepen understanding, manage better. It can pull together all the elements in the bay – birds, commerce, marine life, recreation – and deepen our understanding. It’s not just frothy PR. But the real work begins now.”