Irish biodiversity crisis: ‘You’ve got more of a say than just going to the bottle bank’

On a citizens’ assembly field trip, members are shown how the problem can be halted, even reversed

Ann McMahon surveys the scene: the salt marsh of the Rogerstown Estuary stretches ahead of her, little egrets and a heron taking flight, a family of ponies cantering in an adjoining field, and a light summer breeze shivering the grasses.

“Amazing,” says the 71-year-old former biology teacher, after a pause. “Beautiful — wild and natural.”

There is no one to disagree. Certainly none of the other 100 members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, about two-thirds of whom have taken part in their first field trip at the weekend.

First stop is Turvey Nature Reserve, 220 acres in north Dublin, sandwiched between the M1 motorway, Portrane and the estuary. It is largely the creation, as it appears today, of Mother Nature and Hans Visser, biodiversity officer of Fingal County Council, one of only five local authorities to have one.


He has held the position for 19 of his 20 years with the council. He came to Ireland from the Netherlands first as a student gardener at Malahide Castle in 1996 and, not long after, got his first opportunity with the council as a parks and landscape officer.

Turvey is one of Fingal’s best-kept secrets. Working with the local community since 1970, when it acquired what was then largely farmland, Visser and his colleagues have essentially allowed nature to reconquer the area, and without superimposing the trappings of a formal public park.

While there are vegetable and flower allotments, unfussy walkways and a bird hide, earlier infrastructure to drain the land, including ditches and flood walls, has been removed, giving nature the upper hand.

Old maps showed the area to be wetland and so, by blocking agricultural drains and allowing estuary water to flood low-lying areas, Visser simply facilitated a return of what once was. The result is a profusion of grasses, flowers and shrubs, plus waterbirds — visiting and native — and other wildlife. Turvey now hosts one of the largest concentrations of yellowhammers in Ireland.

“It doesn’t matter if this place floods — it’s a nature reserve,” Visser tells assembly members as he leads them on a walking tour.

Ann McMahon is beside herself with happiness. “I’m thrilled to bits to be here,” says the passionate rewilder currently living in Derrynagarra, Co Westmeath. “I can’t describe my joy at being selected for this.”

Like her, Peter Cutliffe, of Letterkenny, Co Donegal, who has a background in civil engineering and insurance, learned of his random selection for the assembly when an invitation letter arrived, unannounced.

He listens intently to Visser as the latter explains how wetlands absorb four to five times more carbon than trees, about how bringing nature into people’s lives — into their housing estates, parks and farms — changes attitudes, and how, in the Netherlands, central government has devolved responsibility for biodiversity down to local authorities.

“Who is actually going to change stuff?” Visser asks. “That’s something you might like to consider ... We know what can be done. The question is: is the will there?”

“He hit the nail on the head,” says Cutliffe. “Who is going to implement this?”

At Dublin Port, assembly members learn of another approach — the corporate responsibility route. It was championed by the port’s chief executive, Eamonn O’Reilly, who speaks passionately about the need to “measure, inform and educate” when it comes to the environment.

“It’s about education — opening people’s eyes [and] explaining to them what’s in their own natural environment,” says.

O’Reilly now marks the seasons at the vast 500-acre concrete and gantry complex at the mouth of the Liffey according to the arrival and departure of migrating birds.

Environmental matters at Dublin Port are overseen by Eamon McElroy. Assembly members are told about four concrete pontoons that have been adapted as nesting sites, each home to up to 400 pairs of Arctic and common terns.

Terns ringed by BirdWatch Ireland, with which the port has a close working relationship, have been traced to the far south of west Africa. The pontoons are so successful that swimming rats and otters try to scale their sides to raid for food.

Other birds encouraged to live in the area, include peregrine falcons and black guillemots.

McElroy says the port also has a responsibility for the killer and humpback whales that live in Dublin Bay, along with dolphins, harbour porpoises, and grey and harbour seals.

The port is looking at setting up fish cage habitats on the seabed, mussel tiles on quaysides to aid water filtration and also wildflower beds. The port is also finishing several kilometres of cycle and walkways, which it hopes will encourage visitors in to the port and will facilitate holiday cyclists using ferries.

“Is the bar set too low in looking at the economic impact of planning decisions?” asks one assembly member, Wicklow film-maker Keith Hutchinson.

O’Reilly says he is a fan of the planning system but environmental impact reports need to be thorough and planners need the expertise to advise them. “Science doesn’t lie,” he says. People in companies do not want to do the wrong thing — “we’ve got to make it easy for people to do the right thing”.

He wants the port to have what he called a natural capital policy, a way of benchmarking the environmental impact of all future plans. “When all of this world was opened up for me,” says O’Reilly, “it made my job so much easier.”

At Bull Island, assembly members are guided through the dunes along Dollymount Strand by National Parks and Wildlife Service biodiversity specialists Dr Rebecca Jeffery, Aoife Delaney and Sinéad Cummins.

The dunes are home to more than 350 plant species and serve as a protective ocean barrier for much of Clontarf. Boulders along the edge discourage vehicles and protect dune plant roots that extend far on to the strand, assembly members are told.

They are not popular, acknowledges Delaney. “Sometimes it’s really a big challenge bringing people with you.”

Assembly members will resume their deliberations in September, and in December will make recommendations to the Oireachtas on halting and reversing the biodiversity crisis.

“That was very enlightening,” says Nicola O’Donoghue, from east Galway, after the field trip. “You could see how big business and biodiversity can coexist. They are quite an example to follow.”

Donna Lawless from Clogherhead in Co Louth has been inspired by the assembly experience. “You just feel that you’ve got more of a say than going to the bottle bank every week.”

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times