By Sean Byrne.
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century ships entering and leaving Dublin port frequently stuck on sand banks at the entrance to the port and had to wait until a high tide floated them in or out. To solve this problem, the Great South Wall and the North Bull Wall were built to narrow the entrance to the port and thereby increase the speed of the ebbing tide which would scour the sand banks. The sand which was washed out built up behind the North Bull Wall, which was completed in 1825, and over the succeeding fifty years what is now the Bull Island was formed. The Island became a habitat for many plants, animals and birds and from the early twentieth century its importance as a nature reserve was recognised.
In 1931 Dublin City Council designated the island as Ireland’s first bird sanctuary. Today, Bull Island is the most designated site in Ireland. It is a UNESCO biosphere (the only such biosphere within a capital city boundary). The Island is also a National Nature Reserve, a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive and a Special Area of Conservation under the EU Habitats Directive. Since 1995 Bull Island has been a Special Amenity Area, one of only three in the Republic of Ireland, a designation based on the Island’s outstanding beauty and nature conservation values.
Dublin City Council (DCC) which has responsibility for Bull Island has completely failed to maintain the Island in a way that meets the requirements of these designations. Ironically, the map of Bull Island produced by DCC shows the hare, now long gone, the cuckoo which has not been heard for many years, a ringed plover nesting at the Sutton end, now gone because of disruption of its nesting sites, the short-eared owl now very uncommon, and a bar-tailed godwit now under pressure because of poor management of the nature reserve.
The main reason for the reduction in Bull Island’s biodiversity is uncontrolled access to the island by dog walkers, many of whom let their dogs off leads. This has led to the disappearance of hares and a huge reduction in the number of little terns, skylark, linnet, reed bunting and red poll.
Until the 1990s, an area at the northern tip of the island was fenced off to facilitate ground-nesting birds but when the fence was broken down it was not replaced. Another threat to the Island’s biodiversity is the extraction of water and installation of wastewater treatment plants by the two golf clubs, Royal Dublin and St Anne’s on the Island.
DCC, insofar as it has managed the Island at all, has managed it as a park and leisure space rather than a significant and fragile nature reserve. That DCC regards Bull Island merely as a park, is clear from its ‘North Bull Island Nature Reserve Action Plan 2020-2025 for the Implementation of Management Objectives (May 2020)’. This Plan states that ‘the Nature Reserve will undoubtedly have a greater footfall as the urbanisation of Dublin continues’ and argues, without any evidence, that the Nature Reserve has a ‘capacity to carry additional footfall’. It then says that the damage which this additional footfall will cause to the Nature Reserve can ‘ultimately if necessary … be controlled using techniques which have proven successful in other nature reserves” without stating what these techniques are or where they have been successfully implemented.
The only measure in the Plan to deal with the uncontrolled dog walking, which is the greatest threat to the Bull Island biosphere, is a proposal that people, with or without dogs, will be “requested” not to access the northern end of the Island and along the saltmarshes and that dog walkers will be “required” to keep dogs on lead within the sand dunes. The southern end of the beach will be an ‘off-leash’ area outside the bathing season. These pitifully weak measures are to be “supported by signage, communication and awareness raising.” The effectiveness of “awareness raising” can be judged from the fact that when there was a warden on the Bull Island, he was abused and threatened when he asked dog walkers to keep their dogs on leads. No warden has been employed for the past three years. The sign at the entrance to the beach from the causeway road saying that dogs should be kept on leads disappeared several years ago. An Interpretive Centre on Bull Island which, during the period it operated, did not open on Sundays and Bank Holidays was closed without explanation three years ago.
Not content with neglecting the conservation of Bull Island, which has led to a severe loss of biodiversity, DCC with the support of Fáilte Ireland now plans to build an intrusive ‘Discovery Centre’ at the entrance to the beach on Bull Island at a cost of €10 million. This Centre aims to attract 55,000-60,000 visitors who will have to pay an entrance fee. To be viable the Centre will need a spending footfall more suitable to a high-street shop than a critically important and fragile Nature Reserve.
If the Discovery Centre is built, it will hasten the decline of the nature reserve and will display pictures of birds and mammals which will have disappeared by the time the Centre opens.
Green Party leader Eamonn Ryan launched his party’s policy for biodiversity on Bull Island in January 2020 and Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for Heritage was pictured on Bull Island in March 2021 launching a scheme of grants for biodiversity projects.
People concerned about the future of the nature reserve have asked both Ryan and Noonan and former Green Lord Mayor Hazel Chu to oppose the building of the Discovery Centre and to ensure that DCC implement conservation measures but have had no response, or in the case of Noonan, a dismissive response to their representations. The Green Party councillors on Dublin City Council have not opposed the building of the Discovery Centre or sought measures to conserve the nature reserve. The inaction of Green ministers and councillors on the threats facing Bull Island suggests that they are more comfortable thinking globally than acting locally, to quote a Green mantra.
The government has wisely refused to provide the €25 million to fund a white-water rafting centre which Dublin City Council Manger Owen Keegan proposed to build in the docklands. The government should now demand that DCC abandon the proposed Discovery Centre on Bull Island and insist that the Council manage the nature reserve effectively, or transfer its management to the National Parks and Wildlife Service
Sean Byrne is Lecturer Emeritus in Economics, Technological University Dublin