Finding Balance on Bull Island: Dogs and Dead Seal Pups

The postmortem says the seals’ injuries were consistent with an attack by a predator.

But what killed the two grey seal pups found earlier this year on the beach at Bull Island remains unclear.

Some reckon another seal is the most likely killer. But area dogs, whose walkers take them down to the beach to exercise, are also suspects.

These recent seal pup deaths raise questions, some say, about how we approach the habitats under our protection.

Should we be investing more in our Dublin Bay Biosphere? And how can we get people to act more responsibly around these natural habitats?

Trouble at the Biosphere

Brendan Price, of the Irish Seal Sanctuary (ISS), has taken a strong position. “What we’re saying is ‘No dogs in the biosphere,’” he says.

He and others at the ISS have seen dogs disturb the natural habitats of other animals on the island for years, including seals, he says.

“The seals are one of the features that are to be protected,” he says. “It’s the energetics of the thing. If they have to keep engaging in the flight response, they’re running down their own reserves and most especially during the breeding season.”

Dogs and dog walkers have been known to disturb beached seals. In September, the Irish Environmental Network posted a video showing a local dog walker disturb the seals, forcing them into the water. Acts like these, says Price, are harmful.

It may not have been a dog or dogs responsible for the recent seal deaths, but the grey seal is a protected species. As Price sees it, why should we risk any disturbance to them at all?

For several years, Price and others have monitored the seals that come ashore during the October birthing season. It can be tough on the pups, says Price, also of the ISS.

“During the breeding season, the young grey seal pups are born ashore and more or less tied to the land for the first three weeks of their lives,” says Price. “If they’ve to keep falling into the water, struggling out of the water, their little white coats sodden because it’s very absorbent, getting cold and losing energy, it’s these combined effects that could kill them.”

Banning dogs from the Bull Island might be Price’s preference in the short term, but he admits that a long-term strategy, like more staff, is needed.

“You can go for all these security measures, enforcement measures, signage, you name it. But none of it’s going to mean anything unless the staff are there too,” he says. “So a staffing presence, to us, would be the most important point. And also it’s the best way to learn more about the animals.”

If the public were more aware of the natural habitats of species such as seals, they might learn, over time, to disturb them less, says Price

The Implementation of Education

North Bull Island was designated a UNESCO Biosphere in 1981. This designation was extended in 2015 to cover Dublin Bay, and it’s due to stay in place for 10 years, during which time there will be periodic reviews.

With this new honour came fresh responsibility. In October this year, Dublin City Council published the Draft Dublin Bay Biosphere Biodiversity Conservation and Research Strategy 2016-2020.

Despite it’s long-winded title, it’s fairly straightforward: it sets out the research and conservation aims for the biosphere for the next four years. Among these are seal surveys and a dog-control strategy.

Coastwatch (a European environmental network) conservation coordinator Karin Dubsky says the most important aspect of the new plan will be management.

Dublin Bay Biosphere is unique; it’s the only biosphere in the world that’s within a capital city, Dubsky says.

“No matter which way you turn it, it’s a challenge,” she says. “One way [to manage it] is to let as many people as possible know that it is fragile and to understand that they’re only one in hundreds of thousands of people whose cumulative effect it is, not so much the individual.”

Education will be key. One way other biospheres have done it, says Dubsky, is by having plenty of volunteers to help visitors understand the landscape’s sensitive nature.

“The basic understanding of Bull Island, for the older generation, is coming from a mindset, and to shift that mindset is really difficult,” she says. “We need to raise the basic understanding.”

Brendan Price of ISS says we need to protect the wildlife on Bull Island. “The grey seal should be the standard-bearer for the biodiversity of Dublin Bay,” he says.

“If we don’t start now the seals may be gone,” he says. “If you look at comparable wildlife refuges in Britain you have 15 to 20 people. In Dublin it’s one man and a few lifeguards.”

That man is island manager Pat Corrigan who, for 30 years, has kept watch over the wildlife of the Bull Island.

The Ranger

The challenge for Bull Island, says Corrigan, is about recognising what areas need to be respected and what times of year to do this. One solution to recent disturbances is to possibly limit access to certain spots.

“It’s something we’re looking at,” says Corrigan. “Into the future we’re hoping to create viewing platforms if that’s what it takes for people to enjoy the seals, but nevertheless it’s to cut down on the disturbance.”

People and dogs disturbing birds on the island can prove critical for certain species. A Brent goose, says Corrigan, must eat a third of its own body weight per day to survive.

If they’re disturbed, they’ll fly out to sea and may not get enough to eat to survive. Their resulting death may not be seen on the Bull Island itself.

Once again, it comes down to education. Dublin City Council is planning a new Bull Island interpretive centre to replace the old one. But progress takes time, says DCC conservationist Shane Casey.

“When you have interactions with people you’re always going to have a challenge,” he says. “Nature and recreation don’t always go hand in hand. It’s trying to identify where the specific areas are that are particularly sensitive and as much as possible try to encourage people to stay away.”

Yet, says Casey, it’s the public’s island as well. Island manager Corrigan agrees. “To me it’s using the biosphere ethos, which is conservation through education,” he says.

Bull Island’s Corrigan has already pushed for the National Park and Wildlife Services and Dublin City Council to foot the bill for seal postmortems to establish the cause of death, rather than Price or the ISS paying.

He’s also looking at the reintroduction of hares to the island, a species whose population has fallen due to dog disturbance and other factors. But you can’t ban dogs outright, he says. That’s unrealistic.

“To do that we would have to offer an alternative because it was the local communities that had the island recognised as a special amenity area,” he says. “You can’t just ban things. Again, it’s back to education.”

When you’re dealing with something you’re passionate about, says Corrigan, you want results. But such results take time.

“We can’t deal with the problems until they arise,” he says. “If I can sort it straight out, it’s done. If it takes longer than that, then we’re into policy and changing to make a difference takes time.”

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Cónal Thomas: is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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