Sean Byrne strides through the high grass of the marshy wetlands on Bull Island with binoculars strung around his neck.
He points out the deep purple orchids, and an orange butterfly called a marsh fritillary, which is classified as vulnerable, he says.
“On a warm summer’s day, 10 years ago the sky would be alive with larks,” he says. “Now you only have a handful.”
People who know the island well have noticed a decline in the number of birds, he says.
North Bull Island is a special protection area for the conservation of wild bird species, and one of the 714 biosphere reserves – “learning places for sustainable development” – in UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves. It also hosts two nature reserves.
It is unusual for a city to host a nature reserve, say Byrne and his friend Anto Kerins, both local conservationists.
And its delicate ecosystem is under threat, says Kerins.
One long-standing problem is walkers letting their dogs off leads, which disrupts wildlife on the island.
Another, they say, is Dublin City Council’s plan to build a “discovery centre”or “interpretive centre” on Bull Island.
The council launched a pre-planning document in May 2021. While a previous design included a three-storey building, its new version is only one storey.
The proposed centre would have a watchtower and 280 car parking spaces, plans show.
The new centre will draw more people to the island, says Kerins. “In doing so, it will put considerable extra pressure on its fragile wildlife, plants and ecosystem and weaken its biodiversity over time”.
Leslie Moore, parks superintendent with Dublin City Council, says the discovery centre will support biodiversity.
“That is what a discovery centre does, it enables you to get people in to educate them and to inspire them to change,” he says.
Dogs and Humans
Nature has shaped the landscape on Bull Island, but so too have humans.
Black plastic bags full of dog poo mark the human trails through the high grass. They lie discarded on the ground or hanging from shrubs.
“It would be better if they just left it,” says Byrne, sounding annoyed.
Kerins and Byrne say Dublin City Council is failing to manage the island well, so plans to draw more visitors to it don’t make sense.
“Dublin City Council has a mixed history of managing the reserve and, to date, has ignored its responsibilities under the government’s biodiversity plan, requiring it to manage it to a high level,” says Kerins.
A tall man walking a large greyhound heads off through the sand dunes. The dog is not on a lead.
That is a big problem because nesting birds and other animals can easily be scared off by dogs, says Bryne, and some species, like the little tern, have left the island as a result.
But there are few visible signs informing walkers of the problem.
“Dublin City Council has failed to manage the island as a nature reserve over the years,” says Kerins. “This has led to a slow but steady erosion of biodiversity over time.”
Brendan Price, of the Irish Seal Sanctuary, says that “Dogs off leads has been a burning issue for years.”
In 2016 a seal was killed on Bull Island and dogs were among the suspects. Postmortems were carried out, says Price, but the results weren’t conclusive as to whether the death was caused by a dog or another seal.
Price thinks the council should consider fencing off a section of the island to protect the seals, as their current interventions are not working.
The area was fenced off in the past, says Byrne, to protect the ground-nesting birds. But when the fence fell down it wasn’t replaced, he says.
Moore, head of parks at Dublin City Council, says the council is constantly trying to deal with the issue of dogs, but that some dog owners are not heeding the advice to keep them on leads.
“Dogs off leads is a problem everywhere in parks,” he says. “We are working with dog owners and the Dogs Trust.”
He agrees that there are very few signs on the island asking people to keep their dogs on leads. “There have been signs in the past and they have been ripped out,” he says.
A council staff member engaging with dog owners was “threatened and abused”, Moore says.
The council is planning to put up new signage, and a group of volunteers will be going out talking to dog owners as soon as restrictions allow that, he says.
Dublin City Council has a biodiversity plan and Price, of the Irish Seal Sanctuary, says that “aspirationally it’s very good but it is not followed up with the resources”.
Price used to sit on the stakeholders forum for the island, but he became frustrated by the lack of action, he says.
“I don’t even care to lend credence to these plans on behalf of the Seal Sanctuary anymore,” he says. “Because it is just aspirational and nothing happens.”
“Prepare and implement a dog control management programme”, was an action on the council’s draft conservation strategy 2016 to 2020.
Price says the seals on Bull Island are only “hanging on by the skin of their teeth”. Hares seem to have already left the island.
“We don’t think there are any hares on the island now,” says Moore, the council’s head of parks.
“But we don’t know what the history of the hares was to be honest, they might have been brought in by coursing,” he says.
Moore says he doesn’t accept that the wildlife in the nature reserves is in decline. “The brent geese numbers have increased, there is a whole range of species down there.”
Little terns and ringed plovers no longer nest there, says a 2019 report, by Tom Cooney, an independent researcher.
Says Moore: “You are referring to one or two species who might be most affected, but overall the nature reserve is there and it’s intact.”
BirdWatch Ireland is carrying out research for Dublin City Council at the moment, to track numbers and species of birds on the island, he says.
Price says the little terns have been pushed out to man-made floating pontoons. That is a last resort in terms of conservation efforts, he says.
“When you are down to technological fixes to keep species alive or animals alive you are on the backfoot and it’s a losing battle,” he says.
What’s the Plan?
In 2015, Dublin City Council published plans for a three-storey discovery centre at Bull Island, on the entry via the causeway, which is opposite St Anne’s Park in Raheny.
Following consultation, it has modified those plans fora smaller centre at the same site, says Moore.
A lot of people who use the island don’t fully appreciate that Bull Island is a nature reserve – which is a problem, says Moore.
The discovery centre will educate people about the wildlife on the island, and in Dublin Bay more broadly, and why it needs to be protected, he says.
The council will put cameras on Howth Head, Rockabill and Dalkey islands, as well as the northern part of North Bull Island, he says.
It will ask visitors not to go to the northern part of Bull Island, he says. Instead it will beam in images of the seals and ground-nesting birds to the discovery centre.
There is currently only one person employed full-time on Bull Island, the reserve manager. But the council will increase staff once the new centre is built, says Moore.
“There will be greater capacity to manage the island and the island will be managed from this spot,” he says.
Kerins, the local conservationist, says the discovery centre is bound to draw more visitors to the island and the council has legal obligations to ensure it doesn’t take any action that negatively affects a special protection area.
Moore says that the project will cost around €14 million. Those funds should be diverted to employing conservation staff to manage the island, says Price, of the Irish Seal Sanctuary.
Dublin City Council is finalising its consultation before applying to An Bord Pleanála for planning permission, says Moore.
Conservation groups, residents’ groups and local councillors understand the plans, says Moore.
Certain individuals may not agree, he says, but “that is not the opinion of the wider groups out there”.
The Irish Seal Sanctuary is opposed to the plans, says Price.
“Call it what you want, a visitor centre is going to be a negative impact,” he says. “The first thing that goes in is extra parking, toilets, sewerage, coffee shop, souvenir shop.”
North Bull island is “the most designated protected sanctuary or refuge in the country”, he says.
Niall Hatch, spokesperson for BirdWatch Ireland says it has not as yet formulated its position.
Elaine McGough, natural environment officer with An Taisce, says it will examine the project once the planning documents are lodged.