Ireland's Natural World


To tilt down from the clouds and land in Ireland on a showery day is to descend to a vivid, glowing greenness. It conjures the image of a largely 'unspoiled' island outpost, liberally watered by ocean winds and with plenty of room for the natural world. Ireland does, indeed, have special habitats now lost from most of western Europe - notably, big stretches of peatland, and mostly unpolluted waterways and wetlands. But a proper sense of the island's heritage of plants and animals begins with recognising how little of their original wild world actually survives.

Ireland is a well-dug, hard-grazed, deeply-weathered island in which virtually nothing of the ancient natural landscape remains. Only in the ocean is there 'wilderness' in any real sense - and even here its ecosystems have suffered much human interference and change. On land, the new pressures of development are leaving less and less room for the free range of wild plants, animals and insects.

As quite a small island in global terms, fixed within a few degrees of latitude and a mere thousand metres of altitude, Ireland could never command the range of habitats, and the number and variety of plant and animal species, to be found even in the neighbouring island of Britain. Moreover, as the glaciers of the Ice Age melted, from some 13,000 years ago, rising sea level began to cut Ireland off from Britain and Europe, so that many species that might have flourished here failed to arrive. The island has fared better for migrating birds: our location at the corner of Europe, with wetlands mostly free of harsh winter cold, has made Ireland a vital refuge and staging post for millions of waders and waterfowl travelling from their breeding grounds in the Arctic.

Next - The Ancient Islandnext