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The curlew. Alamy Stock Photo

Analysis From the Curlew to the Natterjack Toad - how are Ireland's native species doing?

Conservationist Mary McGrath looks at Ireland’s indigenous species and the ways we can all help them survive.

HAVING SPENT A lifetime working in art conservation, protecting great works of art by Rembrandt, Monet and Francis Bacon in museums here at home and around the world, my roots in rural Kildare drew me home.

Alongside my passion for art is a deep love of Ireland’s unique natural environment and native breeds. On 30 September Eanna Ni Lamhna will launch my first solo exhibition – Endangered! – in Kilcock Art Gallery.

This exhibition of paintings and original prints combines my passions for art and native wildlife and my hope is that the artworks will inspire more people to do what they can to protect Ireland’s wonderful ecosystem.

The exhibition depicts some of our special native mammals, reptiles and birds showcasing the wonderful diversity and richness of the animals and birds which have survived despite intensive farming, habitat destruction and the demands of industry. Sadly, much of our indigenous wildlife is under severe threat with many species endangered. Without urgent intervention and changes to our lifestyle, they will be lost forever.

Ireland’s wildlife

Spending time on my smallholding during lockdown highlighted to me what we have already lost; many hares and skylarks, bees, ladybirds and curlew. But there is always hope and when hope is combined with positive action it is possible to work wonders. Being part of the team that re-established the Kerry Bog Pony, which was recognised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and the European Union, helped cultivate my interest in our local wildlife.

akerrybogponyatthekerrybogvillagemuseum A Kerry Bog Pony at the Kerry Bog Village Museum in County Kerry, Shutterstock / chrisdorney Shutterstock / chrisdorney / chrisdorney

The Kerry Bog Pony is a rare, small, native Irish breed which had almost become extinct by the 1990s when, due to advances in DNA analysis, they were identified as a distinct breed. By this time there were only six stallions and 20 mares known to exist. The ponies survived in a small pocket of land in south Kerry where they had been used to take turf in from the bog and to carry seaweed to fertilise the fields. Urgent conservation measures were taken and today there are approximately 150 breeding mares with around 60 foals being registered every year.

Another example of successful conservation is the Old Irish Goat. It arrived in Ireland about 5,000 years ago and was Ireland’s only goat breed until around 1900, often known as ‘the poor man’s cow’. The breed could produce up to 200 gallons of milk per year.

goatoldirishgoatbakribheergoatold The Old Irish Goat. Shutterstock / Farhan.ali3355 Shutterstock / Farhan.ali3355 / Farhan.ali3355

They became extinct in captivity surviving only in feral herds where interbreeding with imported domestic goats caused major loss of the original characteristics but a captive breeding programme is seeing some success. The goats are also being used for conservation grazing to create fire breaks on Howth Head.

Indigenous birds

We are lucky to have some wonderful native birds in Ireland. Oystercatchers are resident and winter visitors from Iceland and the Faeroe Islands. They nest principally on shingle beaches, dunes, salt marshes and rocky shores around the coast, but also on some large inland lakes. Their numbers have declined by about 28% since the early 2000s.

eurasianoystercatchercommonpiedoystercatcherpalaearcticoystercatcher-haematopusostralegus Oystercatcher. Shutterstock / Piotr Poznan Shutterstock / Piotr Poznan / Piotr Poznan

Ireland’s National Bird, the Lapwing, has, like many other ground-nesting birds, suffered major declines over the last 40 years due to the loss of wetland habitat and changes in farming practices.

thenorthernlapwingvanellusvanellusalsoknownasthepeewit The Lapwing Shutterstock / brucelin Shutterstock / brucelin / brucelin

Sadly, it is now red-listed on the Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland and is a Northern Ireland priority species because of its decline, rarity and importance. This year thanks to conservation efforts two pairs of Lapwing nested successfully in Co Down after a gap of many years. 

eurasiancurleworcommoncurlewnumeniusarquatastiltbirdwading The Curlew Shutterstock / Rudmer Zwerver Shutterstock / Rudmer Zwerver / Rudmer Zwerver

Similarly, the Curlew which breeds on bogs, wet grassland and unimproved pasture is critically endangered due to habitat loss. Curlew numbers have declined drastically from 5,000 nesting pairs in the late 1980s to approximately 130 pairs today – a decline of 97% in just 20 years.

The Natterjack Toad, another of Ireland’s most endangered creatures, is making a slight comeback. During the dry spell in June this year, many of their local ponds in south Kerry dried up.

malenatterjacktoadepidaleacalamita Natterjack Toad Shutterstock / Pedro Luna Shutterstock / Pedro Luna / Pedro Luna

Spawn was rescued and taken to Fota Wildlife Park where it hatched out successfully and 200 baby toads were then released under a National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) conservation scheme which compensates farmers who maintain suitable breeding ponds on their land.

The Irish Hare avoids grazing in the same areas as cattle and sheep so any increases in livestock numbers will reduce hare habitats. Populations can vary locally due to direct competition for territory with rabbits and brown hares.

anirishmountainharewestofireland Irish Hare Shutterstock / Ben Whitley Shutterstock / Ben Whitley / Ben Whitley

Numbers are falling due to habitat loss and predation by foxes, stoats, cats, stray dogs and birds of prey. However, the good news is that new populations of Irish Mountain Hares live on the grounds of airports which provide them with suitable habitats.

The Freshwater Pearl Mussel, which is found in near-pristine freshwater habitats, can live for up to 140 years, making it Ireland’s longest-living animal.

freshwaterpearlmussels-rivershellsinhands Freshwater Pearl Mussel Shutterstock Shutterstock

European freshwater pearl mussel populations have declined by 90% over the past century. In Ireland, 27 freshwater pearl mussel populations are protected within Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) but these populations are also undergoing a slow decline, and face extinction unless action is taken.

The diversity of our nature

Appreciating our native ecosystem means recognising that each element is unique but also an intricate part of the whole. It reminds me of the wonderful Irish phrase ‘Ní Neart Go Cur Le Chéile’ – There’s No Strength Without Unity. The same applies to us in terms of conserving our native environment.

On my small holding in Kildare, I farm for nature; planting trees and bushes that produce nuts and berries for the wildlife, and native plant species for the bees and butterflies.

My home is surrounded by mature hedgerows and trees with a pond outside my kitchen window. This morning there were five blackbirds eating the fallen apples and the robin came into the kitchen to rob the dogs’ food! We can all play our small but important part if we are to successfully protect our wildlife from extinction. Let’s give nature a chance to recover. Let’s appreciate and cherish our ecosystem’s survivors and realise that we can all make a positive difference.

‘Endangered!’ by Mary McGrath, M.A. Fellow of the International Institute of Conservation & Artist, an art exhibition of paintings and original prints dealing with biodiversity, can be viewed at Kilcock Art Gallery from 30 September to 21 October. An oak sapling will be planted for every artwork sold in this exhibition. More at KilcockGallery and


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