World Wetlands Day 2002: Ireland



World Wetlands Day in Ireland

World Wetlands Day was celebrated in Ireland under dramatic circumstances: spring tides coupled with extremely strong winds flooded many settlements in downtown Dublin and along the East coast on 1 and 2 February - to an extent not remembered since the 1920s. This was a stark message, hopefully being brought home to the Irish public, about the values and functions of coastal wetlands as efficient and cheap shoreline defense infrastructures and as flood retention and mitigation areas - where such mudflats, lagoons or saltmarshes have not already been drained, filled in or built over. Sadly, a situation too common in many places, as witnessed during the brief visit of Ramsar's European Coordinator to the Boyne Estuary (Counties Louth and Meath) and Dublin Bay.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Karin Dubsky, coordinator of Coastwatch Europe, a substantial programme of activities took place in and around Dublin on 2 February to celebrate World Wetlands Day. Coastwatch Europe is a network of environmental and educational groups and universities spanning now over 23 European countries. It evolved rapidly from an Irish initiative during the European Year of the Environment (1995) to survey the Irish coastline and beaches. Coastwatch Europe aims at training and education of volunteers and school pupils in coastal fieldwork, reporting methods and the relevance of results obtained to policy and legislation, from local to national, EU and international.

As this year's WWD theme was "cultural aspects of wetlands", the celebration opened with a short wetland celebration in music, words and play in the evening of 1 February during a typical "Ceili", a traditional dance event with music played on Irish bagpipes, fiddles, whistles, etc. During WWD, participants learnt more about the value of Irish wetlands as archives for Irish history and remains of its heritage from a specific permanent exhibit in the Museum of Archeology and History of the National Museum of Ireland in downtown Dublin (cf. photo).

On Saturday morning (2 February), after the extensive storm floods of the day before, WWD participants started exploring the new education trail of Bull Island's interpretive centre (cf. photos); a field visit organised by Pat Corrigan of the Dublin Corporation who runs the wetland centre with the help of Brendan Logue, a Coastwatch volunteer. They discovered in the saltmarshes of this Ramsar Site (1436 ha, one of Ireland's 45 Ramsar Sites), among many other shorebirds, a flock of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, winter visitors from Bathurst Island in the Canadian Arctic. The natural link through these Brent Geese brought about the twinning of North Bull Island RS with Polar Bear Pass, a Canadian Ramsar Site. The last event of the morning was the release of a young Grey Seal to the sea, after having been brought back to health in captivity.

Then, WWD participants made their way alongside the sand bags, preventing flood waters from entering seaside houses, to downtown Dublin and in the Museum of Natural History with its stunning 19th Century collection of animals from all walks of life, spanning from tiny rare glass models of jellyfish (manufactured by famous Dresden artists) to stuffed vertebrates of all sizes to the huge skeleton of a sperm whale. Damien Walshe, the Museum's education officer, prepared a guided tour through the Victorian building, explaining the Museum's role in education about biodiversity, and hosted the participants for a picnic lunch.

In the afternoon, a seminar and panel discussion brought together different specialists. Jim Ryan of Dúchas, the Heritage Service which manages Ireland's national parks and nature reserves and protects wildlife and habitats throughout the country, represented the national Ramsar Authority, the National Parks and Wildlife directorate. With Dúchas being responsible also for national monuments, prehistoric and archeological excavations, this provides a particularly helpful administrative setting for using the cultural heritage of wetlands as tools for their sustainable management and conservation.

Dr Paul Johnson of the Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering department of Trinity College Dublin, another partner in the WWD event, presented risk assessment approaches to avoid wetland damage. Frank McManus, of Birdwatch (BirdLife Ireland), presented management problems at the Rogerstown Estuary, another Ramsar Site. The panel discussion on "wetland site management and conservation" included also Mary Caroll, a representative of the Irish Farmers' Union, Laurence Gill, a specialist on constructed wetlands for water purification at Trinity College, and Tobias Salathé, Ramsar's European Coordinator. It was moderated by Michael Gunn, Coastwatch's coordinator for County Lough. This was a timely theme in Ireland, where many sites are coming under pressure through planned and ongoing large infrastructure developments.

After the end of the official part of the World Wetlands Day celebrations, Michael Gunn took Tobias to a visit to the Boyne Estuary, a Special Protection Area (under the EU Wild Birds Directive), qualifying as a Wetland of International Importance, some 50 kms north of Dublin. For centuries, a delicate balance has been struck in this tidal wetland, allowing ships to enter the small Drogheda port some 10 km upstream on Boyne River, while at the same time maintaining the tidal mudflat areas functional, both for floodwater retention and as a habitat providing the livelihood for an extremely rich biodiversity and traditional fisheries and mussle harvesting.

WWD participants exploring the edge of the mudflats at North Bull Island Ramsar Site outside Dublin. Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch and Irish MEP Patricia McKenna and her little son Oisin are bent forward, inspecting a tidal creek.

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