Ireland’s natural heritage: a new 100 year study

Wednesday 29th January 2014

A new study examining the history of iconic places in Ireland, identified as potential nature reserves by conservationist Charles Rothschild 100 years ago, illustrates the considerable pressures that have been endured by Irish wildlife and landscapes

The Rothschild Reserves in Ireland 1914-2014, published today, was compiled by researchers from University College Cork’s Centre for Planning Education and Research.  Field visits to 17 sites identified throughout the country by the Society for the Protection of Nature Reserves (SPNR) in 1914 were combined with analysis of archive documents to assess the changes to the sites over the past century. 

The study identifies the present condition of the bogs, islands, mountains, lakes, dune systems and a karst landscape and makes recommendations for safeguarding them and their wildlife into the future.

Of the 17 sites identified as potential reserves in 1914, all except one remain today and 13 are now protected for wildlife by a form of natural heritage designation. These include some of Ireland’s most iconic natural heritage sites such as Mount Brandon, Ben Bulben, the Burren, Killarney Lakes, the Saltee Islands and Bull Island in Dublin Bay.  The sites also included lesser known areas such as the Wicklow sand dunes. While the majority of the sites survived, those which have been most adversely affected are peatlands, one of which has been entirely lost whilst three others have been partly lost or damaged.

Looking ahead, the report notes that the future of the Rothschild Reserves cannot be considered in isolation of the wider countryside that surrounds them.  It notes that management of the adjoining land and landscapes, as well as of the sites themselves will be needed if the sites are to survive another 100 years.

The SPNR was an early nature protection group based in London, and which later became The Wildlife Trusts (UK).  It was led by the naturalist and banker Charles Rothschild who, co-ordinated a survey of potential nature reserves in Ireland which began in 1914 and concluded the following year.

The survey fed into a final report to the British government’s Board of Agriculture which recommended that 284 wildlife sites in Ireland and Britain – the so-called ‘Rothschild Reserves’ - should be protected as nature reserves.

In both Ireland and the UK the continued existence of our wild places is under threat from shared pressures such as agricultural intensification and climate change

The Rothschild Reserves in Ireland 1914-2014 was funded by the Carnegie UK Trust.  A reference group helped to advise on the report consisting of representatives from An Taisce, the Irish Wildlife Trust, The Wildlife Trusts (UK) and University College Cork.

Fintan Kelly, Irish Wildlife Trust Research Officer, said:

“The Irish Wildlife Trust is delighted to have been involved in the development of this very timely report.  Much has changed on these two Islands in the 100 years since Charles Rothschild’s survey of wildlife sites.  In both Ireland and the UK the continued existence of our wild places is under threat from shared pressures such as agricultural intensification and climate change.  In many ways the history of the Rothschild sites is a reflection of Ireland’s landscape at large.

“While much of Ireland’s rich and diverse natural heritage has persisted the general poor conservation status of many of our protected sites cannot be ignored.  Nowhere is this truer than in the case of our vanishing peatlands.  We call on the Irish Government to take heed of the findings of this report and the shortcomings that are highlighted in it.  Moving forward we hope that the cooperation and spirit of fraternity that this report embodies will continue to grow in the future.”

Welcoming the publication of the report, An Taisce's Natural Environment office said:

“One of the key messages here is that we need to think broadly in seeking to conserve our wildlife, countryside and landscapes for the benefit of future generations.  Protected areas are a very important tool for nature conservation, but the vast majority of our country remains outside these areas.  The new Rural Development Programme - part of the Common Agricultural Policy - has enormous potential to help conserve the wider countryside in Ireland, and we would encourage everyone with an interest to participate in the Department of Agriculture's ongoing consultation exercise, which ends on 19 February.”

Brendan O’Sullivan, Director at the Centre for Planning Education and Research at University College Cork said:

“We are proud to have been commissioned to carry out research into these important aspects of Ireland’s natural heritage.  We were encouraged to see how, despite the environmental pressures of the last 100 years the sites, which include a remarkable range of landscapes and habitat, have shown remarkable resilience. Whilst most are now formally protected, if they are to survive and prosper in the coming 100 years more attention will have to be paid to their management and that of the surrounding areas.”

We hope that this report encourages a new generation to consider again the value of Ireland’s outstanding natural heritage

Martyn Evans, Chief Executive of the Carnegie UK Trust, said:

“Charles Rothschild showed great foresight in 1914 when he compiled his list of sites ‘worthy of permanent preservation’.  In 2014 we hope that this report encourages a new generation to consider again the value of Ireland’s outstanding natural heritage and how this can best be safeguarded for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of future generations.”

Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said:

“The compilation of this study has provided a great opportunity for our organisations to work together for the future benefit of wildlife.  We hope the findings within the report will stimulate interest in the history of these places - some of the most characteristic types of wild country in Ireland.”

The full report and an executive summary can be viewed and downloaded at: http://wtru.st/RRIreland

Contact information:

Notes for editors:

The Rothschild Reserves in Ireland
The 17 Irish sites are Bogs about Ahascragh, County Galway; Ben Bulben, County Sligo/Leitrim; Mount Brandon, County Kerry; Cloonee Valley, County Kerry; Errisberg and Nagraiguebeg, County Galway; Gap of Dunloe, County Kerry; Area South of the Kenmare River, Lake of Killarney and surroundings, County Kerry; Bogs near Killucan, County Westmeath; Bogs near Mohill, County Leitrim; North Bull in Dublin Bay; Raven’s Point, County Wexford; Rostontown Burrow (Lady’s Island Lake), County Wexford; Saltee Islands County Wexford; Bogs bordering the Shannon at Shannon Harbour; The Burren near Ballyvaughan, County Clare and Wicklow Sand Dunes (Magherabeg), County Wicklow.

Charles Rothschild
In May 1912 Charles Rothschild held a meeting to discuss his radical idea about saving places for nature.  This meeting led to the formation of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, which would become the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (known as The Wildlife Trusts), and signalled the beginning of UK nature conservation as we know it.  The Society worked hard to secure Government protection for sites across the UK that they considered ‘worthy of preservation’, but it was not until the 1940s that nature conservation made it onto the statute books in the UK with the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act in 1949.  Find out more about Charles Rothschild.  The Wildlife Trusts hold historic documents relating to Rothschild’s extraordinary work undertaking the UK’s first habitat audit. Originally held at the Natural History Museum, these maps, letters and survey forms are a publicly-available interactive online archive.  It includes fascinating correspondence discussing potential nature reserve sites between Rothschild, his team of botanists and surveyors, eminent figures of the time, and landowners.

Talking about her father Charles on Desert Island Discs in 1989, Miriam Rothschild said: “Before his time people thought you had to conserve rare species and he realised that it was the habitat you had to conserve not the species. You had to preserve the wood in which the animals lived or the meadows in which they lived.”

An Taisce antaisce.ie
An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland was founded as a charity in 1948.  It is one of Ireland’s oldest environmental and non-Government Organisations.  An Taisce’s fundamental objectives are the protection of Ireland’s built and natural environment.  An Taisce in an independent voice for the environment and cultural heritage.  It is a membership based organisation with a network of local associations across Ireland.

Irish Wildlife Trust iwt.ie
The Irish Wildlife Trust is a conservation charity committed to raising awareness of Ireland’s rich natural heritage and protecting it for future generations.  The Trust aims to conserve wildlife and the habitats they depend on throughout Ireland, while encouraging a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the need to protect it.  The IWT runs education and training programs, carries out habitat and species, campaigns and lobbies around biodiversity issues and restores natural habitats.

Carnegie UK Trust carnegieuktrust.org.uk
The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve the lives of people throughout the UK and Ireland, by changing minds through influencing policy, and by changing lives through innovative practice and partnership work.  The Carnegie UK Trust was established by Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1913.

University College Cork ucc.ie/en
The Centre for Planning Education and Research at UCC runs a fully accredited two year Masters Programme in Planning and Sustainable Development and has recently begun a complementary one- year Masters in Landscape Built Heritage and Design. The Centre is building a range of research interests across planning and environmental issues.

The Wildlife Trusts wildlifetrusts.org
There are 47 individual Wildlife Trusts covering the whole of the UK. All are working for an environment rich in wildlife for everyone. We have more than 800,000 members including 150,000 members of our junior branch. We manage around 2,300 nature reserves and every year we advise thousands of landowners and organisations on how to manage their land for wildlife. We also run marine conservation projects around the UK, collecting vital data on the state of our seas and celebrating our amazing marine wildlife. Every year we work with thousands of schools and our places receive millions of visitors. 

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Tagged with: Living Landscapes, Ireland, Rothschild Reserves