A plethora of urban wildlife
From foxes to falcons, an intelligible guide to exploring wildlife inside the M50.
Review by Niall Hatch
Broadcaster and naturalist Éanna Ní Lamhna needs no introduction to Village readers, and those of you who relish reading her quirky and enthusiastic take on Ireland's wildlife in each issue as much as I do now have the opportunity to enjoy it in a larger dose. Wild Dublin: Exploring Nature in the City is a very attractively produced new book written with the ambitious aim of providing layperson and expert alike with a comprehensive overview of the flora and fauna that thrive in our capital city.
It surprises many people to learn just how rich and varied are the plants and animals found in Dublin city and its environs. Far from being the wildlife desert many assume it to be, Ireland's largest and most densely populated urban area is a wonderful amalgamation of discrete habitats where biodiversity flourishes, and it is clear that the author has both a passion and a talent for conveying this to as wide an audience as possible. Taking the M50 motorway as her boundary, she leads the reader on a series of well-planned journeys along the city's waterways, down its streets and alleyways and through its parks and gardens, pointing out the plants and animals to watch out for along the way.
The author's approach here is more anecdotal than rigorously scientific, and this style may be criticised by some in what is, after all, a serious natural history publication. It is, of course, a populist tactic, designed to enthuse people about, and to convert as many of them as possible to, the cause of wildlife conservation, a tactic that she also uses to great effect in her radio broadcasts and television appearances. The writing style is conversational and colloquial, and it is interesting to note that even though one cannot physically hear the author's highly distinctive voice on this occasion, that voice still speaks to the reader on every page. It is immediately obvious that no-one but Éanna Ní Lamhna could have written this book, so characteristic is her style. It is unusual for a natural history writer to infuse a work with so much of his or her personality while at the same time keeping the focus squarely on the subject, but this author pulls it off admirably.
This book can really be treated in one of two ways. Read from cover to cover, it represents a detailed narrative of a highly observant naturalist's journey through the city, pointing out the key flora and fauna found along the way. The text is accompanied by a series of nicely-rendered maps that serve both to put the information in its proper geographical context and to encourage the reader to follow in the author's footsteps. However, the book can also be used as a sort of Dublin wildlife encyclopaedia, something that a reader can dip in and out of at will to dig up interesting nuggets of information; the comprehensive index makes this very easy indeed.
Foxes and badgers feature prominently, of course, as do less popular mammals such as brown rats and grey squirrels, the spread of the latter interloper at the expense of the native red squirrel being particularly well covered. My own personal favourite group, the birds, are also dealt with in good detail, from the Peregrine Falcons now nesting on building ledges to the various terns for which Dublin Bay is of such vital international importance. The bird checklist given in the appendix provides the names of all but a very few major rarities recorded in the city, making it a very handy reference. One quibble I would have from an avian point of view is the mislabelling of the Dunnock photograph on page 69 as “a sparrow”, though the fact that the photograph is one of the finest portraits I have ever seen of this common but secretive species more than compensates for the oversight.
It is in her coverage of her favourite “creepy crawlies” that the author really comes into her own. Her colourful pen portraits of cockroaches, mosquitoes, slugs and the like are vivid enough to make the skin crawl, yet endlessly fascinating at the same time, and packed with memorable anecdotes. For example, did you know that, in warmer times, Ireland was a haven for malaria, and that the last person of note to die having contracted the disease here was Oliver Cromwell? Serves him right.
Special mention must be made of the excellent photographs by Anthony Woods which liberally illustrate the book throughout. I was unfamiliar with his work until now, but judging by the consistently high calibre of the images he shot for this project it is obvious that he is a genuine talent. The photos are also supplemented here and there by paintings by Dave Daly, one of Ireland's most renowned wildlife artists: he has a lovely style, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of his work in this book.
Of all the sections in this book, my favourite has to be the chapter on seeing wildlife on the DART. Dublin residents are blessed to have such a convenient and effective way to explore their city's species-rich coastline, and with the author's station-by-station approach they now have the perfect guide on how to do it. From porpoises to periwinkles, skuas to Sand Martins, all the viewing tips are here, and it is nice to see such practical information in a natural history publication. Everything about this book is designed to encourage the readers actually to get out and see the city's wildlife for themselves.
The natural history sector of the book market is a highly specialised, though rapidly growing, one, often open to criticisms that its products, worthy and informative as they may be, are too inaccessible for the general reader. This charge can certainly not be levied at this book, which is as readable and attractive a nature publication as I have seen, thoroughly researched and complied and to be highly recommended.