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The lost species of Ireland: ‘We cannot rewild our way back to an eternal Garden of Eden’


Beside the house where I was reared, a two-metre-wide stream emerges from a grey, circular culvert near the end of its journey from the Wicklow Mountains to the sea. When I was a kid, this stretch of water had life in and around it, from the pinkeens, or minnows, unpredictably darting to and fro, to the moorhens who’d duck and dive around the edges in search of food.

I remember the eels the most. They’d appear as dark shadows, writhing through the water like a piece of thick rope weaving a figure-of-eight shape. Some time in my teenage years, the eels stopped coming, and I haven’t seen them since. Their disappearance told a wider story; the stream is now a length of water with a rich backstory, but it’s nearly devoid of life. I tell my kids about the eels, but to them, it’s a bedtime story that doesn’t translate into real life. What they see is a body of water and little else. That’s their normal.

Untrammelled by blockages, pollution and other impacts, what life should this stream support? Over a longer lifetime than mine, what splendour has been lost?

The question of what has existed in the past can be filled in with some certainty using archaeological records, but written archives – however anecdotal – can be pieced together to offer a valuable snapshot of the state of nature in the past and the extent to which we shared our space with other species.

A new book, The Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife by Dr Lee Raye, attempts to do this for 150 species during the early modern period of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and Ireland. Dr Raye of the Open University spent five years trawling through 10,000 old records written by local historians, amateur naturalists, geographers and travellers who documented the species around them, from mammals, amphibians, reptiles and molluscs to crustaceans, echinoderms, birds and fishes.

This was no utopian era for wildlife, and hunting and exploitation were rife

The early modern period was before the big disruptions of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and during significant political upheavals in Ireland. It was also the period of the Little Ice Age when temperatures plummeted by 2 degrees Celsius – enough to cause crop failures and famine, the collapse of cod and herring fisheries in the North Sea and, if the accounts are to be believed, allowed hurling matches to be played on a thickly frozen river Shannon.

The atlas for Ireland, although limited and somewhat incomplete, is built on the work of a few key individuals: Charles Smith, an apothecary from Waterford who wrote about Cork, Kerry and his home county; physician John Rutty, who recorded the wildlife in Dublin; a Prague-based friar named Anthony Bruodin, who grew up in Clare; Roderic O’Flaherty, who came from an aristocratic family and recorded species in the West of Ireland; and Robert Payne, who settled in Munster in the 16th century. (Interestingly, Dr Raye cautions that Payne’s records, which provide an insight into the Black Grouse and Grey Partridge in Ireland in the 16th century, must be seen in the context of colonialism, as it was written to tempt English people to settle in Munster.)

This was a time when the Atlantic salmon and the now-extinct sturgeon filled our waters; the trotting-horse call of the handsome capercaillie (which went extinct in 1760) echoed in woodlands; the bulky Great Bustard was present in Cork; and the unforgettable call of the corncrake was heard in every county.

This was no utopian era for wildlife, and hunting and exploitation were rife. The meat of the Great Bustard bird was described as “delicate”; badger flesh was held as a “delicacy”, its fat used to soothe joint paints. Meat from the porpoise was said to taste like beef, but the oil made it valuable. An account from Dublin mentions that the fatty flesh from this “sea pig” was harvested and used for train oil.

Written archives – however anecdotal – can be pieced together to offer a valuable snapshot of the state of nature in the past

This period was the last great age of the wolf. Dr Raye documents multiple accounts of wolves in Galway, Leitrim, Cork and Waterford. Anthony Bruodin wrote in 1660: “Although sheep need not fear wolves in Co Clare, they are not absent from that county.” Despite hunting licences and bounty payments made in the 1600s for Kildare, Wicklow, Dublin, Meath, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, wolves survived until the last one was hunted in 1786. Today, you can see a pack of them in Dublin Zoo.

Bittern, a pale and thickset heron, were common apart from the West of Ireland. John Rutty, who recorded it in Dublin in 1772, wrote that it would eat young fish and frogs, but in autumn, it was going into the woods to devour mice. But bitterns were under immense pressure from the drainage of bogs for farming and hunting. Their tactic of stretching their necks skyward when frightened – their beaks blend perfectly into the reed beds where they live – wasn’t enough to save them from being hunted for medicine or food. Many were stuffed by taxidermists for trophies, and one can be viewed today in the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

“A pristine state of nature probably never existed,” writes Dr Raye. “We cannot rewild our way back to an eternal Garden of Eden.” This is the case, but we can certainly aspire to restore some of the life that’s missing around us, rather than consign their future existence to historical records, museums and zoos. For me, it’s a nudge to try to bring the little stream and the eels back to life.

  • The Atlas of Early Modern Wildlife by Dr Lee Raye is published by Pelagic Publishing

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