Britain is a bigger country and the British are particularly obsessed by ornithology. But we do have a long and proud tradition of bird publications.
In fact, the first regional natural history in the English language was Ireland’s Natural History by Gerard Boate, which was published in 1652. It was largely intended as a guide for Cromwell’s planters to the new lands they were acquiring.
The big explosion in publications about birds took place in Victorian times. William Thompson’s The Natural History of Ireland was published, in four large volumes, in 1850. He took quite a modern approach, noting the strong relationship between birds and their habitats and not confining himself to lists of species and populations.
Subsequent books, such as The Birds of Ireland by Ussher and Warren in 1900 and a book with the same title by Kennedy, Ruttledge and Scroope in 1954, took a rather less enlightened approach. The modern, more ecological way of treating the subject reappeared in 1989 with Birds in Ireland by Clive Hutchinson. Since then many modern authors, including David Cabot, Eric Dempsey and Jim Wilson, have reinforced the importance of viewing birds in the context of their habitats.
The latest book on the subject is Bird Habitats in Ireland which is edited by Richard Nairn and John O’Halloran with a foreword by David Cabot. It’s a large, well-produced and rather expensive volume.
The first thing that struck me about it was the list of 25 contributing authors and their credentials. It’s only when you see a list like this that you realise that nowadays we have a very substantial body of highly qualified people studying and publishing material connected to Irish natural history. This is good to know because it wasn’t always the case in the past.
The book is scholarly and each chapter has been peer-reviewed as a scientific paper would be. The editing is excellent and the reader with an interest in birds but no scientific training will have no problem understanding any of the material.
There are a couple of general chapters discussing what a habitat is and why it’s important. Then 12 chapters each dealing with a particular habitat or a group of closely related ones. They are written by specialists and have titles such as ‘Lowland Bogs, Fens and Reed-swamps’ or ‘Sea Cliffs, Islands and Rocky Coasts’. There is a chapter on habitat management for birds, one on the impact of climate change and one on prospects for the future for Irish bird habitats. The book is illustrated with photographs of birds and their habitats and with maps and graphs.
A few general points emerge from it. The first is that Ireland’s birds and their habitats are unique. There’s nothing like them anywhere else in the world and our long, varied coastline, plus fresh-water habitats that remain largely ice-free in winter, result in a wealth of sea birds and wintering wetland species.
Ireland’s bird habitats are also quite dynamic and things like developments in agriculture and climate change contribute to their rapid alteration. Even the decision to stop producing sugar in this country had its impact on bird habitats.
It’s also clear that managing a habitat specifically for birds is often different to managing it for general biodiversity. This can lead to difficult choices for conservationists if they have to prioritise one wildlife species over another.
The book is an important piece of work which deserves a place on the shelves of anyone with a serious interest in birds.
* Bird Habitats in Ireland edited by Richard Nairn and John O’Halloran is published by the Collins Press at €34.99.