Getting up close to nature

THE vast majority of children view wildlife on television, before they see it in reality. But there’s still something magical about the moment a child sees for the first time an animal up close and which they also love to touch, if possible.

The experience in the recently-opened Tralee Bay Wetlands Centre is that it’s the children that get most enjoyment from seeing the animals and birds. The centre was a busy place when we visited on a rainy day last week, with plenty of families around, paddling on the lake and enjoying the walks that take people through the habitats of birds.

Measuring just over 20 acres and located on the western edge of Tralee, it is in an important area that includes a Natura 2000 site with a diverse range of coastal habitats of national and international importance.

Tralee Bay is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) that also includes a number of other EU-protected areas with salt marsh vegetation and mudflats which are extremely important wintering habitat for several threatened wildfowl species, including golden plover and bar-tailed godwit.

The Maharees sand dunes are among the best examples of threatened habitat in Ireland, supporting what is believed to be the largest breeding population of the protected natterjack toad.

A principal aim of the €4.5m centre, dominated by a 20m viewing tower, is to promote and raise awareness of the hugely varied natural world almost within touching distance of the site. As resident ecologist David McCormack pointed out, they have created many little examples of the different wetland habitats in Tralee Bay.

It supports a range of animal, bird and insect life, including otters and newts, and the audiovisual department offers an insightful introduction to all of that. There are programmes for children of all ages, from primary school tours up to field biology and geography courses for the Junior and Leaving Certificates.

Also, strong links have been forged with Tralee Institute of Technology, which has several students conducting research on wetland habitats in the centre. A resident pair of mute swans has raised two families, while herons, mallard, little egrets and various migrant warblers are all thriving.

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