Bull Island: Discovery Centre an asset or an assault on nature?

by Gazette Reporter

It is one of Dublin’s most iconic skylines – the boardwalk out to Our Lady’s statue on Bull Island, with the nature reserve and strand views on one side and Dublin bay on the other.

Locals and visitors alike feel a sense of territorial pride when it comes to this beautiful Clontarf amenity – and now plans to build a discovery centre in the middle of the protected UNESCO nature reserve are causing friction.

Despite a rigorous information campaign by Dublin City Council, not everyone is convinced Bull Island is the best location for the proposed interpretive centre.

Anto Kerins, conservationist, educationalist, former chair of Bull Island Conservation Group and lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, has expressed grave reservations about the suitability of the proposed centre for its setting.

“People have begun to reconnect with nature during the pandemic,” he told Dublin Gazette. “Scientists and others now advise that cities should invest in green spaces rather than build on them.

“I believe the staff in DCC’s Parks, Biodiversity and Landscape Services do excellent work on parklands and other areas but they have a blind spot when it comes to conservation. There’s a lot more to it than just adding biodiversity to a departmental title.”

Mr Kerins’ primary concern for the UNESCO recognised North Bull Island Nature Reserve is that the building will put “additional pressure on this small, fragile and critically important wildlife space and will weaken it over time”.

He also states the final building design is out of sync and proportion to the nature reserve’s relatively tiny space (2.9 acres).

“I feel it will be a relatively huge, visually obtrusive building with a 20m viewing deck on a tiny wildlife space surrounded by a city full of buildings; Bull Island already has its own interpretive centre… yet DCC plans to replace that with a second building.”

The council points out that the current ‘Interpretive and Education Centre’, built by the former Dublin Corporation in 1986, has no disabled access or toilets, nor the facilities needed to achieve the educational and conservation objectives within its remit.

“The new centre therefore, would for the first time provide opportunity to people of all abilities who heretofore could not access the Nature Reserve to gain an understanding of the intricate terrestrial and marine ecosystems that make Bull Island and Dublin Bay such a special place,” said Leslie Moore, Head of Parks, Biodiversity and Landscape Services, DCC.

He continued: “While nothing can substitute experiencing the natural world first hand, much of the bay, islands, headlands and islands are virtually inaccessible.

“The inclusion of immersive experiences within the Centre is important for reaching audiences who cannot access the wider environment or who visit in inclement weather, or who visit out of season for migrating birds,” stated Mr Moore.

Mr Kerins claims that the “€10m price tag has a cost-effective condition that will require customer and tourist numbers more suitable to a city centre high street than a tiny and fragile nature reserve”.

He also claims that the centre will bring increased traffic congestion to an already congested area and feels the development would be best located inland “where the increased traffic would come from all four points of the compass”.

However Mr Moore believes it is ideally situated. He stated it was not a money-spinning tourism or visitor centre with modest visitor numbers being envisaged. The 55-60,000 expected visitors to the new Discovery Centre are already included in the 1m yearly visitors to Bull Island, and are not additional footfall.

Mr Kerins claims DCC has failed to manage Bull Island as a nature reserve, failing to adequately address the issue of dog walkers, cyclists (in the dunes) and quad bikes used by the lifeguards during the nesting season.

He noted the “loss of the hare, the lack of a safe and uninterrupted space for other birds such as the small tern, skylark, reed bunting, linnet, small owl, shelduck and waders… even the cuckoo…. and other winter-feeding birds”.

Clontarf Cllr Deirdre Heney (FF) said: “I fear the soundings coming from the Parks Department in DCC is that this project is a ‘fait d’accompli’.  However, this is not the case and I feel we need more consultation to assess and decide whether we really need a new interpretive centre at all”.

Cllr Tom Brabazon (FF), who served as mayor of DCC until June, has asked the local authority to consider relocating the discovery centre.

The UNESCO designation of Dublin Bay as a Biosphere Reserve in 2015 was as an initiative of Dublin City Council.

The recently published North Bull Island Nature Reserve draft Action Plan 2020-2025 proposes ‘zonal management’ on the island to restrict access and minimise disturbance of sensitive habitats and species.

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