The importance of research to the wellbeing of our wildlife

20 May 2016

Biologist and wildlife consultant Éanna Ní Lamhna. Photo via Abú Media

As part of Irish Research Council’s #LoveIrishResearch campaign, Éanna Ní Lamhna, one of Ireland’s best-known public figures in the area of nature and the environment, highlights the impact of research on Irish wildlife.

Knowing about Irish wildlife has always been a passion for me.

I was trained as a botanist in University College Dublin in the late 1960s and I did my PhD research on the salt marsh vegetation of the east coast of Ireland in the early 1970s. So I have always been fascinated by how much we can advance our knowledge of Irish wildlife through research.

But, sometimes, a great breakthrough in scientific knowledge leads to a huge upsurge in research.

Frank Mitchell was the great guru in Irish research on the making of our Irish landscape. He published frequently in the 1970s, creating a whole picture of how our Irish landscape – together with its plant, animal and, indeed, human life – evolved since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. But he was dependent on somewhat imprecise techniques of carbon dating to give him a timeline.

Of course, he knew that modern techniques coming down the line would throw much more light on the situation and he famously said on one occasion that he would sell his soul to the devil for 20 more years. But he died before DNA analysis opened up a whole new world.

Research reaping results

Our Irish wildlife researchers now can tell us which of our mammal species are truly native (which is very few). They can say from where they came to Ireland, and when. (That’s Andorra in 8000BC in the case of the pygmy shrew, and the banks of the river Rhine in 1926 in the case of the bank vole.)

Analysis of pine marten droppings reveals the successful war they are waging against that invasive species the grey squirrel, while it was analysis of regurgitated kestrel pellets in Co Tipperary that alerted us to the presence of the white-toothed shrew – one of our more recent mammal invaders.

Complicated analysis of tissues after post-mortems tells us what stranded whales die from or, even more shockingly, reveals that 80pc of our barn owls contain rodenticides put out to reduce our rat populations. This latter research has led to the establishment of the Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use in Ireland, which advocates the careful and responsible approach to the use of rodenticides by pest controllers in order to safeguard our birds of prey.

So, scientific research is of huge importance to the wellbeing of our Irish wildlife and has huge practical applications. It is not merely the academic activity of white-coated boffins in universities seeking to put further letters after their names.

By Éanna Ní Lamhna

Éanna Ní Lamhna is a biologist and wildlife consultant. She has degrees in both botany and microbiology and a H.Dip in education from University College Dublin. As a long-standing member of the panel of experts on RTÉ’s wildlife programme, Mooney goes Wild, she is one of Ireland’s most well-known voices on the topic of nature and wildlife. Ní Lamhna has also written many wildlife books, including Talking Wild (2002), Wild and Wonderful (2004) and Straight Talking Wild (2006), which were published by Townhouse.

This post originally appeared on the Irish Research Council blog.