Éanna Ní Lamhna on ‘the importance of research to the well-being of our Irish wildlife’

By Irish Research Council

Posted: 4 May, 2016

We are delighted to introduce the first instalment in our series of blog posts by special contributors! In keeping with April’s theme of ‘Spring’ into Research, this month’s contributor is the great Éanna Ní Lamhna. As one of Ireland’s best known public figures in the area of nature and the environment we are delighted that she has contributed to the #LoveIrishResearch campaign:

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

I was trained as a botanist in UCD 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.

Our Irish wildlife researchers now can tell us which of our mammal species are truly native (very few). And they can say where they came from to Ireland and when (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 reveal the successful war they are waging against that invasive species the grey squirrel, while it was analysis of kestrel regurgitated 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 tell us what stranded whales die from or, even more shockingly, reveal that 80 per cent 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 well-being 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.

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