Residents of High Road, Mornington gathered last week to mark a very special occasion in their locality.
It was 50 years since the Boyne Estuary Wildfowl Sanctuary was established and launched, and the pioneering spirit and foresight of those who sought to preserve the environment and wildlife half a century ago was remembered.
“They were miles ahead of their time; they opened that before we even joined the EU!” says Paul Mulligan, who recalls when it was first launched. “I was only about nine or ten at the time, but I remember an opening ceremony up on the High Road, with politicians and the like, and there were lots of local residents, but sadly not many would be still with us now”.
The site which runs along the River Boyne between Louth and Meath is a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive, of special conservation interest for Shelduck, Oystercatcher, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Lapwing, Knot, Sanderling, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Turnstone and Little Tern.
The Boyne Estuary is the second most important estuary for wintering birds on the Louth-Meath coastline, and Little Tern have bred here since at least 1984 and a nationally important population was recorded in 1995 (14 pairs).
The idea behind establishing it as a sanctuary was to protect the abundance of wildfowl and wildlife native to the estuary.
The first meeting of the founding group, under the chairmanship of Gerry Marry of the Meath Regional Game Council, was held in May 1971, and despite some opposition from members who thought this would have an adverse affect, the majority was in favour of a special area of conservation placed.
The initial aim was to protect the mallard, widgeon, teel and shell duck, native to the area.
"Local historian Sean Collins was able to find us lots of old newspaper cuttings from 1972, which showed the launch was carried out by TD Sean Flanagan, who at the time was Minister for Lands, protecting the area from Mornington Pier to the Maiden Tower on both sides of the river from shooting,” explains Paul. “I was only a young fella at the time, and I thought it was Jimmy Tully who did it, but the papers said Sean Flanagan, and two local parish priests gave a blessing as well, so it was quite an important day for everyone.”
The newspaper cuttings give quite a bit more detail on the opening, which was indeed a prominent affair nationally.
"Some people might see the marshland as merely a waste of mud and wonder why anyone in his senses would want to conserve it,” said Minister Flanagan at the launch. “But if people were to look at it again in a few months’ time, they would see it teeming with wild birds, which had arrived from their breeding ground in the far north to winter there.”
Given the close proximity of the sanctuary to a busy town, the Minister hoped bird-watching would become a popular pastime, and young people should become involved in the protection of our local wildlife heritage.
And 50 years later, the fruits of those aspirations are visible, with a huge wildfowl population along the estuary.
“When you look at what is there now – birds that were on the verge of extinction like the curlew – and we have a couple of hundred out there, they really were thinking so far ahead,” adds Paul. “The land was never touched because of this, development was never allowed, and the birds were totally protected for decades.”