North Bull Island Nature Reserve

North Bull Island Nature Reserve

North Bull Island is a low-lying sandy spit, nestled along the northern edge of Dublin Bay, with Dollymount Strand on the seaward side of the Island, and salt-marsh fringing its mainland side. The Island is connected to the mainland at two locations (Causeway Road and the Wooden Bridge), and between the Island and the mainland are intertidal mud and sand-flats.

It is one of Ireland’s most designated sites for nature conservation, supporting nationally and internationally important habitats and species. Being so close and accessible from Dublin City Centre, also makes it a unique and important public amenity, with up to 1.4 million visitors annually, including walkers, bathers, beachgoers, bird-watchers, nature enthusiasts, kite-surfers and many others.

North Bull Island as we know it is less than 200 years old. It developed as a consequence of human activity, namely the construction of the North Bull Wall. The swirling tides of Dublin Bay allowed sand banks to form, and the Island’s dune systems continue to accrete and grow today - the only dunes on Ireland’s east coast to do so. North Bull Island is approximately 5km in length and 1km wide, covering an area nearly 15km², including both land and seashore.

The natural heritage importance of the Island, particularly for the populations of wildfowl and wading birds it supports, was first acknowledged by designation in 1914, and since then it has been designated as:

· Special Area of Conservation – North Dublin Bay SAC

· Special Protection Area – North Bull Island SPA

· Special Amenity Area – North Bull Island SAAO

· UNESCO Biosphere – Dublin Bay Biosphere

· Nature Reserve – North Bull Island

· Ramsar Site – North Bull Island Ramsar Site

· Wildfowl Sanctuary – North Bull Island

In 2014, Dublin City Council submitted a Periodic Review of the Biosphere Designation to UNESCO, which recommended an expansion of the designation. In 2015, the designation was extended to include the entirety of Dublin Bay, reflecting its environmental and cultural significance and as a model for sustainable development.


Orchid courtesy of Pat Corrigan

Nature of the Nature Reserve:

The Island supports nine habitats and a range of species protected under the EU Habitats Directive, including Petalwort (Petalophyllum ralfsii) a species of liverwort, Marsh Fritillary Butterfly, two species of seal (Harbour and Grey), and at least three species of bat (Common Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, and Leisler’s). In addition, the Island supports three bryophyte (moss) species, (Bryum intermedium, Bryum uliginosum, and Bryum warneum) and one species of plant, Lesser Centaury (Centaurium pulchellum), which are legally-protected under the Flora (Protection) Order, 2015.

The Island is recognised by Bird Life International as a key part of the East Atlantic Flyway for migrant birds travelling from the Canadian Arctic to the Mediterranean region and Africa. It also supports a range of overwintering wildfowl and wading birds protected under the EU Birds Directive. Three species regularly occur in internationally important numbers during the winter period (Light-bellied Brent Goose, Black-tailed Godwit and Bar-tailed Godwit), with a further fourteen species regularly occurring in nationally important numbers (Shelduck, Teal, Pintail, Shoveler, Oystercatcher, Grey Plover, Golden Plover, Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin, Curlew, Redshank, Turnstone and Black-headed Gull). The Island also supports significant numbers of birds during the summer period, with some species occurring in nationally important numbers. The Island also supports species which migrate between Ireland and Africa and breed in Ireland such as sand martins, swifts and swallows.


Viola Tricolour curtesy of Pat Corrigan


Recreation and Wildlife:

In managing the North Bull Island Nature Reserve, Dublin City Council aims to ‘conserve the environmental qualities and scientific importance of the Island, while balancing its amenity and recreational potential for the benefit of the local community and visitors’. This is a significant challenge, but one which is achievable with the help of all visitors, beginning with an understanding of how human behaviours impact wildlife on the Island.

Harbour Seals and Grey Seals use the northern end of Bull Island for breeding and resting. They are highly sensitive to disturbance from people and dogs. Ringed Plover and Terns breed on the shelly/shingle beach material at the northern end of the Island. Nests are typically well camouflaged, and are therefore easily trodden on or disturbed. The northern end of the Island is also a favoured feeding area for species such as the Curlew, and is regularly used by large concentrations of waterbirds for roosting at high tide.

The intertidal ‘lagoons’ and saltmarshes are used by birds all year round, with the greatest numbers of birds occurring during the winter period. Birds are spread out across both habitats during low tide, but as the tide rises, the birds fly daily inland and return to the saltmarsh to roost. The birds are accustomed to traffic and pedestrians using Causeway Road and footpath, but are particularly sensitive to people and dogs walking along the salt-marsh edge.

Ground-nesting birds, such as skylarks, stonechats and meadow pipits, breed throughout the sand dunes during summer. Dogs unleashed and roaming beyond the existing trails disturb these species.


Post Covid – a new appreciation?

From early spring 2020, and right throughout the summer, the abundance of wonderful wildflowers in the sand dunes brought such joy to visitors in very trying and uncertain times. Birdsfoot trefoil, Ladies Bedstraw, Eyebright, and an explosion of orchid species, among the 300 odd species found on the Island. The colour of the flowers were matched only by the colour of the many insect species that came to feed, from butterflies and bumblebees, to shieldbugs and ladybirds..

Now that the autumn is upon us, our focus changes from the sand dunes to the salt marsh and mud flats, and the colours of our visiting feathered friends. These habitats will become the home for many migratory species wildfowl and wading birds that will spend the winter months with us. As many as 30,000 waders of varying species have been recorded on the island, with many occurring in nationally and internationally important numbers, including over 3,000 Light-bellied Brent geese!

Our environmental education programme is still a priority, aimed at primary schools, secondary schools and third level education albeit in a totally different format to pre COVID restrictions with classes taking places outdoors.

We are also very proud of the members of Bull Island volunteers who are very knowledgeable in so many areas of conservation and education who run workshops throughout the year.

For further information please contact

Article kindly supplied by Shane Casey

Grey Seal courtesy of Clowie Russell