The brown bear is back in Ireland for the first time in thousands of years, thanks to a new wildlife sanctuary in Donegal.
The Celtic Tiger is back too, but this one is a beautiful lynx called Naoise and she has been warmly welcomed.
Lynx, brown bears, wolves, deer and wild boar are just some of the animals that have made Donegal their home recently.
They are the residents of Wild Ireland – a 23-acre sanctuary in Dundrain, Burnfoot which will open to the public this Friday.
Having bears in such a landscape has never been done before in Ireland and it’s set to be a truly unique attraction for the Wild Atlantic Way.
Wild Ireland is the dream project of legal eagle Killian McLaughlin, a solicitor and zoologist from Buncrana who has a lifelong passion for rescuing and rehabilitating animals.
Killian has spent over six years transforming the site into the perfect habitat for the return of some of Ireland’s most unique native animals.
The animal lover made it his mission to fill the sanctuary with animals that had been rescued from dangerous or unsuitable places.
“I worked with three major international charities to find the animals that needed rehoming,” Killian told Donegal Daily.
“Our brown bears were kept in horrendous conditions in Lithuania. The charity Bears in Mind confiscated them from a private mini-zoo where they were being kept behind bars in a small dirty concrete cage.
“We’ve created a fantastic home for them with a forest and pool and they have adapted beautifully.”
Killian continued: “Naoise the Lynx had never felt grass under her paws before. When she came out of her box she was totally overwhelmed. The lynx was the original Celtic tiger. They are magnificent cats but they were all hunted out of Ireland’s forests.
“It’s been really emotional releasing all these animals back into nature. It took the bears 45 minutes to come out, they had never felt natural substrate before. Now they are free to run, swim and play in our specially designed enclosure,” he said.
Killian has a degree in zoology and husbandry alongside his law degree. With a combination of animal expertise and legal insight, he was able to carefully plan the sanctuary and get all the necessary permissions to make his dream a reality in his home county.
“All these animals were native to Ireland, but they were hunted to extinction or went extinct due to habitat loss,” he said.
“Ireland is in the temperate rainforest belt. A lot of people do not know that it used to be a rainforest. The trees are gone, but the rain is still here. So it is one of the rarest habitats in the world and the climate is perfect for the animals,” he said.
Ferrets, swans, ducks, geese and other wildlife also roam the space. The only non-natives are five barbary macaques, who enjoy frolicking around their own monkey island in the sanctuary. Some monkeys came from the circus while others were rescued from abuse in the illegal pet trade.
Killian said: “The barbary macaques fit in with the climate perfectly. They are living well in a family group. They were being looked after by the AAP (Animal Advocacy and Protection) but now it’s up to us to continue that rehabilitation,” Killian said.
As Donegal locals prepare to flock to the sanctuary this weekend, Killian is hoping that a visit to Wild Ireland will be an educational and entertaining experience for everyone about animal welfare and conservation.
“It strikes me that people will sit at home in their big comfy armchairs and say poaching is disgraceful. But we have killed off these native species in Ireland. Wolves went extinct 300 years ago and we are down to an impoverished list of animals. Conservation should still be important to everyone,” he said.
Wild Ireland has created jobs for the locality through the animal operations and a shop and cafe.
The building of the space was also a unique task for local businesses.
Killian said: “People told me it would be impossible to do this in Donegal. But everyone has been really supportive.
“Con Lynch from the Lynch Brothers North West Plant Hire said anything is possible.
Crana Engineering, Samuel Buchanan and all the team of people that have worked here have been unbelievable. You need that. It’s a beautiful place.”
The gates of Wild Ireland will open for the first time on Friday 25th October at 10am. As word spreads on social media, the park is already looking like it will be one of the north west’s most exciting attractions.