While the Irish wildlife may not be that spectacular in itself, there are some interesting zoos and wildlife parks you might like to visit. Especially popular with kids, they are scattered around the country and providing not only a glimpse of nature, but in many cases also important conservation work.
In strictly alphabetical order, here are some ideas for a trip into the (safely contained) wild ...
The Zoological Gardens in Belfast are well out of the way - they are nestling into the slopes of Crag Hill on the outskirts of the city and are not really within walking distance. Buses go here from the city centre, but the easiest access is by private car.
To take in the whole zoo is quite a walk, as the enclosures are nearly stacked atop each other on the hillside. Manageable, but still a challenge for those not fleet of foot. Follow the signposted route and you should be OK. There is a picnic spot at the top to get your breath back ... there are also restaurants.
As to animals, you will encounter all the usual suspects here. Belfast has some bear enclosures, several species of big cats and also elephants and loads of apes and monkeys. Sea-lions are always popular, as are the small prairie dogs that have dug into the hill and emerge at some unlikely places.
Having been extended and revamped in recent years, Dublin Zoo attracts thousands on a good day and is full to capacity on summer weekends. Located within Phoenix Park it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Ireland. Easiest access is by car, but the LUAS stop at the National Museum and several bus stops are within moderate walking distance. Most Hop-On-Hop-Off Tours also pass the zoo.
Sprawling over several hectares and including some lakes, the zoo is easily explored even if you are mobility impaired - though the distances involved may tire out young kids if you want to take everything in. There are several themed areas and a variety of possible routes through the zoo, best check your main interests against the map. Restaurants, snack bars and some mobile ice cream vendors will keep you in shape ...
With the exception of bears (the Red Panda does not really count, though they are undoubtedly cute) you will find the usual mix of animals, with big cats and big game taking pride of place. The latter can be seen roaming "freely" on the "African Plains" (albeit sometimes with added Irish weather). The gorillas and orang-utan are fascinating and the still new elephant enclosure is a very worthy highlight. Personally, I also like the wolves ...
Kids will also love the City Farm, where you may be able to interact with domestic and farm animals.
The Irish Raptor Research Centre near Temple House in County Sligo is accredited as a EU Zoo and open to visitors, but its main focus is on research and conservation. A bit of a drive off the beaten track, it offers two daily opening slots for visitors during the summer season.
The main attraction would be, as the name says, eagles flying - staff will showcase birds such as eagles, owls and hawks, but also buzzards, in flying displays. These are not choreographed shows as such, but a glimpse of natural behaviour, so they change. Well worth a visit if you are in the area, worth a longer trip if birds of prey are your interest.
Facilities at the centre are sparse, a small shop and a pet zoo are the only additions top the main attraction.
Fota Wildlife Park
Situated on Fota Island just outside Cork City, Fota Wildlife Park is a sprawling woodland and home to several endangered species. Best known for its freely roaming pack of lemurs amongst kids, it is internationally renowned as a centre for cheetah breeding. You will be happy to hear that these are not roaming the grounds. You may travel here by train (the station is a bit of a walk away) or by car.
With loads of picnic areas and a decent restaurant, the park is suited for a full day ... and large enough not to appear too crowded even on busy days (though there are some bottlenecks).
Animals include not only cheetahs and lemurs, but also giraffes, llamas, capibaras, kangaroos, red pandas and wetland birds, a very interesting and diverse mix. Spontaneous encounters are possible at all times, better keep a hold of small kids.
Situated near Ashbourne and within the Dublin commuter belt, Tayto Park is only really accessible by car and has proven very popular during its first seasons. The nucleus was a herd of American buffalo owned by Largo Foods, makers of the Tayto brand of potato crisps. This has developed into a small theme park with extensive wildlife areas to explore.
What makes Tayto Park unique is its inclusion of animals that you won't see at other zoos in Ireland. From ocelot to mountain lion, from raccoons to buffalo, it very much has a North American theme (continued through a wigwam village and some interesting totem poles). The mundane meets the very exotic, and it works.
A fine restaurant is at the centre of the park, but you'll also get ... guess ... complimentary Tayto crisps.