Irkaya BookA book featuring the rich biodiversity of Irkaya, an area of arable farmland in the centre of the Qatar, was released on Sunday 9 March 2014 in a ceremony at the Ministry of Environment.

Qatar aims to become an advanced society capable of sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its people. Qatar National Vision 2030, envisaged by HH The Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is the blueprint for this, and environmental development is one of its four pillars.

The biodiversity of this small desert peninsula is far greater than appears at first sight. The purpose of the book is to create awareness among the people of Qatar of the remarkable fauna and flora to be found in just one small area in the heart of the country: Irkaya. At Irkaya, more species of birds have been recorded than anywhere else in Qatar: out of 315 species, 238 (76%) have been seen at Irkaya. Few areas on earth can claim to host such a high percentage of their country’s birds.

Irkaya Farm is located off the Abu Samra Road about 50 kilometers west of Doha in the south central plain of Qatar. Irkaya sits like a glowing emerald in the middle of the desert. It is home to many resident species and lies on the flight path of migratory birds and insects passing through Qatar. It can even be seen from space on satellite maps. On the farm, a ‘central-pivot’ system of irrigation is used on the fields where animal fodder is cultivated. The fields consist of sandy and loamy topsoil on a flat, sandy plain with water-worn pebbles.

The rest of the terrain is low, rocky limestone upland with scattered boulders and sparse vegetation. In areas where native wild plants benefit from the pivot watering system, plus fertilizer run-off, wild plants grow to a taller height and produce larger leaves than their counterparts in uncultivated regions of Qatar.

Out of the 59 species of birds that breed in Qatar, a large number breed at Irkaya. Some are year-round residents. Others arrive in spring, and then depart after nesting. The rest are passage migrants that ‘drop in’ while on their way to breeding grounds farther north or to wintering grounds farther south. Some choose to spend the winter in Irkaya.

Among the birds recorded at Irkhaya, 15 species are globally endangered. This includes the Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarious, one of the most endangered species in the world, and a winter visitor to the farm. Among  the other birds present are  the Saker Falcon, Egyptian Vulture, Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles, European Roller, Pallid Harrier, Socotra Cormorant, Ferruginous Duck, Black-winged Pratincole, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Semi-collared Flycatcher and Eastern Cinereous Bunting.

The large number of burrows at Irkaya reflects a strong population of the Spiny-tailed Agama Uromastyx aegyptia microlepis. The largest reptile in Qatar, the Desert Monitor Varanus griseus, is also found at Irkaya, as well as healthy populations of smaller reptiles such as the Yellow-spotted Agama Trapelus flavimaculatus.

Mammals are represented by numerous small rodents. Among larger mammals, the body of a Ratel or Honey Badger, Mellivora capensis , was photographed in September 2011. At the top of the food chain, along with many raptorial birds of prey, two species of fox occur, the Arabian Desert Fox Vulpes vulpes arabica and the Rueppell’s Fox Vulpes rueppellii. A bat, the Sind Serotine Eptesicus sp., was photographed at Irkaya  in July 2012, a first recording in Qatar.

The common mallow plant Malva parviflora grows in abundance around the edges of the fields and provides food for the larvae of a large population of the migratory Painted Lady butterfly Vanessa cardui, just one of 130 species of butterfly recorded in Arabia.

The birds of Irkaya have been photographed and recorded over many years. However, work has only just begun on studying the flora and other fauna of this unique area. There are also reptiles, arachnids including species of spiders and scorpions, and hundreds of insects that will surely be found here in the course of future research.