The beauty and value of hedgerows
Spring saw the hawthorn (or aptly named may) trees ablaze with blossom. This autumn the trees are bearing the fruits of all those flowers, with hedgerows abounding with red berries. Apart from their aesthetic value, the flowers and haws are wonderful for wildlife – pollinators, small mammals, birds. They also provide shelter from wind and rain along field boundaries for farm stock.
Other native tree and shrub species occur, such as guelder rose, spindle, hazel (with bountiful nuts this year), holly (already bearing a profusion of red berries) etc., all interwoven with a jumble of bramble and ivy, which also provide great food and shelter. These healthy hedgerows are in stark contrast to those so evident in many areas, where fields are divided by short, stubby, over-trimmed “neat” barriers that barely deserve the moniker hedgerow. Not only are they poor reservoirs for wildlife, but their carbon sequestration abilities are seriously compromised. In the current era of biodiversity crisis and climate change, the value of trees cannot be overstated and maintaining proper hedgerows is one way to assist in this challenge. All landowners, be they of small rural holdings or larger farms, can play their part by allowing their hedges to flourish. Urban dwellers, too, can plant native shrub species in their gardens.
The Family service will be on the third Sunday this month instead of the fourth. So we meet on Sunday 19 November, in Nun’s Cross Church at 5pm. This short service is aimed at families with young children, and snacks are served afterwards!
Pliny the Elder – green views
Pliny the Elder died in Pompeii in AD 79 following the eruption of Vesuvius. He wrote the largest work to have survived from the times of the Roman Empire to the present – “The Natural History” (Naturalis Historia), which covered all spheres of the natural world. What is of relevance today from his writings is that, even back then, he realised that humans were having an impact on, and even poisoning, their environment. Needless to say, that effect has multiplied enormously since then. We all need to learn how to reduce our impact on planet earth. Maybe a good place to start is by appreciating what the natural environment has to offer us and from that may spring the desire to preserve it – for example, at present, the hedgerows are full of bounteous red berries as, following a spectacular spring display of flowers, the hawthorn trees are aglow with fruits. It is truly a wondrous sight, autumn at its best but, more importantly, provides many creatures with a valuable food source. Hawthorn trees are an integral part of native woodland planting, so we may expect to see more in the future as new forestry planting proceeds. Forestry aside, even smaller gardens could find space for native species such as hawthorn, spindle, guelder rose etc. A pleasant autumn activity could be to plant some of our wide variety of native shrubs or trees.
Green Shoots of Change
The prevalence of reports on the effects of climate change can cause people: 1) to “switch off” entirely, seeing no point in making attempts to change their lifestyle; 2) to suffer from climate anxiety, worrying endlessly about our future; or 3) to take action. The last is undoubtedly the most useful. Some farmers have always allowed corners to run wild (traditionally called the “hare’s corner”), left boggy fields by river margins etc. and not used fertilisers or chemical control for pests and weeds. However, recently these were in the minority as, for decades, the EU rewarded farmers financially for ripping out scrub, draining bogs, removing hedgerows or infilling ponds in order to maximise land for agricultural output, in addition to encouraging the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides to increase yields. The cost to the environment was hugely detrimental. Owing to the current climate and biodiversity crisis, EU regulations are at last changing and they now incentivise farmers to provide habitat for wildlife; the advantages of harbouring a greater diversity of plants and animals is already becoming obvious, for example when the return of barn owls has obviated the need for rodenticides. Some farmers are setting additional land aside for the sake of biodiversity. A number of folk in Wicklow are proactively engaging in ways to improve biodiversity and reverse the loss of wild habitat. Some do so quietly on their own, maybe by buying up an acre or two of land and letting nature move in. Others buy larger tracts of previously agricultural land, with the sole purpose of improving biodiversity. An example of this is to be found at Wildacres, where in 2017 Gilly Taylor and Brian O’Toole bought 17.5 acres of farmland on the Redross River and have transformed it into a wonderful nature reserve, creating many ponds, woods, wildflower meadow etc. Education is also a core mission and visitors can do courses there or go on tours around the reserve. Sites such as these are vital as reservoirs of wildlife and also show how nature can rebound. However, not all land can become nature reserves, as clearly land still needs to be farmed to provide food. Maybe the present increase in environmental awareness, from the EU down to every farmer, will encourage more interest in preserving our wonderful and diverse wildlife, whilst also producing healthy food.
“The era of global boiling has arrived”
Imagine you are standing at the bottom of a hill, watching a huge juggernaut slowing winding its way down from the top. Then it speeds up, sending rocks flying downhill as it takes the corners too fast. If brakes were applied now, the lorry would slow down, the damage would be limited. Left to accelerate ever faster, it would veer totally out of control, possibly tipping sideways and obliterating all in its path. Likewise with climate, if we “apply brakes” by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, then we can reduce the rate of earth’s temperature rise. The first three weeks of July have been the hottest on record. UN Secretary General Antonio Guteres said “The era of global boiling has arrived. Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning. It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5⁰C (above pre-industrial levels) and avoid the very worst of climate change. But only with dramatic, immediate climate action.” In Ireland, we must learn to adapt and part of that adaptation must be to see climate action by us all as a right for future generations – this will, of necessity, involve giving up some of our current “rights” – over-consumption, waste, too much travel, overheating of buildings etc. Most people do not want to hear it: “Ireland is a small country, so it doesn’t matter what we do, it won’t make a difference.” Wrong. Millions of small changes can have a large impact, both directly and by influence (remember banning indoor smoking, levying plastic bags? – other countries followed suit). If we embrace climate action NOW, we can help safeguard the future.
The Joys of Growing Vegetables
Not so long ago, we used to grow many of our own vegetables in Ireland – however, owing to cut price offers for “cheaper” overseas food in supermarkets, most of the commercial growers here have gone out of business. Currently, Ireland imports a huge amount of fruit and vegetables from Spain, but a long-term drought, water shortages and soaring temperatures there are making much of the land inhospitable. This will almost inevitably result in food shortages in Ireland, similar to that experienced in the spring, when tomatoes, for example, became temporarily unavailable. It would seem logical for Ireland to encourage commercial growers to return to production and for them to be paid a fair price for that produce. Meantime, the Irish populace at large could copy their forebears and start growing their own fruit and vegetables again. Not so long ago, most households had their own potato and cabbage plot. Clearly that is not possible for urban dwellers today, but virtually everyone could grow something, even on a windowsill, patio or in a small back garden. The joy of experiencing the enhanced flavour of freshly picked, home-grown produce might even encourage some folk to grow more. The more time you invest, the more you gain. There is a need to have more allotments and community gardens in urban areas. At a time when food prices are causing hardship for many, growing even a small amount of one’s own food would help alleviate this burden. Grandparents can pass on their gardening knowledge to children, who often love sowing seeds and getting mucky in gardens – and they certainly enjoy the produce, especially if fruits such as strawberries are grown! Why not give it a try?
Government action not fines
Mary Donnelly heads the Irish Climate Change Advisory Council. It would make huge economic sense for the government to take on board some of her comments. To increase carbon uptake, Ireland needs to plant 8,000 hectares of woodland annually, but at present we are only achieving 2,000 ha/year. We urgently need to set specific targets on land use to indicate how we will reach net zero C emissions. Farming practices have always changed through time and this needs to continue, but farmers will need advice and substantial financial support to adopt sustainable farming practices. Emissions need to decrease across ALL sectors, yet in Ireland they are actually increasing. By 2030, it is estimated that Ireland will be paying a minimum of €8 billion on carbon credits to offset emissions, BUT carbon credits may not be available as so many other countries will be doing likewise. It would make much more sense to spend €8billion on reducing our emissions, instead of paying fines, and to transition to a low carbon lifestyle, not just on farms but in urban areas too. The challenge is for individuals, companies, industries and government to heed the advice of Mary Donnelly.