7 New Year Resolutions for the family

Have you made New Year’s resolutions for the year ahead? Here are some you might consider making.
  1. Use less plastic in the year ahead. The internet has plenty of tips on how to easily achieve this.
  2. Watch buds burst.  Gather some twig clippings or pick up some budding branches on a winter’s walk and put them in water when you get home. The buds will burst open after a few days in your warm kitchen. After the long cold winter they serve as a powerful symbol of change and renewal. The joys of spring are in this way shared with children; the scaly coverings of the buds begin to split in front of their eyes at the kitchen table, revealing folded, fuzzy leaves. Slowly the leaves will grow in size. What species of tree or shrub did you bring inside?New Year resolution
  3. Go wild food foraging. This is a skill for life and one that we’ve mostly lost. You’ll start appreciating plants that you previously considered mere weeds. Edible wild plants haven’t been intensively grown and shipped or flown to us from the other side of the world. They’re therefore not only nutritious, but represent the most sustainable food we can get into our bellies. It’s easy if you know what to look for and where to find it. So either arm yourself with a good book like Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers by Roger Phillips, or take one of the many introductory courses that are run all over the country to get yourself started.

    New Year Resolution for Families
    Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers
  4. Enjoy the Dawn Chorus. Every May groups of people rise ridiculously early, dress warmly, pack some coffee, tea or hot chocolate, and head to a local woodland to witness the dawn chorus. It starts off with just one bird, but soon hundreds are singing their hearts out. Your local Birdwatch Ireland branch will no doubt be organising such an early-morning outing this year.

    1 Hour Dawn Chorus Bird Song. County Laois, Ireland.
  5. Depending on how much room you have, plant a native tree or sow some seeds. Consider it your legacy.
  6. Go for walks on the wild side. Children need to be outside if they are to grow up to cherish and protect the natural world. This year take the kids to nature reserves and places where communities have succeeded in protecting threatened habitats for the future. The people that work to protect these places, often promote their sites for educational purposes. One of my favourite of such places is Abbeyleix Bog in County Laois. Its story is worth telling the kids: this beautiful area was going to be destroyed, but a community fought to protect it.

    New Year Resolution nature reserve
    Abbeyleix Bog, Co. Laois
  7. Visit the National Botanic Gardens. It’s lovely to stroll through this oasis of calm in the city. If the weather turns against you, you can always shelter in the warmth of the beautiful Victorian glasshouses. If you’re taking kids along, bring magnifying glasses. They can use these while they’re wandering through the wonderful array of flowers on display there, particularly the orchids. Through a magnifying glass all component parts of a flower become a kaleidoscope of otherwordly beauty. It is utterly absorbing.

    New Year Resolution National Botanic Gardens
    National Botanic Gardens. Glasnevin, Dublin

Food for Bees

Bees in decline

When I started on my beekeeping journey I naively thought that all was well in bee-land. Not so of course. Bees, whether they are honeybee colonies managed by the beekeeper, or species of wild bees such as bumblebees and solitary bees, are on the decline. Around the globe disease and habitat loss are sadly threatening bee populations to the brink of extinction. In Ireland 30% of our bees are threatened with oblivion. Two bee species have already gone the way of the dodo in Ireland.

We depend on bees. They help pollinate wild plants and some of our favourite food crops. It is humbling that something as small as a bee can have such a powerful impact on our landscape and food security.

So bees look after our food supply via pollination, but the problem is that we don’t respect their food sources. The flowers that provide them with their nourishment grow in places controlled by us. Lawns, sport fields, road verges, woodlands, agricultural land, hedgerows, you name it. Where there’s a flowering plant, chances are, there’s an insect busily getting a meal.

Managing landscapes

It’s important to point out that their food sources are not usually removed by malice or greed, but by ignorance. People very often don’t realise until someone points it out to them, that their actions are leaving bees to starve. In Ireland the very excellent National Biodiversity Data Centre last year rolled out the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. They’re spreading the word to land owners and community groups, showing them how, with simple tweaks, (that often save money in the long and short-term), flowers are left in the landscape for our pollinators to feed on.

Education is key. Bees are fascinating creatures. Getting your head around their life cycle is mind-blowing.

Beekeeping? Me?

Why not sign up for a beginner’s beekeeping course? The Federation of Irish Beekeepers lists your local beekeeping group. They all hold beginner’s courses. The beekeepers that teach the courses are inevitably in love with this insect, its honey and its life story. They will be only too delighted to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm. You don’t actually have to keep bees at the end of it either, but what you learn there could change your views on all things that buzz.

I’m no beekeeper

If keeping bees is not for you, there’s still plenty you can do. Avoid the use of pesticides. Plant flowering pants, including shrubs and trees. Create as many wild areas as you can. For more tips to help bees, and by extension other wildlife, see the excellent how-to guides published to support the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. Spread the word.

Meadowsweet: wild, fragrant and beautiful

How trees talk to each other

National Tree Week

National Tree Week takes place from March 4th to the 11th 2018.

To celebrate Tree Week I tought I’d point you in the direction of a TED Talk that I love. In 2006 Suzanne Simard, a renowned Canadian ecologist, gave a Ted Talk that has been viewed by over 2.6 million people. Suzanne talks about her research over 30 years that uncovered how trees in a woodland communicate with each other; that instead of competing with each other for resources, they are in fact super-cooperators. Using a vast underground network, they share nutrients, warn each other about drought and disease, support younger trees and more. Trees talk!

“You see, underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

Take a look at her talk. You’ll never look at trees or a woodland the same way again.


5 Top Tips for Enjoying Garden Birds this Winter

Hands down what I love most at this time of year is watching the birds in my garden from my kitchen window. Even though our feathered friends need our help throughout the year, providing them with food (and water!) at this time of the year is critical. Being entertained by their antics at the bird feeders will repay you in spades for your efforts.

Here are some tips for enjoying your garden birds this winter:
  1. To make sure you get the widest variety of bird species, put out the widest variety of food in your birdfeeders. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are much loved by some species, while apples and cheese are winners with others. BirdWatch Ireland has lots of great info on their website to help you select the right foods. Your garden will soon be hopping with lots of happy squabbling birds.
  2. Invest in a basic identification guide. You’ll become an expert in no time. There are some excellent books out there. The one that I use is Bill Oddies’s Birds of Britain and Ireland.
  3. So that the kids can join in in the fun, print off the Woodland Trust’s garden bird ID sheet and put it by the window for your kids to tick off when they see one of the species in the garden. The delight is epic when they manage to tick off a bird on the sheet!
  4. Keep binoculars handy for closely observing the birds. It took me a while to cop the difference between a dunnock and a house sparraw, but with a set of binoculars even I could eventually tell them apart.
  5. You might also want to give the birds somewhere to nest and perch if you have a garden. Planting native trees, shrubs and flowers whose berries and seedheads will supply the birds with food over the winter is incredibly valuable. Think rowan trees, crab apple trees, dog roses and letting your wildflowers, like dandelions and clover, bloom. Of course these plants will attract insects and these in turn will provide the young birds in your garden with food over the summer. And hey presto, you have a beautiful garden to boot. Win Win Win. Not only will your garden become a lovelier place to behold, but it will make a real difference to wildlife. They’ll now visit your lovely garden regularly while some of them might even call it home.

Woodland Trust_ Bird ID

Do you like nature?

When I signed up for my Beekeeping for Beginners course, the friendly man behind the desk enquired, “Do you like nature?”

It’s true for him, we humans really do fall into a few camps when it comes to the natural world, but broadly:

  • Those who love it and who get very cross if you disrespect it;
  • Those that couldn’t give a monkeys: it’s inevitably a problem to be fixed by someone else; and
  • Those that hate it and try to kill it when it encroaches on them.

And then, irrespective of which camp you belong to, there’s the vast majority of us: the ones who have simply lost touch. Our lives play out in the man-made world, both the real and the virtual. Sadly children that grow up in such a sanitised man-made environment never get to make a connection with nature in the first place. A connection that makes up the memory bank of most adults. Climbing trees, falling into nettles, running through fields.

I’m sure there’s someone in your circle who isn’t convinced or concerned that the natural world is in trouble. This is a real problem: To motivate someone who isn’t looking to be motivated.

Professor Brian Cox makes the point that understanding how something in nature works only deepens its beauty.

There’s motivation for you! Look into your garden or park and pick just one thing. One wild living thing. It could be a crow, a tree, a weed (or more correctly, a wildflower), whatever, put it into Google or YouTube and find out a bit about it. I promise you’ll be amazed.

By the way, if you choose to investigate a wildflower, I love love love Zoe Devlin’s very excellent website www.wildflowersofireland.net

It’s when it dawns on us that every living thing occupies a unique niche in the world and that other living things depend on it for their own survival; that is when the penny drops: my very survival depends on the proper functioning of this web of life. It provides my food, clean air and water, and materials.

This is why news this week from a German research study, conducted over the past 27 years, is so distressing. Over those 27 years scientists found a drop of 75% of flying insect biomass in their reasearch areas. In the paper on these findings they wrote: “Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardize ecosystem services.” This is Armageddon stuff.

Sadly at some point in our lives the living things around us have become invisible. With the exception of song birds and butterflies we have mostly tuned nature out. So when we hear that something is on the decline or brink of extinction, we’re not massively bothered, because we stopped seeing it a long time ago anyway.

We should be learning all the time; discovering new stuff about the living world around us. And take kids with us. (See my last post on this). Learning how the natural world works is the key to appreciating it. It’s such great fun to be next to someone who enjoys showing you how a plant / an animal / fungi etc. works. Nature walks are important for reminding us about our place in the world. About what we have and what we gain to lose. By understanding how something in nature works you recognise its incredible beauty, but also its terrible fragility.

And if you’re really looking for your mind to be blown, why not join your local astronomy club for an evening of star gazing. Nature will never look the same to you again. It’s beyond precious.

environmental education

Parents Get Your Children Outdoors

As a child being outside, inventing games, getting into scraps and running about is incredibly liberating. It makes us feel alive. It’s the stuff of fond memories and nostalgia. Of course it isn’t all about boisterous play, being outside is also about climbing a tree and being alone with your thoughts.

Children need to be outside to explore. Explore their own bodies as they run, climb, jump, cycle and tumble. Use their imaginations to turn sticks to swords and Bally-What’s-It into Tír na nÓg. They receive lessons in resilience as they fall, get up and carry on.

And yet, despite all the evidence of the many benefits of outdoor play to children’s health and wellbeing, these days childhood is increasingly played out indoors in front of screens, rather than in fields, parks and beaches.

74% of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, (Persil, 2016).

This is a tragedy in itself, but it has wider more far-reaching implications. If a child has little or no interaction with the natural world, then how can s/he form a bond with it?

In a time of global warming and mass species extinction can we really afford a disconnect to develop between children and nature? After all they are the next custodians of Planet Earth.

It’s time for action: Curtail their screen-time and set yourself the challenge to be outdoors as much as possible. Discover the woodlands in your area for rambling; kids go free on OPW heritage sites; join your local Irish Wildlife Trust; or your local branch of Birdwatch Ireland. They run regular events aimed at children. You could join your local walking group to discover your area by foot. The possibilities for Outdoor Eduction are endless. Make that connection and have heaps of fun in the process!