Sustaining the natural world

Joe Barry sees that little changes to land use can help accommodate the return of wildlife

One autumn afternoon, I heard one of our terriers barking in a very agitated manner. Hurrying to see what was wrong, I found the cause of her alarm was a hedgehog with five babies, about the size of my fist, all curled up tightly in defensive balls. They were in a small shelter belt close to the farmyard and not having seen a hedgehog for many decades, I was delighted at this discovery and immediately placed the family in a box and moved them to safety in an area of adjoining terrier free woodland. Hopefully they will quickly gain sufficient weight to hibernate and see them through the winter. This was one more sighting of wild animals that were once common on my farm but had become very scarce in recent times.

However, it has been a bumper year for encountering mammals that have been absent for so long and many are making a comeback. Red squirrels have returned since the greys departed, presumably thanks to the pine martens which are now a frequent if fleeting sight and bird numbers have definitely increased. Would any of this have happened if I had not planted woods, hedgerows and other semi wild habitat?  My house is also covered with various creepers which sparrows and other small birds have taken over as a high-rise residency and a variety of both evergreen and deciduous plants are clinging to the walls. Some are flowering and are beloved by bees in spring and summer and in the autumn the birds feast on the fruit.

Ivy is of course excellent in providing nectar for bees and its late maturing berries sustain field fares and thrushes in winter and early spring. It is so easy to create valuable habitat with just a little careful planting and a bare wall can be turned in to place of immense benefit for birds, bats and multiple insects as well as looking great and helping to keep the house cool during heat waves.

The well-known wildlife photographer and TV producer, Colin Stafford Johnson reinforced my own beliefs on what a beneficial plant ivy is. He said that he considers it the most useful plant of all.  Some people criticise ivy and vilify those of us who allow it to grow on our farms but it is a wonderful native evergreen and captures masses of carbon in addition to all its other benefits. In pre-Christian times, the custom was to bring both holly and ivy indoors and hang the boughs on walls and over doorways to provide shelter for the woodland spirits during the mid-winter. It is lovely to think that when we do so today, we are perhaps helping the spirits of trees to keep warm and safe and maybe even enjoy the heat of a cheery log fire

The Burrenbeo Trust do invaluable work in assisting farmers to establish small but vital spots on their farms that will benefit wildlife. One of the latest initiatives is “The Hares Corner” which is simply pocket-sized areas in field corners, protected from livestock and machinery and left as a refuge for the wild creatures that were once abundant. In recent years, large numbers of farmers in the Burren have enthusiastically adopted many of the measures the trust supports. Little changes can achieve a lot and these could well be copied throughout Ireland.

I pitied any livestock that did not have access to shady corners during the record spells of intense heat in August. This is something that seems to be an ever-increasing factor in our Irish summers. It is surely pointless to criticise the measures being proposed to limit global warming when we, the farmers, are the ones that will be worst affected. This summer was wonderful for haymaking and tillage and on the heavy land here in my locality in Meath, grass growth was excellent. But it would take very little more to tip what has been a great summer into a disaster. There is no future in making excuses and continuing to farm as we used to. We simply have to grow up and realise that there is no point in blaming others and doing nothing ourselves. We can all so easily take actions to slow global warming and hopefully, sense will eventually prevail throughout the world and halt it.

The challenges facing us are to assist nature by providing suitable habitats while keeping the land alive and productive. We can do this by taking care to retain organic matter in the soil, putting in ponds to retain water in wet areas, caring for our hedgerows and of course, planting more trees.