When it comes to Ireland’s native plants, Dr Catherine Keena, Teagasc’s countryside management specialist, is like an encyclopedia. Here in Irish Country Living, she writes a short piece every week about a different native plant, explaining why it is important for Irish biodiversity. She focuses on the beautiful plants that readers observe annually on their farm, but equally, talks about the less-beautiful plants – ones many would consider weeds.
To her, the “ugly bits” most people strive to get rid of around their homes are the things which are the most wondrous – and are just as important as the visually-pleasing plants. This is why, during her workshops and presentations, she often refers to Senegalese poet, Baba Dioum, who said:
‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.’
“Just look at what’s in your backyard, appreciate it and learn to love it,” she tells Irish Country Living. “They may not be the showy, flowery ornamentals which are bred to look nice, but there’s beauty in their detail.”
Learning to love biodiversity has been a life-long affair for Catherine. Growing up on a farm (and being surrounded by bog) in Co Offaly, she says she first took notice of their unique biodiversity as a child – and then she noticed it being taken away, whether by housing developments in the area or other industry.
Today, her mission at Teagasc is to educate farmers and citizens about the beauty and function of Irish native plants, and to encourage people to make the right choices in terms of their own countryside management.
Five ways to start your biodiversity journey
According to Catherine, there are many steps we can take to learn to love biodiversity – we just need to understand best practise. Here are her top five tips for encouraging biodiversity on your farm or in your community:
1 Where possible, leave it alone
The main principle of biodiversity is retaining existing habitats before enhancing them or creating new ones, so leave those wildflower seeds in the shop. Not all of our native plants are beautiful, but they all serve a purpose.
“Native plants have been in Ireland for 10,000 years – since the last ice age,” she says. “They’re in tune with the birds, the caterpillars – it is better to keep the same provenance going.
“With old hedges, I’d just leave them alone and let nature take its course,” she continues. “Even with a gappy hedge, it’s not all about the plant species. When you think of its biodiversity, we’re also thinking about mosses, lichens and soil. A gappy hedge is still full of biodiversity.”
2 Encourage native species
There is a place for pretty non-native flowers and shrubs, but only in your garden.
“My mission is to get people to consider holly [as boundary hedging] instead of a non-native ornamental species around houses in the countryside,” she says. “Whitethorn is also excellent, but may be a step too far for some, being thorny and not having leaves in the winter. Holly is slow growing, but it’s native and beautiful.”
If you need to plant a new hedge, Catherine recommends planting 85% whitethorn for structure. Other native species (with appropriate Irish provenance) can be difficult to find, currently.
“Provided I could get the other species grown in Ireland, I would also plant holly, blackthorn, spindle guilder rose, hazel and dog rose – you just have to be careful. I often see the invasive version of a dog rose being planted. Sometimes, we don’t even realise we’re planting the wrong species.”
3 Look to your margins
Those of us farming are blessed with acres of grassland, hedgerows, waterways and woodland at our fingertips, but what about those living rurally and not farming? Catherine says roadside margins, while keeping road safety in mind, provide a wealth of biodiversity for everyone to enjoy.
“These margins tend to be good for biodiversity because they have never been fertilised or reseeded, provided they aren’t sprayed or mowed,” she says. “February is a great time of year to start looking at our roadside margins because even though there’s not much there yet, you’ll see the ivy berries still hanging on and you have the lambs tails, hazel catkins and the occasional yellow lesser celandine.”
4 Treat each habitat with respect
Rewilding isn’t always the best option, because there are different habitats – with different types of biodiversity – which need protecting.
“Most of Ireland, if it wasn’t managed, would be scrub woodland – which is beautiful if that’s what you want, and excellent for biodiversity – but in general for small places like our roadsides and gardens, that is not what we want,” says Catherine.
“All habitats are valuable and have different species, so while scrub woodland is fantastic for woodland species, we also want to manage our grassland habitat. We want to maintain the grassland to keep our hundreds of species of native plants safe, so they do need to be cut or grazed at least once every three years.
"There’s nothing wrong with cutting them every September, once they’ve seeded and flowered. Ideally, you don’t want to keep them as a lawn all year and you definitely shouldn’t spray or remove them.”
5 Think before you plant
So many farmers want to do the right thing for biodiversity and are researching planting trees, increasing margin sizes and planting more hedgerows. That said, many aren’t experts in these areas and without support, farmers could end up making the wrong decisions.
“We all love trees, provided they are native and of Irish provenance, but they can be put in the wrong place,” Catherine explains. “The most likely place they’ll be put on in a farm is the last remaining wet corner, which could be full of orchids or ragged robin and should be left alone. It’s fine if we’re doing it on improved grassland, but think before you lose a habitat.”