Are you interested in sustainable energy solutions for Skerries? Would you like to discuss ideas and work towards achieving sustainable energy projects that benefit the community? We are a newly formed initiative, started by Sustainable Skerries, and we would love for people with a passion for sustainable energy to join us in the Sustainable Energy Community Initiative (SECI).
The Skerries SECI has been set up as part of the wider Energy Communities program by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The program is set up to help engage and enable a local community to reach sustainable energy goals.
The Skerries SECI will capture ideas and feedback from the local community and with the help of a mentor work towards moving from ideas to formulating an Energy Master Plan for Skerries which will describe specific projects that the community want to achieve. The Skerries SECI and local community will work to apply for available grants and alternative funding to help complete the projects.
You can find out more about the Sustainable Energy Communities programme at
If you are interested in joining the Skerries Sustainable Energy Community Initiative and want to know more, please write to Skerries SECI chairman Michael Mullan-Jensen at email@example.com.
The next group online meeting is on the 2nd of December at 8pm and we would love to see you there!
A Report on the Skerries Tree Event, November 2020
Close to 50 people zoomed in for “Two Tree Talks and a Discussion” last Thursday, organised by the Skerries Community Association, Sustainable Skerries, Skerries Tidy Towns and Crann Padraig. Most were Skerries residents, though we had visitors from as far afield as Wicklow and Malahide and Ballymun.
We had people from the organising organisations as well as individual tree lovers and a good few who are active in the Skerries Tree Preservation Group. And then there were our two speakers, of course!
The Importance of Trees
Éanna Ní Lamhna is not only a very well-known broadcaster, author, and nature lover – she is also the vice president (and former president) of the Irish Tree Council. Éanna spoke passionately and knowledgeably about the importance of trees not just for biodiversity, but also for carbon sequestration and for mental health. She stressed that while not all trees have the same value, all trees have some value!
Did you know that the typical oak tree supports 284 species of insects? And that the typical 10-year-old tree absorbs 22 kg of CO2 per year? Not to mention the power of good it does all of us to walk through a nice wooded landscape, or to look at mature trees on the sides of our roads.
Having said all that, the right tree in the right space is actually very important, too. Putting the seedling of a tall-growing tree species right below an overhead electricity line, for instance, is not a very good idea…
The Forest of Fingal
It seems that at the moment, Kevin Halpenny’s work is all about the trees! As the Senior Parks Superintendent with Fingal County Council, the review of the Tree Strategy for Fingal is currently a significant part of it. He gave us the background to the draft strategy, with the great name of “The Forest of Fingal,” which is currently available online. By the way, the submission period is rather long to allow everyone to consider the strategy in detail and then to have their say. A good idea, it would seem! Fingal have even created a video about the Forest of Fingal.
We particularly like the view over Skerries across the trees of Ardgillan…
We could also not agree more with the vision Kevin outlined for the tree strategy – a strategy, he stressed, which is for Fingal, not for Fingal County Council!
Informed by the guiding principles of public health and wellbeing; climate action; sustainability and resilience; green infrastructure and nature-based solutions; environment and biodiversity; high quality provision; right tree, right place; best practice; collective action, and green equity, the aims of the strategy are:
- Net increase of the tree canopy cover from currently 6%
- A thriving, sustainable and diverse tree population
- Maximum benefits of trees as an asset and a resource
- Strong sense of ownership with residents, communities and stakeholders
And these will be achieved, hopefully, through a responsible, efficient and coherent approach to management; through tree protection and retention (for instance through bonds which builders have to guarantee in case they damage trees during their activities); through tree planting and establishment initiatives to ensure a sustainable tree population; and through community involvement, public engagement, and awareness.
The presentation went through a lot of interesting and relevant details, such as the proposed recruitment of a tree officer and tree management team to coordinate and implement the tree strategy. Another few proposed actions that resonated particularly with the audience were:
- Putting together an online, publicly available and interactive tree inventory
- Developing a proactive street tree management programme
- Developing a Woodland management programme
- Putting a monetary value on trees and their “ecosystems services,” such as carbon storage and sequestration, pollution removal, avoided runoff and replacement cost
- Tree Preservation Orders
- Targeted tree planting for areas deficient in tree cover; areas with ageing tree populations; sites suitable for woodland; areas where there is room to accommodate additional trees.
- Developing proactive engagement protocols with communities and residents
- Involving community groups in the establishment of newly planted trees in their area
As mentioned above, we are in the consultation phase of the Forest of Fingal: A Tree Strategy for Fingal.
Trees have positive effects that we are sometimes not fully aware of, such as buffering storm water and thus making flooding less severe.
There was a lot more in the presentation. It would not be practical to add more here, and yet you can see it all for yourself: We are grateful to Kevin for having made the entire presentation available to us. It is unfortunately too large to upload here, but we will email it to you on request to firstname.lastname@example.org
Some further resources:
Treesaregood.org managed by the International Society of Arboriculture
Tree Species Selection for Green Infrastructure available as PDF here: http://www.myerscough.ac.uk/media/4932/hirons-and-sjoman-2019-tree-species-selection-for-green-infrastructure-v13.pdf
Kevin mentioned that Fingal has only 6% tree cover, vs nationally 11% – which is again very low compared with the European average, which is somewhere around 38%.
Increasing the coverage by just one per cent would mean planting 1,000 acres with woodland!
There is a connection between green equity and equality, by the way, and Kevin stressed that social inclusion (green equity) is one of the guiding principles of the draft strategy.
The forest of Skerries…?
As residents in a coastal town which has many mature and also many very young trees lining our various streets, but also many open green spaces with less trees than you would think, we were very interested in what both Éanna and Kevin had to say. After the two presentations, there was time for the participants to respond, first in small groups and then in the closing plenary session.
The overall response to the draft tree strategy was very positive, especially as far as its emphasis on community involvement is concerned – something that in the past seems to have been haphazard or even missing. In that context, reaching people who are not typically involved would be very important (inclusion). The Skerries Community Association is in the process of establishing a network for all neighbourhood and residents’ groups, which could become very useful in this context!
Many also mentioned the need for concrete targets for increasing the tree cover in Fingal.
It was noted that as yet, there is no wooded area in the town of Skerries – it might be worth identifying where a woodland could be planted, complete with walkways, cycle routes, seats and other features, maybe even an outdoor classroom…
Some mentioned the fields around the Mills as possible areas that could be planted; others mentioned that some open spaces in the many estates would offer themselves, while taking into consideration the fact that some people do not like trees by their houses, that some areas are used by children to play, and that trees might impact on the view from people’s homes, especially those lovely sea views some have… Even taking all this into consideration there is quite an amount of space available on all of the green spaces in the town.
Also, replacing trees which were taken out in estates, who were planted and didn’t survive / were vandalised over the past number of years with more suitable trees is something residents are looking for.
The potential of trees for flood alleviation found a lot of interest, as well as the idea of having a comprehensive map of all the trees in our town. Perhaps local people, or even the secondary school, could be involved in recording the existing trees?! It’d be great if there was some way for people to get info on all individual trees on their phones, maybe via a QR code!
People called for an emphasis on native species, and hedgerows were mentioned a few times as well – if possible, they ought to be included in the tree strategy, it was said.
Could fruit and nut trees be included in the palette of trees for future planting? Kevin said that they would indeed be part of the new strategy. In residential open spaces they can do quite well; in streets, ornamental pear trees or crab apples can cause problems with slipping. However, fruit and nut trees should be increased in general – they are also good for pollinators. And he added that Fingal bye laws now allow for foraging in parks and open spaces!
Another question put to Kevin was whether there are trees which would thrive in coastal locations and which could help secure the sand dunes. Indeed, there are: In France, along the Atlantic coast, for instance, the Black Pine (Pinus nigra) is used to stabilise the dunes – an issue especially for Rush, but also for Skerries as there are only few trees close to our coast.
As for community involvement, Kevin mentioned that Fingal Co Council would be positively disposed towards a tree stewardship program as they happen elsewhere (someone mentioned New York City) – this would also be positive with regards to social inclusion / cohesion. He praised the great involvement by many of the community in Skerries, some as individuals, others as parts of the Skerries Tree Preservation Group, Sustainable Skerries, Skerries Tidy Towns and the Skerries Community Association, who all had volunteers out watering trees during the drought, which certainly saved many of them.
More tree events for Skerries would certainly be welcome – online as needed, in real life as possible, and possibly a mini forest community planting event!
On behalf of the organisers, Michael McKenna, chair of the Skerries Community Association, ended the event thanking the two main speakers and all attendees for their time and participation. He added: “We are very interested in getting a really inclusive input into the Fingal Tree Strategy. Tonight was a great start in this process.”
Now have your say in the Tree Strategy!
You can see the draft Tree Strategy, and a few first submissions, online here: https://consult.fingal.ie/en/consultation/forest-fingal-tree-strategy-fingal
First preparations have already taken place for a possible follow-up event closer to the end of the consultation process (i.e. early 2021) … keep your eyes peeled! If you want to be kept in the loop, we encourage you to subscribe to the Sustainable Skerries email newsletter, where we will certainly send out any further information.
Although Halloween this year will be under very different circumstances, it should still be possible to give everyone an experience that suits the current HSE guidelines, and at the same time retains a sense of excitement and earning treats. Here are a few suggestions:
On the day, family units could go on a “ghost walk” and look at the Halloween decorations around town and could turn this into a “trick-or-treat” type thing in one of the following ideas:
- Make a “ghost walk bingo card” with things for the kids to spot (e.g. a mummy, a spider, a bloody axe, etc) and reward each first spot of something on the card with a treat.
- Or just go to the houses in your area. Put a treat in the Trick or Treat bag for every properly decorated house!
If you prefer staying in our own home or garden for activities, how about making a candy graveyard (cereal boxes work especially well for being made into tombstones) or other settings for a “Treat Scavenger Hunt” where the kids have to search for the treats?! We also found this in the super Skerries against Covid-19 Facebook group, thank you for sharing, Sally Anne Lalor, and for encouraging others to share your post…
Some tricks for your treats!
So now that you, if you are parents, seem to be in charge of your children’s Halloween loot this year, you might be able to get some really nice things for them!
Why not consider something with less wrapping than you normally find in Halloween bags, or even locally made seasonal fare, such as the Halloween-themed Macaron selection by Monsieur Macaron, available at Olive’s, or treats from the weekly Skerries’ Farmer’s Market?!?
Empowering our community towards a sustainable and resilient future for Skerries – that’s the mission of Sustainable Skerries. Together with other committees, groups, and individuals, we work towards improving resilience in the town of Skerries: that capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; that ability to bounce back. We seek to do this through a focus on the systems of our town, as they relate to climate change, food, waste, water, energy, and skills sharing.
For the last twelve months, that has meant:
Climate Change. Can you imagine that it was just a year ago that we hosted Afloat, the climate-change play by Sunday’s Child, in the Little Theatre? The play made us laugh, confronted us with many uncomfortable facts, and raised many questions about climate breakdown, climate anxiety and consumer guilt, friendship and the wider picture of the role of governments and big business. Thus a perfect start to our year!
Waste / Upcycling / Skill Sharing. Repair Cafés are all about skill transfer – people who know how to sew / mend clothes / fix things show those who would like to be able to do that. In October 2019 we were the proud recipients of a Fingal Greener Communities Award in the Up Cycling Category in recognition of our first Repair Café! Our second Repair Café took place in the Little Theatre as well, in November 2019. As it was coming up to Christmas, seasonal crafts (Christmas cards, centrepieces made from nature, paper decorations and much more) were added to the upcycling of clothes and jewellery-making.
Further Repair Cafés had been planned for April and for later this year, but had of course to be cancelled. Pity. Watch out for our first online Repair Café over the next few weeks though!
Biodiversity. Pollinators and especially bumble bees are central to biodiversity. Sustainable Skerries, in cooperation with Skerries Tidy Towns, has been able to obtain the funds to carry out a biodiversity study that will lead to a biodiversity plan for Skerries. The plan itself is in line with the National Pollinator Plan guidelines as run by the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) and is aimed at reversing the decline of pollinators in general, bumblebees in particular, and one specific species even more so. To this end we wish to establish a wildlife corridor from the South Strand and allotments at one end to Barnageeragh at the other. This is to be achieved by the establishment of wildflower meadows, reduction of pesticide and herbicide use, the rethinking of corners of mown grassland and a change of mowing regimes for roadside verges. Much of this will depend on agreement with FCC as the largest landowner (we are told they are amenable but we are still waiting for a long promised site meeting), but it will also depend on the goodwill and support of the town as a whole. We are working with Skerries Allotments to establish three areas of wildflowers around the site and have partnered with the Educate Together School to establish a meadow there. Both expected to be seeded in the coming week or two.
Coincidentally, FCC are also in the process of establishing a wildflower meadow just out past the water treatment works. All of this gives us a good solid backbone for our corridor; now we just need to join the dots.
Did you know that there is a special bumble bee in Skerries which is the Large Carder Bee, Bombus Muscorum? We have identified four areas in which it is to be found: South Strand, Allotments, Ballast Pit and a small population near Skerries Point. This would appear to be way above the National average and puts us in a unique position to do something truly constructive by linking, protecting and extending these areas with our proposed corridor.
Oh, and our work for the Pollinator Initiative also fetched a Fingal Greener Communities award last October, in the Biodiversity category.
Trees. Sustainable Skerries, Skerries Tidy Towns, Crann Padraig and the Skerries Community Association got together to organise an event called “Two Tree Talks” with Éanna Ní Lamhna, The Irish Tree Council, and Kevin Halpenny, Head of Operations, Fingal County Council… for Thursday, 12 March. The day the WHO changed the status of Covid-19 to “pandemic”… Guess what? It had to be cancelled! We’re now hoping to bring it to you online, as Fingal County Council is gearing up towards drafting a new tree strategy. Look out for the announcement!
Food & Community. As it happens, the first Sustainable Skerries Global Feast was probably the last public event in the Old Schoolhouse before lockdown! Skerries people from more than a dozen different countries prepared food with an international twist – and some four dozen people came together to share a wonderful meal. This event, like some of the others we are organising this and next year, was made possible by a grant from the EU Communities Integration Fund. And it was also near-zero-waste, as everyone brought their own plates and cutlery, and brought home any food not eaten on the day.
We of Sustainable Skerries were all set to plan more such global feasts, for all of Skerries of indeed at neighbourhood level – the situation being at it is, this has not yet happened, but it would be great if as many neighbourhood groups as possible could register on the Skerries Community Association’s list of neighbourhood / residents / street groups, so that when we can get going again, we can contact them easily! We have some great ideas already.
“Our Food, our environment, our health” was the title of a food-related event that took place online in May 2020. We had two fantastic speakers, Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School and our local green councillor, Karen Power, and after their input, there was plenty of opportunity for everyone to share their reactions, views and ideas. Read more about it here. Food for thought, indeed!
Our plans for the next 12 months include
- Offering online Repair Cafés with different themes,
- Supporting sustainable neighbourhood feasts
- Exploring the possibility of Skerries becoming a Sustainable Energy Community
- Continuing with our work on biodiversity & the pollinator action plan
- Preparing the first Sustainable Skerries Food Festival for April / May 2021
You want to be in the loop? Keep in touch with us!
- The best thing is to subscribe to our email newsletter.
- You can also like our Facebook page and follow our Instagram account.
- Join our very active “Skerries Food Gardening Group” (also on Facebook).
- Join the “Gardens for Pollinators” WhatsApp group (highly recommended for all who enjoy colourful pictures of flowers, bumblebees and such like, but also great for sharing tips & tricks on how to attract more insects to your garden). Send us an email if interested! email@example.com
- Or just send us an email with comments or suggestions, or to get involved in our committee! firstname.lastname@example.org
Sustainable Skerries Committee
Chair: Sabine McKenna
Treasurer: Ernestine Woelger
Secretary: Louise Ring
PS: We would like to bid a fond farewell to our previous chair, Mary Marsden, and to our former secretary, Brónagh Ní Dhúill. Both had been founder members of Sustainable Skerries, which means they were involved for a full decade. It’s difficult to give you an idea of their contributions over the years in a few short words… and we are grateful that they will remain involved in two initiatives that were kickstarted by Sustainable Skerries over the years, Skerries Allotments and Skerries Community Garden. Brónagh and Mary, you are missed!
Charlie Heasman; 4th Oct 2020
Back in 2019 Sustainable Skerries was awarded a grant from the Community Foundation of Ireland in order to develop a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for the town.
The money was to cover phase 1 of the plan: to engage the services of a professional ecologist to assist and advise the project; to conduct mapping and site surveys; liaise with landowners and stakeholders and organise a series of public information events and talks. Work was to begin in Feb 2020 and be completed by Jan 2021.
We are actually fairly well advanced with most of this except for the public meetings and talks, which have been rendered impossible with the covid situation. What’s more, the situation is not going to change in the foreseeable future and this is deeply unfortunate because it makes it very difficult to reach the very people we wish to engage with: the people of the town. The deadline has subsequently been extended to July 2021 but that is unlikely to help in this regard.
The only answer is to do everything online; whether by email, social media or our website. Welcome to this Blog post.
So what is the Plan and why?
A clue is in the title of course; another in the photo.
To start off our aim was fairly simple: to establish a National Pollinator Plan type scheme in the town.
The National Pollinator Plan is specifically intended to reverse the decline of bumblebees in Ireland and has been widely taken up by towns and communities up and down the Country. You may have already noticed the purple “Managed for Pollinators” signs from time to time.
The Plan is coordinated by the National Biodiversity Centre in Waterford and in order to gather data on bumblebee populations they encourage interested members of the public to engage in a little “citizen science” by waking monthly transects. This involves picking a route of approximately one kilometre, sticking to it, and walking it at least once a month while counting bees and recording them by both species and sex. My wife and I have been doing this for the past two years and now walk three such transects. Next year it will be four; more about that later.
Ireland has 21 species of bumblebee, some still common; others in danger of extinction. No one site will have all 21 species; you wouldn’t, for instance, expect to find a Mountain Bumblebee in the town. Four or five is pretty average; we quickly established six. Admittedly these were all members of the so-called “Big Six”, the six most common species, but it was a good start.
Then in June of last year, in the Ballast Pit, we came across something we weren’t sure about: four Common Carder Bee queens all on a single clump of Kidney Vetch. We were fairly certain of the species but four queens at once? In June? We took a photo and sent it in for verification.
The reply came back that they were indeed queens but not of the Common Carder Bee, Bombus pascorum, they were the Large Carder Bee, Bombus muscorum. We’d just found a seventh species.
This might not sound too exciting until you realise that this bee is on both the Irish and European 2014 Red Bee Lists as threatened. Given that this List is six years out of date and the bee has shown an annual rate of decline of 5% ever since, it is likely that if it were reclassified tomorrow it would as endangered.
We decided to look and see if we could find it elsewhere so we took ourselves off to the South Strand. Where we found it straight away. The first photo was taken there. By a better photographer than me I might add!
It is also present in the Allotments and we’ve found a small population just out past Skerries Point.
So we have not just one, but four populations of an endangered bee in Skerries. We can safely say that all four are separate populations because this bee travels a maximum of 500 meters from the nest and these sites are a lot further apart than that.
Now take into account that Ireland is considered the last stronghold of B. muscorum in Europe, and Skerries, so far as can be ascertained by NBDC, is probably one of the last strongholds, if not the last stronghold in Ireland and it does get exciting! We are in a unique position to play a major role in saving one of Ireland’s 21 bumblebee species.
Of course, you don’t just save one. By taking the right action you help conserve everything else. Not just bumblebees but pollinators in general, birds, insects and so on. Nature tends to be pretty inclusive and all things are interlinked.
NBDC are hugely supportive of our efforts and are hoping that what we achieve in Skerries might serve as a model for other communities to follow. I would like to see Skerries put firmly on the map for its bees just as it was always famous for its seals.
So what’s the plan?
The first thing to do with scattered populations of any species is to join them up. In this way inbreeding (thought to be a contributory cause of decline in B. muscorum) is avoided and if the species dies out for any reason in one area it can be repopulated from another. The second thing to do is improve and expand its habitat.
To this end we are proposing a biodiversity corridor through the town. No bulldozers will be required so your houses are safe; we simply enhance what is already there. The Barnageeragh Road, running past the Ballast Pit and out through to the new Hamilton Hill Estate lends itself perfectly. Pre-existing wide grass verges need only a minimal change of management; planting around the base of trees rather than spraying with glyphosate (don’t get me started!), and utilisation of unused green corners will do the trick. If we can extend out in the other direction towards Townparks and the allotments we will have succeeded.
As I write this things are already progressing. At one end the allotments are getting odd unused corners seeded with wildflowers and at the other end we are partnering with Educate Together to establish a wildflower meadow in the grounds of the school. The latter is particularly exciting because a) it is a fairly large area of some 1,000 sq metres and b) it is right beside the road where everyone can watch it develop.
Further down the road Fingal are independently establishing another wildflower meadow, this one just past the Water Treatment Works.
While all this is good news for our biodiversity corridor it does not preclude those who don’t live along it. Quite the opposite; everyone can play a part. If you have a garden, large or small, great! We can help with pollinator friendly planting advise. Even if you don’t have a garden you can help. We are proposing an “adopt a tree” scheme whereby people can plant round the bases. We might even be able to run a competition. This will depend on agreement from FCC; we’re impatiently waiting on a long promised meeting with them.
We cannot hold a public meeting to discuss and inform further or to get your views and input, but we can host a Zoom meeting online. If you are interested, and we really hope you are, get in touch and we’ll see how we go. email email@example.com
Charlie Heasman; 24th Sept 2020
I first wrote about this problem in June last year: Feel free to click on the link to either remind yourself or read it for the first time: https://sustainableskerries.com/2019/06/07/aminopyralid-killer-cow-muck-killer-compost/
While the post didn’t exactly break the internet it did reach a lot further than anything else I’ve ever written. This was gratifying because I really wanted to get the word out about this nasty, insidious chemical.
In fact the post still regularly gets hits from all over the place, mostly Ireland and the UK, and occasionally someone takes the trouble to answer. This is one such reply; I’ll leave it to speak for itself.
I cant believe this! Im using my own well rotted horse manure from piles that range from 4yrs old to 18months old and am having these issues with my crops.
I try to avoid sprayed forage for the horses, but farmers lie and tell you what they think you want to hear.
AP is obviously used by large and small forage producers alike as ive imported great quality haylage from the uk into ireland and also used irish forage. I thought these past years i’m a crap gardener as my crops dont seem to be doing well! Truly, i thought it was me! The only good cropping ive had are initial years before getting horses and using horse manure!
Potatoes always fail, so i gave up growing them – in fact i grow because i enjoy it knowing the yield will be minimal!…all this time due to AP.
Twisting leaves grace my beds year in year out – even yellowing of cucumbers that were doing well in compost, then planted into a soil and manure bed, start to twist, go yellow….i have the most odd shaped cucumbers growing, especially this year.
Im so disheartened tbh. For yrs of failure of crops and now i know why. Id rather it be my ineptitude than an insiduous poison in my soil and my manure as i spend thousands per yr in forage for 2 horses to get the best quality feed….and hours mucking out etc to produce the best rotted manure for my farm!! im so deflated as i *thought* my organic practices were organic!! Damn….makes me wanna give up farming altogether tbh, especially if those in industry know AP is highly toxic as compost and withdrew it, only to allow it to be used again.
Wow….i just realised a manure pile i have been using for a specific crop has been rotting for 7 years and that crops new leaf emergence produced twisted leaves, some folded up in half shut together.
So there’s proof that AP remains inert for years and is not affected by hot composting processes.
Try finding true organic feed for animals – the hay is loaded with dock and ragwort, catsear and numerous other Seriously toxic weeds for horses. Even buttercup is toxic to horses in haylage, but not in hay. So farmers feel forced to spray due to these very harmful weeds to livestock.
The old fashioned way was to go out in the fields and dig them up by hand. Try doing that with 100 acres! I dont blame the farmers, theyre not to know the consequences of these chemicals, until the have to rely on crops themselves and fail like i have for yrs!
Ive had ragwort and Catsear infect my land from hay with it in, the seeds germinating on my farm despite me trying to rot it down out the way. I spend a lot of time cutting and digging up noxious weeds ever since due to this, and i only have just under 10 acres.
Buttercup and ragwort toxin cant even be baled as the toxin leaches and infects the whole bale of forage. I almost lost one horse to wet buttercup toxicity in haylage.
Ive run out of answers/option….what are the solutions? Are there any ‘safe’ broadleaf compostable sprays that dont damage crops when manure is used?
Sorry to rant but after yrs of crop failures…and finding out about AP, how unpreventable it is to me to source forage free of it as a horse and crop owner….wits end has been reached!! Daaaammmnn!!
Charlie Heasman; 24th Sept 2020
Back in March we decided to buy some wildflower seeds. Coronavirus was just beginning to establish a grip on all our lives and the news abounded with stories of shoppers clearing out supermarket shelves of bread and loo roll. I joked that I’d better get online quick and do some panic buying of my own…
…I was too late! In March!
We wanted Irish grown native seed and there wasn’t a packet to be had anywhere.
While it was great to see that a whole lot of other people were now taking an interest in the natural world around them, a welcome trend that has continued and intensified, it left us a bit stuck. In the end we bought a few boxes of supermarket wildflower mix.
So what’s wrong with that?
Well, it’s better than nothing but there are in fact a few problems. The first is that there is a risk, albeit a very slim one, of importing disease. It may seem finicky but in fact this sort of thing happens all too frequently. To cite an example, ash dieback threatens every ash tree in the country and came in on infected plants imported from the continent a few years ago. It is likely that in the not too distant future the ash will have disappeared from the Irish landscape. Remember Dutch elm disease?
Secondly, wildflower mixes often contain species that are not particularly useful to pollinators. Fine if all you want is colour; not so if you’re trying to promote bee habitat.
The third reason is perhaps the most important: genetic purity.
Plants and animals are continually evolving. Different populations might diverge over time as they respond to localised conditions. This can happen on a continental, national or regional scale and Ireland is no exception; in fact given that Ireland is an island, probably even more so. Local species adapt to best thrive in the particular environment they find themselves in and introducing non-native genes can weaken their advantage. Ecologists worry about this a lot.
But the blindingly obvious reason for collecting your own seeds that I’ve only just remembered to include is that they’re free. One could also say that they incur no road miles or fuel to deliver, involve no packaging waste, and obviate the need to wait in all day for a delivery driver to eventually turn up at just as it’s getting dark.
So we decided to collect our own seeds this year.
Not true: Marion decided to collect our own seeds this year.
So what are we going to do with them exactly?
As members of Sustainable Skerries we hope to play our part in establishing two wildflower meadows in the town this Autumn. Establishing such meadows tends to be a longer term project than one might think; ten years to maturity is a figure often quoted, and we simply don’t have the patience. Nature must be hurried along.
The generally accepted method is to select an area of grassland and leave it unmown all year. Then in late Summer mow it tight, leave for a few days for the seeds to drop, then remove the cuttings. Wild flowers find it very difficult to compete with the much more vigorous grass, but by doing this year on year the fertility of the soil is gradually reduced, which checks grass growth and allows the flowers to push through.
Where do the flowers come from? The soil contains a natural seedbank which multiplies and strengthens every year.
All very well if you have ten years to spare; we would prefer to do it, at least partially, in one. But how?
The mowing and removing goes ahead as standard; we simply accelerate the process by bolstering the seedbank right at the start with the seeds we’ve collected. We want to have something for the people of Skerries to look at next Summer. Oh, and we have a secret biological weapon; more about that later.
We’ve spent this Spring and Summer observing what the bees are feeding on and when; different flowers come into season at different times and different bees have different preferences. This has advised our selection of seeds, we also want not only pollen and nectar for the bees but colour for the public. Fortunately this can be done.
With that in mind, Marion has collected Red Poppies, three different types of Vetch, Yellow Rattle, Knapweed, Musk Mallow, Love in the Mist, Campion and Marigolds. This should give a good splash of colour and provide both pollen and nectar through the summer.
Some are easier to collect than others, catch Yellow Rattle at the right time and the seeds just fall from the pods. Vetches are trickier, their seeds are like tiny little peas in tiny little pea pods, which is hardly surprising as they are all the same family. Anyone who has ever complained about the tedium of shelling peas really ought to try Vetch.
The secret is to use a bag, a plastic bag. And not just any plastic bag but the sort that freshly baked supermarket bread comes in. It has tiny little perforations to prevent the bread from sweating and those same perforations allow the pods to breath as they dry out. In nature as the pods dry they tighten and explode, scattering the seeds far and wide; in the bag the pods explode and the seeds fall to the bottom. Simple.
So what’s this ‘secret weapon’ previously alluded to?
It’s certainly not the plastic bags, useful though they are; it is in fact Yellow Rattle, a rather unprepossessing little plant that most people probably won’t be aware of.
And why should they be? It looks a little like a nettle, only grows to about 12 inches tall and there’s nothing in the least bit astounding about its small yellow flowers; but it has one significant habit: it parasitises grasses. That is to say that its roots tap into grass roots and draw out both moisture and nutrients, which of course, suppresses them. With the grass weakened the wildflowers can push through. It is reckoned that Rattle can reduce grass coverage by up to 60%.
Our Rattle seed came from the Ballast Pit btw; you can’t get much more ‘local provenance’ than that.
From further afield and a only a couple of weeks ago comes Devil’s Bit Scabious, a rather ugly name that the flower really does not deserve
This is an old medicinal plant which was used to treat skin rashes and the like, Scabere is Latin for scratch. The Devil’s Bit part is on account of the root. Pull one up and the tap root is truncated, bitten off by the Devil in a fit of rage against its healing properties according to folklore.
We found it in the Botanical Gardens at Kilmacurrach in South Wicklow.
This was in a wildflower meadow, the field was covered in it, and it in turn was alive with bees. This was all the more surprising as we were in the first week of September, a time when most flowers had finished flowering and the bees died off. Clearly this would make a useful late season addition to our mix.
So Marion filched some.
She shouldn’t have done really as it was against the rules. Obviously the Gardens can’t have the public roaming around all over the place pinching plants and seeds so an edict is in place. But we had just been told by the staff that the meadow was to be mowed next week and the cuttings taken away, so she had no compunctions about doing so. A sample of seeds made its way back to Skerries.
Now we have our seeds all we need to do is sow them. Work is about to start on our first meadow here; watch this space.
Shop Local & Get to Know Your Producers Series Part 1
Where better to start than at the farm shop of a local organic farm for this new blogpost series! There, I can see what’s in season (not always easy in a supermarket), and I know it’s organic and low- to no-waste. Happy days!
Last Saturday, I drove over to McNally’s Family Farm. The farm is in our very own County of Fingal, Balrickard, Ring Commons – just over 9 km or 15 min door to door. It was my fourth trip there.
The first one hadn’t been for veg at all: Having run out of rye flour in “early Covid” I had spotted that Dunany Flour, based in Drogheda, sell their organic, cold-milled flours in McNally’s farm shop. At the time, you had to preorder everything from the McNally website, so I only added one or two other items to the flours and coffee beans (the Ashbourne-based Ariosa Coffee Roasting Company sells their coffee there as well). By the way, you still can preorder and prepay and then simply collect – or get someone else who is going anyway to collect for you, saving time and petrol.
Now that I know the place, and that it’s reverted back to a farm shop that you can (safely, keeping your distance) walk around in, I try to go over maybe twice a month to get fresh veg (and stock up on flour and coffee).
This time, I treated myself to lunch there, too. The McNally family (five adult children have joined their parents in the business) are not only, as far as I know, the longest-established and largest organic farm in Fingal, they have also set up a Café with a few cakes, sandwich specialities, and wonderful coffee. I sat in their Covid-era compliant seating area which is covered, but practically outside. And while the lovely solid stone tables and garden-type seats are well spaced, I even managed to have a chat with the ladies on the next table – one of them, Freda, a producer of Irish herb teas, by the way, and the other, Denise, The Herb Garden personified! (I had bought seeds from Denise’s Herb Garden in Sonairte a while ago, not knowing her, of course.)
The food was delicious, the coffee likewise, and while it’s a pity that it was served in single-use plastic cups, I’m quite sure they were compostable ones. I’ll ask next time if I can bring my keep cup, under Covid Era rules, that might not be that easy. I’ll keep you posted.
Anyway, sufficiently fortified, I went to the farm shop in the large barn next door. You’ll see from the photographs just how much was on offer.
I’m learning to go more with the seasons and to plan my meals around what is fresh and good and plentiful locally, rather than starting from a cookbook and then assembling the ingredients. I’ll still use some ingredients that are not from Ireland, and some products, but am happy to change my emphasis and purchase somewhat.
A couple of months ago, I was lucky to get some of the last Jerusalem Artichokes. Others had praised them as a super vegetable both to grow in your garden, and to eat. So I stuck two into the ground, and I think the plant that is now growing close to the spot has leaves that are very similar to what I found in a web search. No flowers yet, but I live in hope!
Back to Saturday. You may just about see from the pictures how large a space it is, and how high the ceilings are. While there was a constant stream of cars coming and going, it never felt too busy, or as I have started to call it, “peoply.” Keeping your distance was easy. There is a fridge, then a large table and a number of baskets filled with what’s on offer.
They were out of tomatoes and potatoes. Some people seem to come early to make sure they get what they want! Otherwise, the choice was plentiful.
You walk around anti-clockwise with one of their nice large wicker baskets, pick what you want (don’t touch unless you buy it!), then check out (perspex glass in place). You can pay contact less, my preferred way to pay since even before Covid.
I went home with kale (so tasty – why did I only try it first this year?), chard (new to me), spinach, kohlrabi (which I love nibbling raw, cut into thick slices), zucchini and cauliflower.
And of course one of Freda’s teas, complemented by some of Dunany’s finest flours, rye, fine wholewheat and coarse wholewheat. I’ll be back!
Just over a year ago I wrote a post here entitled “Time to Rethink Our Approach to Grass Verges”. You may care to read it either for the first time or to refresh your memory if you read it last year.
In case you feel you have no time to do so: I bemoaned the fact that we are so obsessed with neatness and grass mown-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life and wondered if we could not take a more enlightened approach that allowed nature a chance. Cut higher; cut less often; allow flowers to grow and please, please stop spraying weedkiller everywhere.
The post included this photograph, with the observation that the poppies were probably doomed because Fingal CC would soon come along and spray them.
I was wrong; they didn’t.
Not last year anyway.