Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Don't believe the poison that's spouted about ivy

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

Like the appearance of the first swallow or the sound of the call of the cuckoo, springtime inevitably heralds the re-emergence of the "kill ivy" campaign with letters and news items crying out for its hasty removal.

There is no doubt that the question of controlling it or not makes for a fascinating debate as there are no easy answers.

I have always liked a plentiful cover of ivy around the farm and know that it is extremely beneficial to wildlife, but I do accept that in some cases it does need to be cut from older trees that are in danger of being smothered.

Most correspondents are genuine lovers of trees and are concerned that ivy is killing them. But one has to view the bigger picture and accept that we live in a country of mostly broadleaved trees and apart from holly and the increasingly scarce yew, ivy is about the only abundant native evergreen that provides food and shelter for wildlife in winter.

Ivy flowers late and is the last source of pollen for wild bees and other insects searching for nourishment before winter sets in. It supports many moths and butterflies and its berries provide an essential supply of food for numerous bird species.

Dense clumps of ivy also provide shelter for bats along with nesting sites for wood pigeons and owls, and even keep pheasants warm and safe on cold winter nights. The harm ivy does to trees is generally insignificant, although it will undoubtedly increase the risk of windblow, especially in older trees that carry large amounts of cover.

It is said that the English tend to cut their ivy but the Irish prefer to leave it alone. Perhaps this says something about our national character. The English countryside is undoubtedly well managed and their villages are picturesque and largely unspoilt thanks to strict planning laws. But, in general, their rural landscape can at times be a bit too manicured for my taste.

On the plus side, it has been found that ivy, above all other indoor plants, is very effective at purifying the air in modern office blocks that suffer from what is called sick building syndrome.

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The atmosphere within such buildings usually contains carbon dioxide along with benzene gas, which is the main cause of sickness but which ivy absorbs efficiently.

Love it or hate it, ivy is all around us and I suppose the best tactic is to exercise limited control where it might be threatening to overwhelm a tree.

Suburban gardens tend to have less ivy than can be found in rural areas, but most contain a wide range of exotic shrubs and flowers which are a great source of food for bees.

The amount of wildlife these gardens support is remarkable, but most astonishing of all is the fact that bees are safer in cities.

City-dwelling bees are proving to be healthier and more productive than their country cousins, apparently because they are not exposed to the many pesticides now used on farmland, and it also appears they are unaffected by urban pollution.

The decline in wild flower populations in rural areas has also harmed bees, while city gardens, parks and allotments offer them a wider variety of blooms with a longer flowering season than in the countryside.

Beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular, especially now that so many of us are returning to growing our own food, and bees are now thriving in and around cities. In Britain, more than 2,000 people keep hives within the M25 surrounding London.

Ivy is not generally loved, however, by beekeepers, as they say its honey is too strongly flavoured and difficult to handle. They prefer their bees to source their supplies from other flowering plants.

I often wondered how it is that the mass-produced honey found in supermarkets usually stays clear but the honey I buy from a neighbouring beekeeper crystallises over time.

The answer is apparently down to filtration. Some large processors heat the honey to more than 80C and then filter it before cooling. Filtering removes the natural pollens and microscopic seed crystals needed for other crystals to form on. Heat can also destroy the natural yeast and enzymes that help give honey its flavour and healing properties.

Yet another good reason to support our small-scale beekeepers and shop locally.

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