Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on people, causing misery, hardship and grief. The lockdown, an almost global instruction to stay at home where possible, has also had another effect. It seems strange to talk of benefits, but our planet is enjoying a moment to breathe, for the first time in living memory.
Yes, factories are still producing our necessities but a great amount of travel and manufacturing has been shut down. A by-product of this is that, in the main, aeroplanes aren't flying and train, ferry, cruise-liner and car traffic is greatly reduced.
Coinciding with lockdown, we've enjoyed a glorious spring. There is a stillness around which allows us to hear the birds and take time to notice the bees. It has many of us thinking that there may be ways of intervening to help nature. If we begin to plan now, perhaps we can build on the benefits of lockdown, and plant and create habitats for beyond our crisis.
Another precious by-product many of us have enjoyed is time... time to garden, time to achieve projects about the house and time to think. I've enjoyed taking time to discover other people's passions. A friend pointed me in the direction of Phoebe O'Brien, a botanist who lives in a cottage in the West of Ireland. On her Instagram account, @phoebeobrienbotanist, she details her foraging finds in the fields and hedgerows around her area. At the start of lockdown, when it seemed that there might be a shortage of loo roll, Phoebe was demonstrating the potential of sphagnum moss as a substitute. It's worth checking out. In more recent posts, she's been extoling the virtues of plants we see but often look past every day, species such as rowan, hawthorn, speedwell and bugle.
Inspiring minds such as Phoebe's make me think. There are a number of wildlife-friendly plants that we don't normally put into gardens which have much to offer. For example, teasel, Dipsacus (main photo), is a dramatic, architectural specimen. It's a biennial, so in its first year it forms a prickly rosette of leaves. The following summer, it shoots up tall stems bearing bristly purple cones of flowers. These flower heads used to be employed by textile makers to comb or 'tease' cloth, hence its common name. Bees and butterflies love its nectar in summer, and finches feast on the winter seed. If you don't cut it down, it retains an interesting silhouette in winter. It will self-seed and establish itself around the garden.
One of the first shrubs to flower in the hedgerow in spring is the blackthorn, Prunus spinosa. The flush of white flowers on bare stems is always a welcome sight to both ourselves and the bees, who appreciate its early nectar. The dense thickets provide good nesting cover for birds. In autumn, the rich berries, called sloe (below), have traditionally been collected to make sloe gin - that's if the birds haven't devoured them already. It's a tough native shrub that will thrive in many soils, and a good choice for exposed, coastal areas.
Sometimes delightful plants just pop into the garden and make themselves at home. If you spray everything with weedkiller, you can miss out on some beauties. A dark-leaved cow parsley, Anthriscus 'Ravenswing', has self-seeded in my front garden, drifting frothy clouds of cream flowers over the bluebells. This plant has become very trendy at the Chelsea Flower Show in recent years but normally is more at home in our hedgerows. It's important for a variety of insects, including bees and hoverflies, as a good source of pollen and nectar, and later on the seeds will keep the local birds happy.
And look again at the hazel tree - this native will support any amount of wildlife. Its leaves provide food for many moth species, and the hazelnuts are eaten by dormice and squirrels as well as many birds. It can be grown as part of a wildlife hedge but there's also a case for pulling it out from the crowd and allowing it to stand alone. It has a beautiful round form with big, heart-shaped, hairy leaves which turn yellow in autumn. Spring brings long yellow catkins on male trees and, if you're lucky and live in the south, hazelnuts in autumn.
Collectively, private gardens across our country comprise more land than nature reserves combined, so there's a real potential for gardeners to make a difference by adopting wildlife-friendly practices. Your garden can be part of a green corridor stretching throughout the land. And some good could emerge from our global Covid-19 misery if it helps us consider and adapt how we live with all other life forms on our beautiful planet.
National Biodiversity Week, a celebration of Ireland's beautiful biodiversity, kicks off with a Backyard Bioblitz this weekend (ending tomorrow). With biodiversity experts on hand to identify the species you find in your area, this (virtual) interactive weekend is fun for all ages! Keep an eye on their Facebook page, @biodiversityweek2020, for information about the event.
In the run-up to the Bioblitz, they've been helpfully posting daily photos of some of Ireland's rich biodiversity, activities for all ages and identification guides for some common species that you can follow.
Let's join them in celebrating all life in Ireland, and enjoying the fascinating plants and animals that call this island home!