One of the distinctive features of our Irish countryside are our hedgerows. These field boundaries are part of our cultural and agricultural heritage, often forming townland as well as farm demarcations.
In many counties, including Mayo, hawthorn makes up a large proportion of these native hedgerows (hawthorn is estimated to occur in about 90% of hedgerows in the county).
Hawthorns flower in May, so it is sometimes called the May tree, or whitethorn. This year there is an abundance of hawthorn blossom, much like last year. Some of the hedgerows look almost white (perhaps an indication of why it is also called whitethorn). Anytime there is a strong wind, the little roads around us are covered in fallen blossom. So it almost looks like it has been snowing!
In Ireland, the hawthorn is often associated with fairies and the underworld. Lone hawthorns in the middle of fields will not be touched for fear of upsetting the fairy folk. Hawthorns can live up to 400 years old, and while they never get tall, they can become quite gnarled, so you can see where it may get this reputation.
Once again Irish wildlife finds itself under threat. If we weren’t causing enough harm to our local biodiversity the Minister for the for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys, has proposed changes to the Wildlife Act that will allow for the burning of vegetation in March and the cutting of hedgerows in August. This will have a serious impact on many of our wild species but in particular wild birds and pollinators. Please sign this petition supported by the Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce and Hedge Laying Association of Ireland to try and stop this.
Last January people were ask to make submissions on the proposals. Here is an extract from my submission:
I have been involved in a number of country hedgerow surveys and so feel I have a good knowledge of their ecology. Changing cutting to the end of July would have serious impacts on the biodiversity of our hedgerows. We all know hedgerows are important to nesting birds but they are also vital for other wildlife including insects and in particular pollinators. Hundreds of insect species have been recorded using hedgerows (see references below – Corbett & Mole, 2005, Lewis, 1969 and Maudsley, 2000). Many butterfly species will use native hedgerows not only for finding food but also roosting, basking, mating and egg laying (Dover & Sparks, 2000). I have observed pollinators use both shrubs and climbers in hedgerows and the ground flora of hedgerows to gain vital pollen and nectar. We know that many species of pollinator are struggling with some species in decline. While on one hand there are initiatives such as the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan – (http://pollinators.biodiversityireland.ie/home/all-ireland-pollinator-plan-2015-2020/) to help protect these species, on the other hand consideration is being given to removing a vital form of food for them. Cutting hedgerows at the end of July removes many flowering plants from hedgerows, including brambles and ground flora. The removal of flowering bramble also reduces crops of blackberries which are an important food source for many of our wild birds and wild mammals. Cutting ground flora before they have time to self-seed is also likely to lead to decreases in flora diversity.
Burning heather at the time it is in full flower (July -September) would have a detrimental effect on many of our native pollinators. Honey bees are suffering declines worldwide due to numerous factors. According to the Irish bee keeping website (www.irishbeekeeping.ie/index.php/about-us/education/flowers-for-bees) Irish beekeepers get surplus crops of honey from a small number of plants, which include Ling and Bell heather. The website also states that severe cutting of hawthorn and blackberry in hedgerows will reduce flowering, thereby it is also detrimental to honey production. Bramble is second only to white clover as a valuable nectar producing plant, and in cooler summers it is the main source of the surplus Irish honey crop in most areas.
There is no doubt that hedgerows and upland vegetation must be managed appropriately, but an earlier cutting season is not appropriate. The loss of habitats and the general decline of wild flora in Ireland have both being linked to the decline in pollinators (pollinators.biodiversityireland.ie/bees/irelands-bees/why-are-irish-bees-declining/) and are likely to be factors in the decline of other species too.
It is vitally important that we protect our native biodiversity. In fact, under the “Actions for Biodiversity 2011-2016 (Ireland’s National Biodiversity Plan)” the State has signed up to do so. There are also financial reasons for us to protect habitats that provide food and homes to much of our native wildlife including pollinators. According to EU-funded research, pollination services provided by insects, mainly bees, are worth €153 billion a year, (http://pollinators.biodiversityireland.ie/home/the-value-of-pollinators/). There is so much more we need to be doing to protect our native wildlife. Please don’t take a backward step and put into force something which will be detrimental to our native biodiversity. In my opinion the closed period for cutting hedgerows should not be changed. My knowledge of burning vegetation is less extensive but again consideration must be given to allowing vegetation to flower before burning.
The majority of submissions were against changes to the act so why are changes being made? Who is lobbying for these changes? There is a general election just around the corner here in Ireland. Am I being cynical in thinking that the changes are being proposed to get votes?
Yesterday I was walking what will probably be my last bee and butterfly transect of the year. It has not been a good year for either group. There seems to be much fewer butterflies compared to last year. Still the last couple of days we’ve had lovely autumn sunshine. Much of the transect follows country lanes and the roadside hedgerows are now at their best.
In Ireland, hedgerows provide an important habitat, particularly as we don’t have much woodland. Hedgerows should be regularly maintained to keep them in good condition but many of our hedgerows are pretty neglected. Still it does not mean that they are not valuable for wildlife. In fact the opposite is true. Ivy is just coming into flower now. This late flowering plant is very important for feeding all sorts of insects late in the season, and many of the ivy plants were humming, mainly with hoverflies.
At this time of year hedgerows are great for foraging – not just for us but for birds and wild mammals too. The bad summer does seem to be reflected in cropping though. Elderberries aren’t even ripe yet, blackberries are not plentiful and the sloes are small. The rosehips on the other hand seem to have cropped well.
Ash keys appears to be another plant that has cropped well and both old and newer ash trees are dripping with keys.
Haws are turning their vibrant red. They are a really important food source for many of our birds, are seem a particular favourite of blackbirds.
Those of you who follow my blog regularly may remember back in February we laid one of our hedges.
It looked rather drastic at the time – but this type of hedgerow management has been used for hundreds of years in Britain and Ireland. Our hedge is looking well, all the trees have regrown. This is what it looks like today.
The climbing roses which grow though the hedge are a heritage variety. They have been flowering all summer. The smell is heavenly.
After a good few days of beautiful spring sunshine, which we all knew were too good to be true, we are back to cold, wind, rain and hail. But worst of all has been the night frosts, which have left the crab apple blossom looking like this.
A few blossoms that were not open have escaped, and thankfully some of the apple trees are only just coming into blossom so we may still get some fruit.
One of the plums may have had time to set fruit and I am not sure how the frost will affect those. The greenhouse appears to have given the pear tree some protection as the blossom is still white.
Today, I checked the wild cherry trees, which are planted in the far wood, and they too are all brown. The photo below was taken before the worst of the frost when they were still in pretty good condition.
The wild sloes (blackthorn), which grow in many of our local hedgerows, are also in flower and will also probably be affected by the frost too.
The weather will probably be having an effect on the local wild birds too. Today, I saw both robins and blackbirds busily collecting food, so they are probably feeding young. I spotted this mossy ball on the fence on the track down to the far wood. It’s a wrens nest. And a bullfinch pair have been eating the dandelion seed heads – another great reason for leaving dandelions in your garden. The photo of the bullfinch is from last year.
As the saying of the title suggests weather in Western Europe can be a bit fickle!
Hedge laying is an ancient craft of hedgerow management that is sadly in decline. We planted this hedgerow about five years ago. It has a mix of species, oak, ash, chestnut and birch. We decided to lay the hedge, to make it thicker. Some of the species we’ve planted may not lay well (e.g. birch), so it’s a bit of an experiment. Traditionally in Ireland, farm hedgerows are composed mainly of hawthorn, blackthorn and ash, all of which are ideal for laying.
I know this may look a bit drastic. But by laying the trees horizontal you create a good thick base. The stems of the trees are cut, but not all the way through. The idea is that the tree will grow again from the stump.
Uprights are cut and placed to keep the now horizontal stems in place.
Hopefully by the summer, this will be a mass of new leaves.
Both hedge laying and hedge coppicing are excellent ways of rejuvenating a traditional farm hedgerow that has become gappy or over-grown. More information about hedge-laying in Ireland can be found at http://www.hedgelaying.ie/index.php. In the UK there are a number of different ‘styles’ of hedge laying. Photographs can be seen on http://www.hedgelaying.org.uk/styles.htm
Today was a fabulous autumn day. It started with a cool misty morning, followed by clear blue skies. So it was an ideal day to do a butterfly and bee monitoring transect (For more information check out my earlier blog – https://murtaghsmeadow.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/bees-butterflies/). I have been very bad the last few weeks and haven’t managed to complete one – though it is hard getting the right conditions (must be 17 degrees Celsius or at least full sun). The bee transects are walked once a month but the butterfly transects should be completed once a week. What amazed me today was the number of speckled wood butterflies still around. In the end I counted 31. They are looking slightly battered but no less beautiful.
I also recorded a couple of green veined whites and after I had finished the transect I spotted a red admiral. There was plenty of buzzing in the hedgerows but it was mostly hoverflies, with only the odd bee about (Common carder). The majority of the hedgerow flowers have gone-over with the exception of ivy which is just coming into it’s own and the odd knapweed flower. I gathered some of its seeds to spread in the meadow. The colours now are coming from the fruits and leaves.