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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 20 October 2021

The people trying to rewild Ireland, bit by bit, after years of neat, cut grass

“Everyone used to have neat cut borders and straight edges on everything, now people are much more relaxed about how they’re letting their garden grow.”

ON A BRIGHT October morning in Donnycarney, north Dublin, with the sound of traffic driving by on nearby Collins Avenue, Aaron Foley points out the different plants on a small patch of green behind his house.

“That’s your fennel seed there. It’s just ready to start spreading around. So we can take that fennel off there and spread it further around the park,” says Foley, taking the seeds and tossing them to the ground as he speaks.

“There’s some lovely knapweeds there, there’s some chicory, this is your wild carrot here. These are all our ancestral plants now.”

The small park is called the Piggery, and it sits between rows of houses. Foley – who grew up in the area and now lives here with his children – says that for most of his life it had been a “dead green space” which only attracted anti-social behaviour.

That changed about two years ago, when he and others began to “rewild” the place – planting native seeds to grow more plants and attract more insect and animal life. This followed on from the success seen in nearby Mucky Lane, a larger park that has become a community garden.

With support from Dublin City Council Parks Service, Mucky Lane was planted with a large variety of native and non-native plants and trees. Foley and neighbours from the surrounding area work together to keep the place clean, tidy and full of life.

Foley – a licensed herbalist with a strong interest in nature – calls himself a “guerilla gardener”. During the Celtic Tiger years and the recession, he would take seeds and spread them around the building sites of Dublin, watching the plants grow in vacant spaces.

IMG_1146 Aaron Foley in Mucky Lane Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

His own back garden is a forest of native plants, nettles and trees, and his advice to others is simple:

“We have a rule here – if you don’t know what it is, you don’t pull it up,” he says.

Mucky Lane and the Piggery are two small examples of a community coming together to “rewild” their area to help Ireland tackle its biodiversity crisis.

Biodiversity crisis

Plant and animal life in Ireland and across the planet are under threat for a number of reasons.

A landmark 2019 UN report on biodiversity found that one million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction, and that species loss is accelerating at a rate of tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.

In Ireland, according to the latest report on protected habitats and species from the National Parks and Wildlife Services, 54 of 59 habitats assessed were in an unfavourable state, with the condition of 46% of habitats declining since the previous report.

A recent Noteworthy investigation found that a record number of bird species are now of high conservation concern in Ireland, and that 77 species of plants and animals in the country are considered endangered.

One of the main causes of these declines is agriculture, with overgrazing by animals the single biggest contributor. Thousands of years ago, Ireland was 80% covered by forest. This dropped to just 1% in the early 20th century, before rising to about 11% today.

Meanwhile, over 70% of land in Ireland is used for agriculture. Compounding these issues are the effects of climate change, which will see further stresses to Ireland’s marine and land ecosystems.

So, what can rewilding do to help?

“There’s no official definition of rewinding but broadly speaking it’s about restoring natural ecosystems and restoring natural processes,” says Padraic Fogarty, campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust.

“And in Ireland we have pretty much destroyed all of our natural ecosystems. We just don’t have any natural ecosystems inland or at sea. And people might say, well so what?

IMG_1103 Aaron Foley's fennel seeds Source: Cormac Fitzgerald

“Well the consequence of that is we have land uses that are polluting our waterways, that are releasing greenhouse gases and that are driving other species to extinction.

“Rewilding, I think, offers a number of avenues for action and for hope as well in the face of the crisis.”

Rewilding projects

Rewilding has grown in recent years from a relatively obscure idea to something at the forefront of the debate around biodiversity, thanks in part to a number of initiatives that have caught the public’s imagination.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan was first launched in 2015, and encourages farmers, local councils and communities to support Ireland’s bee populations.

The plan has led to large sections of gardens, greens and meadows being allowed to grow more “wild”, in order to provide pollen for bees and other pollinators.

Meanwhile, communities like the one in Whitehall and Donneycarney have reclaimed green spaces that may have once contained only short cut grass, and turned them into thriving gardens full of native plants and trees.

There are also larger plans and projects underway across the country from local authorities, conservation groups and concerned individuals.

Recently, the Dublin Mountains Partnership committed to turning 30% of the forest in the mountains away from commercial forestry and towards supporting native trees. There are also plans in Mayo to create an 11,000 hectare wilderness area in the Nephin Beg mountains.

Bord na Móna also has large-scale plans to restore over 8,000 hectares of boglands to their natural states, after it announced that it would stop harvesting peat.

In 2014, Randall Plunkett, the 21st Baron of Dunsany, gave over 750 acres of his family estate in Co Meath for rewilding. The initiative has seen great success, with many species returning to live in the reserve.

In Cork, on the Beara Peninsula, Eoghan Daltun has turned his 32 acres of land into a forest of native oak and other trees. By keeping the area clear of non-native plants and free from overgrazing, Daltun has allowed the native trees and wildlife there to thrive.

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A number of not-for-profit organisations have also sprung up to encourage rewilding. We Are Ark – an initiative founded by Mary Reynolds – encourages people to turn parts of their land into “Arks”, areas where plant and wildlife are allowed to exist undisturbed by human encroachment.

Another NGO dedicated to conservation is Green Sod Ireland. First founded in 2006, it is a land trust which protects land that is gifted to it, keeping it free of human encroachment and allowing it to grow wild.

“It’s to help protect the environment,” says Jenny Cunningham, administrator with Green Sod.

“The rewilding and the nurturing of the land allows biodiversity to thrive and flourish.”

More to do

Despite all these initiatives, wildlife and nature experts don’t think enough is being done to address and reverse the crisis in Ireland’s biodiversity.

“It’s very hard even to get a conversation going about rewilding because just the word seems to be very controversial,” says Padraic Fogarty.

“And the reason I think that, is because people feel that we as human beings have to have control over every square metre of land, that we can’t just have nature doing what it wants.

“That’s the frustrating thing at the moment. It’s very hard to feel hopeful, even though the solutions are ready to go, we find that a lot of people aren’t even willing to talk about them.”

Fogarty says that huge swathes of land will need to be rewilded to address the crisis, but at the moment not enough is being done on a large scale.

“We don’t have forever to be twiddling our thumbs thinking about this. This is a really urgent crisis. We’ve got the rest of the decade to turn things around.”

Back in Donnycarney, Aaron Foley says that there are many challenges ahead as Ireland attempts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, but he has seen positive changes in people’s attitudes in recent years.

He points to a group of plants growing in a corner of Mucky Lane Park that someone might identify as weeds:

“I can’t believe that people are letting that go. When we started doing this there were people who were insane weeders, pulling everything out. Now we tell people that they can’t pull out anything unless they can identify it,” he says.

“They still do pull them out, but it’s much, much slower. People aren’t as uptight about nature now.

“Everyone used to have neat cut borders and straight edges on everything, now people are much more relaxed about how they’re letting their garden grow.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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