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Wildflowers for our wildlife

Outdoor Living

WILD DINING A Buff-tailed Bumblebee feasts on Knapweed nectar.

Make room in your garden for a food chain

Nature and rewilding
Pat Fahy

Your garden can be a fabulous environment and a springboard for wildlife, with all of this life creating more and more life on top of it. The plight of the bumblebee has spurred many to find out what actions we can take in the garden, inspired by the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan (www.pollinators.ie). There is so much that we can do, and it really is worth the small effort.
All the gardens in Ireland are larger in size than our six National Parks and 78 nature reserves put together. This makes our gardens a potentially significant contributor to a connected ‘naturehood’, the nature in your neighbourhood.
Another important habitat, essential for wildlife but sometimes taken for granted, is our hedgerows – nature’s green veins of vitality that crisscross our countryside. Only found in any significant way in Ireland, UK and northern France in Europe
In France, a period of land consolidation marked by hedge clearance on a massive scale was followed by a collective realisation of the importance of the hedgerows (‘bocage’ in French) in 1992. Maybe we could do with a similar realisation here in 2020.
I’d like to think that most gardeners now know the value of dandelions for bumblebee queens emerging from hibernation. There’s no dispute; they’re pure gold when there isn’t much else around.
But there’s another spring flower that is even more important to the bumblebee, providing better-quality nectar and giving the likes of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee queen a phenomenal 6,000 flowers a day to start the nest and feed the resulting 600 individuals.
This flowering plant is the willow. Most willows we see are the Goat Willow –  the Sally to you and me. To the bumblebee queen, the native willow is a match made in heaven. When the queen needs lots of nectar for energy in spring the female willow provides; later, when the nest needs pollen for protein, the male willow catkins oblige. Their greenish-yellow catkin flowers are easily overlooked by us, having no petals. It’s the same with the ivy flowers in October, but both are beautiful to our pollinators. If you’re interested in bumblebees, that’s where the action is.
Native wildflowers are the essential perennials that our bumblebees need. In the same way we are told to eat a rainbow of colours for our health, our wildlife needs that rainbow too. Our roadside verges are crucial at this time, and how much more beautiful and alive with insect life our roadside verges are when adorned with native wildflowers.
Some provide nectar and pollen for adult insects, butterflies, moths, hoverflies and bees. Others are forage plants for the survival of caterpillars. A blue tit pair with ten chicks need up to 10,000 caterpillars to rear their a brood. Many other types of birds, as well as everything from hedgehogs to frogs to Ichneumon wasps, eat caterpillars. By allowing native wildflowers to grow, you’re creating a food chain and helping prevent further species decline.
It would be sad if we lost the bumblebees. Their buzzing is the sound of the summer. Outside of a football pitch, what is the purpose of a lawn mown to within a millimetre of its life? Mowing the grass takes all the wildflowers with it. Don’t mow, let it grow.
Pick an area with existing wildflowers and watch it blossom – you might be surprised how many flowers there are. Only cut your patch of dandelions in mid-April, and then only mow a wavy path down the middle to get the full view. You don’t want to miss anything! Remember,  whatever is beside the hedge belongs to the hedge – that leave a strip a metre or two wide to easily create a habitat. Then, with the time and money you’ve saved, buy yourself a well-deserved Cornetto. Bumblebees, butterflies and other wildlife will appreciate their new haven in the hood; it’s wonderful how they find it.
The connectivity of the naturehood could be revolutionary. (And not only for wildlife. Collectively it creates a community of people all doing the same thing.) This connectivity is essential for allowing any community of plants and animals to have a sustainable future. ‘In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous’. So said Aristotle.

Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.