Event Report: Walk on the dunes in Mornington, County Meath, June 8th 2024

The cool, windy sunny conditions we have seen during early June continued during our Mornington walk. The dunes are home to wonderfully flower-rich grassland where Skylarks are conspicuous by sight and sound, contributing their tune to wind and wave song. Strolling here amid the glories of the dune grasses reminds me how bland Ireland’s general landscape has become, despoiled and impoverished by the ravages of modern agriculture. The extreme east of Meath contains the county’s best semi-natural grassland habitats but even here threats are extending: montbretia, sycamore and Sea Buckthorn are all biological menaces, their alien invasive presence intruding onto this slice of remnant richness.

Small Blue breeding habitat in Mornington, Co. Meath.

The scents of the flora and wild grasses recall childhoods for today’s over 40s. Few younger adults and children have these biological or memory baselines, a factor that will influence future perceptions of what Ireland’s land ought to look like. That’s one reason why maintenance of the good remaining patches is vital. We need biodiverse areas as a benchmark for restoration schemes for biological resources and exemplars to support action.

Mother Shipton moth on montbretia, Mornington.

After uprooting most of the montbretia in one patch adjoining the parking area, we set out to seek nature. Scarily few Small Blues were evident. Their breeding habitat is in excellent condition, so why were there so few? A clue might lie in the condition of those we did see, all perfect, newly hatched. Perhaps we are seeing just the beginning of its flight period in this area. Many Common Blues showed wear and tear indicative of some days on the wing.

Small Blue female in Mornington. It is a tiny insect, easily missed.
Recent survey work shows its presence in nearly 10% of Ireland’s 10km squares but many colonies occupy small areas and contain few individual butterflies.

Small Heaths were active, males fighting for control of the breeding ground. Two were fighting like two male Speckled Woods who believe a patch is their property, circling each other in tight circles of fury, with neither giving way. This is typical of the behaviour of male Small Heaths I have seen elsewhere. According to Thomas and Lewington (2014), larger-winged males tend to win, so smaller males are pushed away from favoured mating sites, diminishing their chances of mating success. The same source states that males are less likely to be territorial during hot weather when they favour search flights rather than settling on the ground to await females.

We saw no Cinnabar moths, again suggesting that it is yet to emerge in Mornington. We saw a beautiful Yellow Shell moth, its golden shell-marked wings appropriate for a coastal habitat. A Mother Shipton moth was also recorded. A couple of fast-moving Ruby Tiger moth caterpillars were spotted too, one on the soil, the other on ragwort. Both wriggled off at speed when disturbed.

Common Blues were not numerous but striking, typically the large examples found in Ireland. A single female was seen, with brown uppersides. Those in the west and parts of the midlands are blue or contain blue with brown scales on their upper surfaces. The colour differences might relate to climatic conditions, with bluer females associated with cooler, cloudier, damper situations away from the east coast.

It was a pleasant event, and the lovely newlyweds who attended were great company. We wish them every success in the years ahead.

Flower-rich turf in Mornington.

 

Bloom flatters to Deceive

June Bank Holiday weekend is synonymous with the beginning of the Irish summer, imminent holidays, strawberries and cream, and Bord Bia’s Bloom festival, featuring 2024 21 show gardens.  Laura Douglas, Head of Bord Bia Bloom & Brand Partnerships penned the welcome in the Show Garden Guide, mentioning as key themes living in ‘greater harmony with nature,’ protecting ‘wildlife and the environment in our gardens’ and providing spaces that offer wellbeing benefits. Kerrie Gardiner, the event content manager, mentions biodiversity and protecting the local landscape.

Ashtown Castle, Phoenix Park, the Bloom venue.

To test the claims about gardens protecting biodiversity, I applied the Russo Test. This is my name for the 2022 study (Laura Russo is the corresponding author) that examined Irish plant-pollinator networks. The study, Conserving diversity in Irish plant-pollinator Networks discovered that 35 plants are of the greatest importance for pollinators.

The scientists collated data from six studies in Ireland where obligate (necessary) flower-visiting insects (specifically butterflies/moths, bees, and hoverflies) were observed/collected while foraging on flowers from May through August in 2009–2011 and 2017 and April through October in 2018. Transect surveys were made for this study.

What does the study reveal? The study analysed flower-visitor interactions between 239 flowering plant species and 148 insect visitor species in Ireland. The composition of the insect visitor species observed was: 54.7% hoverflies (Syrphidae), 30.7% bees (Anthophila), and 14.6% butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). However, bees dominated in abundance on flowers (61% bee, 35% hoverfly, and 4% butterfly or moth visits), like in other published studies.

The Marsh Fritillary must have a species-rich sward for its survival.

The thirty-five plant species in the Irish plant-pollinator network that rank in the top ten of the different measures (visitation rate (a), average abundance of visitors (weighted degree, (b)), average species richness of visitors (unweighted degree, (c)), betweenness centrality (d), duration of bloom, (e) and functional complementarity (supporting different insects) (f)) ranked from highest (top) to lowest (bottom) under (e) are:

 Trifolium pratense Red Clover

Ranunculus repens Creeping Buttercup

Potentilla erecta Tormentil

Lotus corniculatus Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil

Bellis perennis Common Daisy

Centaurea nigra Common Knapweed

Prunella vulgaris Selfheal

Plantago lanceolata Ribwort Plantain

Leontodon saxatilis Lesser Hawkbit

Trifolium repens White Clover

Ranunculus acris Field Buttercup

Heracleum sphondylium Common Hogweed

Taraxacum agg dandelions

Cirsium arvense Creeping Thistle

Rubus fruticosus Bramble

Cirsium vulgare Spear Thistle

Cirsium palustre Marsh Thistle

Leontodon hispidus Rough Hawkbit

Thymus polytrichus Wild Thyme

Scorzoneroides autumnalis Autumn Hawkbit

Senecio jacobaea Common Ragwort

Lapsana communis Nipplewort

Lythrum salicaria Purple Loosestrife

Fuschia sp Fuschia

Oxalis debilis Large-flowered Pink-sorrel (non-native)

Crepis capillaris Smooth Hawksbeard

Buxus sempervirens Box

Sambucus nigra Elder

Glenchoma hederacea  Ground-ivy

Primula vulgaris Primrose

Chrysanthemum segtum Corn Marigold (Probably introduced)

Diplotaxis tenuifolia Perennial Wall-rocket (non-native)

Rhus sp Cashew Family non-native

Scrophularia auriculata Water Figwort

Crepis biennis Rough Hawk’s-beard (Probably introduced)

I tested each of the 21 show gardens against this list.

What did I find at Bloom?

A mere nine of these 35 plants were represented in the 21 show gardens.

Those recorded and the number of gardens they appeared in were:

Red Clover (3), Creeping Buttercup (1), Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil (2), Common Daisy (2),

Ribwort Plantain (1), White Clover (2), Field Buttercup (4), Dandelion (1), Box (1-2).

This is pathetic. The cant about pollinators and acting for them and biodiversity generally is mostly unsupported by Bloom’s gardens. There were few bees on show and zero butterflies, despite the warm sunshine. The vacuity of this window dressing was reinforced by the literature being handed out showing important plants for pollinators. So, it’s not that nobody knows what’s needed.

One garden, entitled Rewild, styled itself as a space that incorporates traditional high-intensity management and moves towards a ‘wilder, more natural space’ to mark ‘the shift towards embracing biodiversity and creating a space where people live in harmony with nature.’ ‘Pollinator-friendly plants and habitat structures invite insects and birds into the garden.’ The garden was certainly attractive, but bug hotel aside, there wasn’t much for pollinators there. There appears to be an obsession in most of Bloom’s gardens with cultivars of Brook Thistle Cirsium rivulare. The unadulterated plant is native to damp areas in East France and Southern Germany. Don’t bother with it. Grow our lovely native wetland thistle, Meadow Thistle Cirsium dissectum instead. I have watched Orange-tip, Marsh Fritillary and Dark Green Fritillary enjoying its nectar, along with bumble bees.

Annoying and ironic was the In Perspective Garden by the European Commission. The booklet introduces its theme thus:

This European Commission garden articulates the values of the EU Green Deal which seeks to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050.

EU Commission garden.

This initiative includes protecting our biodiversity and ecosystems and one of its actions is the Biodiversity strategy for 2030. The strategy aims to put Europe’s biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030 and contains specific actions and commitments. These include the EU Nature Restoration Law and enlarging protected areas. One of the targets of the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 is to legally protect and effectively manage a minimum of 30% of EU land by 2030.

I saw scant evidence in the plants used of a thematic link between this garden and nature restoration or biodiversity protection. I saw two herbs and one grass species in this garden native to Ireland: Wild Valerian, Red Campion and Wood Brome. Without native plants, biodiversity stands little chance of survival, let alone recovery. Our native butterflies, moths, and invertebrates generally rely on native plants for their life cycles. The European Commission should know better.

Brigid 1500 Commemorative Garden.

Two gardens deserve a mention for biodiversity protection. The garden with the most native flowers was the Brigid 1500 Commemorative Garden. I counted six native trees, one native shrub and seven native flowers: Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Cowslip, Common Daisy, Red Clover, Ribwort Plantain, dandelion and Meadow Buttercup.

Nourishing Dairy From the Ground Up.

The other garden that had a meaningful link with biodiversity was Nourishing Dairy-From the Ground Up by Tunde Perry sponsored by the National Dairy Council. The text describing this garden lacks the pretentious verbiage typical of many ‘compositions.’ The text describes what is there, and the garden encompassed the stated elements: ‘grass meadow, multispecies sward and Irish native trees, shrubs and hedgerows.’ This sward held Meadow Buttercup, Red Clover, Ox-eye Daisy, Yellow Rattle, Cowslips, Ragged Robin and Foxgloves. The shrubs included Common Hazel. This is the only garden where I saw a Lepidopteran, a moth laying her eggs on Yellow Rattle, on the capsule that holds the seeds.

Nourishing Garden From The Ground UP sward.

Supporting Sick Children

One garden, Children’s Heath Foundation Garden of Music and Play designed by Declan McKenna listed the 31 plants used in the garden. It contains zero native plants and only one that is outstanding for butterflies, Verbena bonariensis. Providing a welcoming space for children in the new Children’s Hospital’s four acres of green space and 14 gardens and internal courtyards, mentioned in the leaflet provided, would benefit tremendously from native plants. Water Mint Mentha aquatica, Corn Mint Mentha arvensis, Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus, Common Marjoram Origanum vulgare and Bog Myrtle Myrica gale (all native)  have attractive aromatic leaves and blooms, providing children with visual, tactile, olfactory experiences as well as drawing in masses of pollinators. Add showy natives Common Knapweed Centurea nigra, Greater Knapweed Centaurea scabiosa, Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, Wild Teasel Dipsacus fullonum for structure, colour and clouds of hoverflies, bees, butterflies and moths and the benefits for children’s wellbeing, and their families, are hugely enhanced. Set a moth trap in the National Children’s Hospital native gardens twice a week from March to October for more well-being. Children and parents can take photos of the colourful butterflies visiting the plants. Plant some brassicas to attract Large White and Small White butterflies to breed in the hospital gardens, to show butterfly life cycles in action. Children could save seeds from some of the flowering plants to grow in pots at home, giving them more to look forward to. More imagination applied by the Children’s Health Foundation would greatly assist in the therapeutic journey travelled by children and their stressed parents.

Bloom is visited by tens of thousands of well-meaning gardeners every year. Another chance to evangelise about biodiversity, to demonstrate biodiversity. ‘Yet to meet expectations’ is a benign way of saying Bloom overall didn’t achieve the description stated in the Guide. The plants on show, overwhelmingly non-native, simply deceive people about the ecological relationship between plants and animals. Go native.

Photos J. Harding

 

Reference

Russo, L., Fitzpatrick, Ú., Larkin, M., Mullen, S., Power, E., Stanley, D., White, C., O’Rourke, A., & Stout, J. C. (2022). Conserving diversity in Irish plant–pollinator networks. Ecology and Evolution, 12, e9347. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9347