When we talk about saving the planet we often look at events that happen far away. We are devastated when we see the giant panda that can’t find enough food because the forest it lives in was cut down and we are shocked if a lion is killed by farmers because it wandered outside the borders of the national park and onto farmland. Meanwhile in Ireland numerous hedgerows are destroyed every year, robbing birds of their home and food source, and seals are culled because they are blamed for dwindling fish stocks. For some reason many of us are alarmed by these events but still we are far more willing taking action to safe the panda thousands of kilometers away than protecting the hedgerow down the road.
The main reason for the loss of biodiversity is not climate change or pollution, it is the loss of habitats, the loss of spaces for wildlife to live, feed, rear their offspring and thrive. Wildlife and conservation start right at our doorstep and often even closer than the hedgerow down the road. Most of us have a patch of land and most of us have turned this land into a garden. In most cases this garden unfortunately consist of a manicured lawn and a few non-native shrubs and flowers, helped along with chemical fertilizer and pesticides. In terms of saving the planet this is not only wasted space it is as bad as cutting down the giant panda’s forest.
Life starts in the soil and with the soil. If you plough over the manicured lawn and lay off the chemical warfare interesting things will happen. Underground and hidden from sight lives a group of animals that most of us prefer not to get too close to. Without the earthworm however nothing would be growing because there wouldn’t be any soil. Apart from inorganic particles made from ground down rock, soil consists mainly of decomposed matter from plants and animals who provide the nutrients for new growth. Responsible for the decomposition are earthworms with some help from bacteria, fungi, woodlice and other creepy-crawlies. Dead leaves and other organic matter are being dragged underground where they go into on one end of the worm and come out on the other end as nutrient rich soil. The extensive burrowing of the earthworms also increases soil aeration and drainage and makes it easier for the roots of young plants to grab hold.
Once this natural soil has been established more and more plants will start to grow. Grasses, herbs and wildflowers like daisies, red and white clover, dandelions, buttercups and many others. In most cases these plants will appear naturally as seeds will be blown in by the wind, left in bird droppings or have been there dormant all along. Dandelion is probably one of the first to appear. The leaves of this pretty plant are edible and can be used in salads and its roots can be used for a coffee substitute. The dandelion also has medicinal properties and has been known for its diuretic effect for centuries. The flowers of the white clover can be sucked or eaten as a sweet treat. Their high nectar content makes them also one of the most important plants for insects in general and honeybees in particular. Even the visually not so interesting weeds are good to have. Common sorrel has a refreshing sour taste and can be used in salads and its bigger relative the broad leaved dock is the universal cure for nettle stings. The latter can be made into tea or added to soup and the stinging nettle has. similar to the dandelion, a diuretic effect and supports kidney function. The list could go on, most of our native weeds can be used in some way either as food, medicine or for some other purpose.
The main purpose of these wildflowers however is to attract insects from flies to honeybees, from beetles to butterflies. These insects are not only important pollinators but are also a food source for birds. Most of Ireland’s birds are in decline. The numbers of coal tit and blue tit, green finch and gold finch, skylark, robin and even the house sparrow are going down. The wildflower meadow itself provides not only food in the form of creepy-crawlies and seeds but also shelter for ground nesting birds and other small animals like mice and voles. These again attract predators and opportunists like birds of prey, crows, fox and badger. And there it is, a new multilayered and interwoven ecosystem made out of nothing.
The images here have been made for the Meet Your Neighbours project in my own backgarden wilderness. The Meet Your Neighbours project had been founded in 2009 by Scottish photographer Niall Benvie and American nature photographer Clay Bolt. The aim of the project was and is to give the loathed plants and animals, the weeds and pests, a chance to shine and to reveal what they really are: Our neighbours and vital to a healthy biodiversity.
For more information on gardening for biodiversity please visit www.wearetheark.org.
Carsten Krieger, January 2020