Life

Take on Nature: We need to talk about the birds and the trees

A bird's nest wedged in among the branches of a beech planted just five years ago

SPRING didn’t exactly spring this year – it was more of a slow stagger forward, with a stumble to the side and a few drunken steps backwards.

Maybe it is because I started planting trees a few years ago that I have become more attuned to the shifts in the seasons rather than simply complaining about how crap the weather has been.

While the rowan and birch spilled out their leaves at the start of April, the branches of the oaks are still bare and the beech have only just shed last year’s copper foliage as the green newcomers finally push through.

The ash, which grow beside the small plot of land I have planted, look as if they will make it for another year, although the consensus is that this species’ days in Ireland are numbered as they are being wiped out by Ash Dieback.

The alder and the willow are flourishing, although given the fact that they thrive on damp ground this is probably no surprise.

My favourite tree to sit by, a single yew, is already like an apprentice druid, meditative and wise beyond its years – it could live far longer than any of the others that I have planted around it. The oldest in Ireland is believed to be 800 years old.

While poking around my youthful forest last weekend to make sure that there had been no winter casualties, I had one of those slightly blubbery moments. Wedged in among the branches of one of the beech trees was a tiny nest with the remains of a few eggshells still scattered around its edges.

I have no idea what hatched from it, but I have seen wrens, wagtails and tits flitting between the branches, and given its size it must be one of these smaller species.

There has also been a noticeable increase in the numbers of insects – nice ones like moths and butterflies; annoying ones like midges; ones to be careful of but welcome none-the-less like bees and wasps; and the downright perilous like horseflies.

Despite the possibility of being bitten by one of these nasty critters, it is humbling to see the trees that I planted becoming a habitat – there are fox stools and I saw a badger scuttling through the undergrowth one evening.

However, while trees provide a vital habitat for many of our native species, others need open spaces to thrive. This was brought home a few weeks back when icy rain was lashing down on me in a boat on Lough Erne.

Amy Burns, who is Lower Lough Erne Islands warden for the RSPB, had taken me out to see curlews and tell me about her work in trying to stabilise the dramatic decline of this species with its evocative call.

Curlew numbers across Ireland have plunged by a catastrophic 89 per cent since the 1980s. Around 10 per cent of the entire population is now resident on Lough Erne.

Amy says part of the problem is down to the intense drive to reforest Ireland. While woodlands provide a vital habitat for many birds, other such as curlews and lapwings and of course the all-but extinct corncrake, nest in open ground among the long grass.

Forestation provides shelter for predators, such as foxes and crows, and while they of course a vital to our native ecosystem, they are not endangered.

The RSPB manages 43 of Lough Erne’s 150 or so islands and is working with farmers to ensure that these isolated scraps of land provide both grazing for cattle and a safe place for many of our most-threatened species to breed.

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