Northern Ireland

Botanist's book recalls encounter with Co Derry 'meadow maker'

A new book celebrating wildflowers tells of trip to Co Derry and an encounter with 'meadow maker' Donna Rainey. John Manley reports

Biodiversity activist Donna Rainey
Biodiversity activist Donna Rainey Biodiversity activist Donna Rainey

IT’S the naturalist’s must-have book of the summer – a young botanist’s journey around Britain and Ireland, documenting the folk and flora he encounters along the way.

Wiltshire-born Leif Bersweden’s passion for plants dates back two decades, which is all the more remarkable given that’s he’s just 27.

By bike, ferry and train he last year travelled to Shetland, Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, as far east as he could go on the Norfolk Broads, then to west Cork and the moss-carpeted floor of Glengariff’s temperate rain forest.

His aim was to try and find all 52 species of wild orchid in one summer.

This time last year he took his bike across the North Channel from Cairnryan to Larne then cycled to east Derry, where he met up with Donna Rainey, a paediatric nurse by day – and very often night – but also a biodiversity activist who first featured in the pages of The Irish News in 2016, when her Don’t Mow - Let It Grow campaign was adopted by Causeway and Glens council.

Leif got to know Donna via Twitter – she’s a prolific tweeter of her own nature photography, and in her spare time explores the marginal beauty of Donegal and Connemara.

However, many of her posts are of her own meadow, a field she inherited from her late father seven years ago, which she set about rehabilitating. Formerly a monoculture of ryegrass cut for silage, Donna has steadily transformed the five-acre field into a traditional, hay-producing meadow.

Her main ally in this process has been yellow rattle, and a chapter in Leif Bersweden’s Where the Wildflowers Grow recalling last August's trip is named in honour of the plant - AKA The Meadow Maker - a moniker that could easily apply to Donna too.

Yellow rattle’s key characteristic is that it’s a partial parasite that reduces the vigour of meadow grasses, enabling wildflowers to prosper.

Donna’s aim is to redress what she describes as the “annihilation of these crucial habitats” by mechanised farming, while also encouraging biodiversity on pockets of public land like road verges. She even convinced her managers at the Causeway Hospital to turn swathes of the hospital grounds into a meadow.

“Native wildflowers and meadows, once an integral part of our farms, villages and countryside, have all but vanished over the past 70 years,” she says.

“Changes in farming have lead to more drainage, ploughing, spraying and enrichment with fertiliser, mostly in the form of slurry.”

She tells how native flora is the “essential building blocks for life on land” and how many species of butterfly and moth are dependent on specific plants for reproduction – the common blue butterfly lays its eggs on bird's foot trefoil, while the marsh fritillary butterfly and narrow bordered bee hawkmoth prefer devil's-bit scabious.

“Collectively, all these species play an essential role in food production on farms,” she says.

“But apart from being essential for the health of our ecosystems & food production, native wildflowers are crucial for the aesthetics of our countryside. They are the colour and scent of the seasons.”

Leif recalls his visit with great fondness and says he left inspired by what he saw in pockets of rural east Derry.

“I got a real boost and enthusiasm from energy that Donna gives off,” he told The Irish News.

“It was really reassuring to know that there are people like her in the world. It's always good to spend time with people who share your share a common goal. And to think she's doing all of this while working as a nurse – it’s just remarkable.”

The author is also praises of Donna’s “unapologetic” love of nature and how she’s “unafraid to tell people when they are doing more damage than good”.

“I think that's brilliant because that's something I've really struggled to do myself – she’s very good at calling out people who are just, you know, straight up damaging nature.”

:: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden is published by Hodder and Stoughton.