With the project now moving through the gears, with most volunteering and education targets already under hit, the spring of 2016 saw a distinct route plan emerging for the maintenance, expansion and restoration of upland and lowland meadows. While Conservation Officer Giles continued to bring in species rich grassland (SRG) and those connected with its management from all angles, the core target hectarage was a priority. This meant developing relationships, offering advice, securing farm maps, agreeing survey methodologies and implementing them.
Of particular importance was the need to undertake habitat surveys on lands earmarked for restoration. This would ensure that increases (…ahem…or decreases!) in species richness were measurable – the project thereby becoming properly accountable. With the help of NIEA, Ulster Wildlife trainees, volunteers both local and international, all surveys were completed and data entered. As elsewhere in the project, the methodology was developed to be inclusive to all-comers – so no latin plant names allowed!
A selection of roadside verges were surveyed too, as a very public aspect to the project was developed. Ten of Northen Ireland’s finest SRG verges formed the beginning of a campaign to change hearts and minds on what roadside verges are really for. Working with the Council and TransportNI, signage went up on c3ha of verges advising later cutting, enhancing ecological connectivity and disseminating project awareness. Species such as fragrant orchid, dingy skipper and humans all benefited - with up to one million of the latter witnessing these strategically placed signs.
Meanwhile, back in the fields that the verges help to connect, all sorts of innovative new techniques were being trialled and demonstrated. Green haying arrived in the country, a process that takes fresh-cut SRG grass to a receptor site where it is managed as hay, thereby spreading the seed. Elsewhere, brush harvesters and wildflower seeders were seen trundling across 20ha of meadows as the restoration season got underway - the species rich fight back was on.
Though restoration can take the form of scrub clearance or altered grazing and cutting regimes, a key component is the humble yellow hay rattle. This clever plant reduces the vigour of competitive grasses around it and opens up the sward for more delicate species to flourish. Ground it was deployed on included: dairy farms; orchards; gardens; verges; green roofs; closed-over dumps; forestry and NIEA sites; schools and agricultural / outdoor education lands as well. Watch this space!
Running alongside this work was the annual cycle of events, education and landowner gatherings, all designed to maximise the bang we got for our project buck. Green haying events attracted people from across Ireland, waxcap workshops drew hardy weather beaten souls, and mini-meadows in primary schools, especially when combined with hawk moths enticed from traps drew tiny gasps of wonder.
Perhaps of particular note were two gatherings, both in the depths of winter. A ‘Fireside story-telling’ event drew a crowd of 90+ people, once again demonstrating a genuine community appetite for the ethos the project promotes. Traditional farm implements, black and white photos of the old ways, roaring wood burning stoves, traditional music, hot food, talks and stories followed by hot food and a wee drink or two made for a memorable night in the Celidh House. Tom and Catherine, we will be back…
Equally, the project promoted, organised, funded and facilitated a three day trip for 12 Marlbank farmers to visit the Burren and the Aran Islands to witness a progressive and enlightened combination of farming, wildlife and tourism – enabling all present to consider how we might follow suit in our very own wildlife-rich county. For sure, they’ll be talking about this trip for years to come, and after all, it’s not every day you can prise so many Fermanagh farmers off their own fields and down to the land of Father Ted!