The An Óige Environmental Conservation Group had a very busy and successful 2018. An Óige Environmental Week 2019 is the perfect occasion to look back at the year just gone and take stock of what has been achieved.
The main focus of the conservation group has been on carrying out the conservation management plan drawn up in 2016 for our Knockree hostel site in Co. Wicklow. The Knockree conservation management plan was drafted with the aid of the Heritage Council and sets out the management actions to preserve and enhance the biodiversity and various habitats of the 27 hectare site.
The first big event of the year occurred in late February when, after an anxious wait, it was confirmed by the Forest Service that our application for a grant to establish a new 4.5 hectare native woodland scheme at Knockree had been approved. Planting trees in Co. Wicklow is an expensive business as deer proof fencing has to be used to protect them. The new plantation required over a kilometre of fencing to be erected before a single tree could be safely planted. The planting of thousands of native oak, alder, scots pine, birch, rowan and cherry was completed in April. This almost doubles the tree cover on the site.
The An Óige Conservation Group is all about volunteer involvement, developing new skills and knowledge. One of our volunteers successfully completed a two year Field Ecology course in 2018 and as part of the course carried out a study of the ground dwelling invertebrates in eight habitat types of the site and also did a macro-invertebrate survey of the Glencree river in May. Surveys of the butterfly and moth population and a small mammal survey are also in progress.
A little earlier, in April, we received some more good news when the Heritage Council approved our grant application for the purchase of some scythes. This grant was also used to pay for training in their use and maintenance. The plan is to use the scythes for the control of bracken which has taken over large areas of the site in recent years. An unusual feature of the Knockree site is the presence of many anthills. Using a tractor to cut or roll the bracken would damage the anthills but the scythes are more versatile. Besides, the scythe is a traditional tool that was commonly used on the Irish farm in the past and is a skill worth preserving in itself. It’s also a good physical work out and fosters a connection with the land among the volunteers.
It will take many years to control the bracken by cutting it twice each year. The aim is not to totally eradicate bracken anyway, as it does create a valuable breeding site for some bird species and for the dark green fritillary butterfly where it occurs with violets.
Every year in Ireland the third week of August is set aside for National Heritage Week. Across the country many events are organised to celebrate Ireland’s natural and cultural heritage. To mark the occasion, the conservation group invited local historian, Frank Tracy, to give a talk at Knockree hostel on the social history of the surrounding Glencree valley. It has to be remembered that our landscape is not a wilderness but a managed landscape shaped by human activities. This is why the management plan for Knockree is so important.
Knockree hostel was originally a farmhouse and its associated land was the farm. The old farming practices would have left plenty of room for nature. Now, as a youth hostel, there has to be awareness that our activities have an impact and that environmental sustainability lies at the heart of all we do there.
In October, as in the previous two autumns , our volunteers collected seeds from the remaining hedgerows at Knockree. The hedgerow is a very important habitat for many plants and animals in Ireland and they act as wildlife corridors. The long term aim is to restore some of the hedgerows along the historic field boundaries. With this in mind, a plant & tree nursery has been established using equipment and tools provided by the 2018 An Óige Volunteer Support Fund.
Already the year has turned and we are into 2019! It is great to begin the new year with An Óige Environmental Week. It is central to An Óige’s mission to promote environmental issues, those relevant to each hostel and its locality along with the national and global issues. An Óige’s conservation volunteers can look back proudly on their achievements in 2018 but nature is a continuous cycle rather than a one off event and so we look forward to continuing our work in 2019.