Biodiversity working for us
While there is merit in conserving biodiversity in its own right, there are also a number of critical services which biodiversity provides for society and the economy.
- provisioning services, such as the production of food and clean water,
- regulating services, such as the control of climate and disease,
- supporting services, such as nutrient cycling and crop pollination,
- cultural services such as spiritual and recreational benefits.
Some of these are detailed below.
Notwithstanding the provision of wild foods such as fish, shellfish, mushrooms, nuts and berries, our agriculture sector is heavily reliant on a healthy biodiversity. Cattle and sheep production in Clare, as with the rest of Ireland, is grassland based, with only a very small proportion reseeded each year. Over the last number of years, it has become increasingly evident that species richness in grassland swards results in more productive and cost effective grassland management, as well as producing much tastier meat than a rye grass sward. In addition, there has been a huge increase in resistance to herbicides and pesticides in our tillage and horticulture sectors, resulting in a return to more natural forms of pest control.
The conservation of genetic resources for native agricultural breeds and varieties is also very important, whether it's the Ballyvaughan seedling apple, Galway sheep or Tipperary turnips.
While water quality in Clare is generally good, there is a huge variety of both point source and diffuse pollution, including domestic and commercial wastewater treatment, surface water run-off, industry and agriculture. Biodiversity, and particularly wetlands, are essential for water purification. Water is constantly being recycled, however, the vegetation on wetlands such as bogs, fens, marshes and swamps slow down the flow of water, allowing pollutants to be trapped and filtered out, while microorganisms break down the organic matter. These natural processes are the basis for constructed wetlands such as reed bed wastewater treatment systems and attenuation ponds.
In addition, it is the invertebrates living in water, such as mayflies and stoneflies, which are regularly used to measure water quality.
While the medicinal benefits of herbs have been known since the time of Clare's most famous herbalist, Biddy Early, it is among bacteria, algae and fungi that the most recent medical advances have been made, from penicillin to bifidus actiregularis. In the last decade, there have been several outbreaks of new life-threatening, and potentially epidemic diseases such as swine flu and avian influenza, as well as many diseases where there is no cure available. As there is estimated to be at least 7,000 species of algae and fungi yet to be discovered in Ireland, there is significant potential for identifying new cures to diseases.
It is widely acknowledged that climate change and biodiversity loss are the two biggest environmental issues worldwide, and both are inextricably linked. The conservation of biodiversity in Clare and Ireland can slow down the rate of climate change in a number of ways, while conversely, biodiversity loss can exacerbate climate change.
- Carbon sinks and carbon sources have become part of the vernacular among primary and secondary schools. Here in Clare we have two main carbon sinks and potential sources, namely our bogs and our woodland. Most school children understand the process of photosynthesis where trees and other green vegetation take in carbon dioxide (a mixture of carbon and oxygen), use up the carbon, and release the oxygen. In this way they act as carbon sinks. County Clare is one of the most forested counties in Ireland with around 15% forestry cover, although some of this is species poor conifer plantation. The loss of woodland, and particularly broadleaved woodland, reduces the size of our carbon sink, as well as a loss of habitat for birds, mammals, insects, fungi and lichens.
Peatlands contain and absorb carbon dioxide in the same way as trees and other vegetation, but in much higher quantities. In fact, the world's peatlands contain four times the amount of carbon as all the world's rainforests, however, peat only retains carbon if it's moist. Therefore when a bog or fen is drained, they become major carbon sources, releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the peat decays and oxidises.
- Wetlands, as mentioned above slow down the flow of water, and so help to regulate flooding, however, their loss not only exacerbates the level of flooding, but also its speed, which leads to flash flooding. Wetlands can contain huge volumes of water (bogs, for example, are made of over ninety percent water) and when a wetland is drained, the water must go somewhere, and water will always flow to the lowest lying areas. The protection and retention of river floodplains from infilling, reclamation or development is also vitally important to ameliorate the impacts of flooding.
- Coastal erosion is an on-going process, while sea level rise is generally regarded as an impact of climate change. Coastal habitats such as saltmarshes and sand dunes act in a similar way to wetlands in reducing the impact of coastal erosion on soft landscapes. However, coastal defences and developments close to coastlines can not only damage these sensitive habitats, but can also result in coastal squeeze. Coastal habitats adapt to erosion by naturally migrating inland, however, inappropriately designed and sited developments and defences prevent this migration, and combined with sea level rise, the habitats become trapped and 'squeezed' between the two forces, resulting in their eventual loss.
As most gardeners know, the more earthworms in the soil the better, as they help to mix up the soil, aerate it, and improve its structure, however, its not just earthworms which contribute to soil fertility. Microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria help break down organic matter such as dead vegetation and animal manure into humus, which provides nutrients to plants, holds moisture and improves soil structure. Plants themselves can contribute to soil fertility. Clover for example is a nitrogenous plant, meaning it increases nitrogen in the soil, a vital nutrient for plant growth, while trees and shrubs bring nutrients from the sub-soil and bedrock (including important trace elements) to be distributed over the top soil via leaf litter. This is of particular value for farms and gardens where crops and animals (and ultimately humans) need such nutrients for good health.
Whether it's true or not, Albert Einstein has been attributed the quote 'if the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live'. The rationale behind the quote is that around 90% of all the world's flowering plants depend on pollination by animals to reproduce, including over three-quarters of the staple crops on which we depend for food. While bees are the most notable pollinators, there are many other insects which help pollinate, including butterflies, hoverflies and moths. However, here in Clare and worldwide, pollinators are in decline for a number of reasons, including diseases, parasites, invasive species, fragmentation of their habitats, intensification of agriculture, the use of pesticides and chemicals, and climate change. More than half of Ireland's 101 native bee species have significantly declined in numbers since 1980, with one third now threatened with extinction.
Bio-mimicry is how science and technology copy nature's design in order to increase efficiency. For example, the eye of a moth has shown scientists how to create an anti-reflective coating for solar panels, the wings of a dragonfly inspired panels on a boat called 'Solar Sailor', which harnesses both solar and wind energy, super adhesive bandages have been modelled on the structure of a gecko's foot, and trains have been modelled on the head profile of a kingfisher. Bio-mimicry encourages us to look afresh at nature for ideas and models of sustainable design, and there are ever increasing opportunities to bring together ecology, biology, design and technology.
Biodiversity has always played a role in education, particularly within the curriculum of primary schools, and it is well recognised that outdoor activities add enormously to the relevance and effectiveness of children's learning. However, curriculums, and consequently schools, have tended to use national, or even international case-studies to teach, thereby overlooking the wealth of case-studies available on the school's own doorstep. Increasingly, there is a focus on place-based education, which immerses students (of all ages) into the local landscape and local biodiversity, and offers more relevant and multi-dimensional learning opportunities than classroom-based education.
Recreation, amenity and well-being
There is an increasing appreciation of the recreational and amenity benefits of biodiversity as evidenced in the development of green infrastructure plans for Ennis and Shannon, in neighbourwood schemes such as Lees Road and Ballybeg woods, and in the popularity of walking trails throughout the county, such as the recently opened Doolin to Hags Head Walkway, and the proposed West Clare Railway route. However, it is important to understand that many of the health benefits, and particularly the mental health benefits, arising from these areas are inextricably linked to the biodiversity available. Children with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms and behavioural problems when surrounded by trees and animals in natural settings, while hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees and other aspects of biodiversity from their windows. Simply surrounding ourselves with the sounds of nature is proven to reduce blood pressure and stress.
Inspiration and culture
'Great art picks up where nature ends' is a quote from Marc Chagall, and certainly the biodiversity and landscape of Clare has long attracted and inspired countless artists, as well as being the instigation behind the success of the Burren College of Art. However, it's not just artists who come to Clare to be inspired, as evidenced from the huge volume of songs, stories and poems which describe our local biodiversity in vivid detail, from the music of Sharon Shannon to the words of the philosopher John O'Donoghue. Indeed many parishes and townlands throughout Clare have names associated with biodiversity, or local songs describing their landscape.
Biodiversity is also central to many aspects of our cultural heritage from the Latoon Fairy Tree where the Munster fairies are said to have rested on their way to war, to the Herbalist, Biddy Early, who was convicted of witchcraft due to her knowledge of herbal medicine. Reputed to be 1,000 years old, the Brian Boru Oak in Tuamgraney is one of the oldest and most famous oaks in Ireland, while at Loop Head, the lover's leap is the story of how Diarmuid and Gráinne fled from Fionn McCumhaill and the Fianna, by jumping from the mainland to the island.
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