My Career: Taking action to support biodiversity in Cork city

Executive Horticulturist with Cork City Council Emer O'Callaghan features in our My Career
My Career: Taking action to support biodiversity in Cork city

Emer O'Callaghan Horticulturalist City Council.

Name: Emer O’Callaghan.

Age: 53.

Lives: Dromahane, Cork.

Job Title: Executive Horticulturist with Cork City Council.

Salary bracket: Grade 7 salary range goes from €53,943 to €65,429.

Education background: Degree in Horticulture from UCD.

Describe your job in five words: Hugely varied, satisfying, environmental, creative, leadership.

Describe yourself in five words: Driven, positive, adaptable, considerate and creative

How long are you doing this job: I’m working in horticulture at Parks Operations at Cork City Council for 22 years.

What personality do you need for this job? You need to be ideas-driven and you need to be a team player. You must have an ability to listen, to be reasonable, outgoing and thick-skinned.

How did you get this job: I came in as a student having just finished my post-graduate course in UCC , then worked with North Lee Cork City Partnership as a Horticultural Liaison Officer, training and working with Cork City Council’s Community Employment staff on how to best plant trees, shrubs, and bulbs and all the basics of horticulture before becoming an Assistant Parks Superintendent. I took up my current role in 2001, where I am implementing actions to support biodiversity in the city.

I’ve always loved this job as every day is different and I’ve had great leadership and mentorship from Senior Parks & Landscape Officer, Liam Casey. I’ve loved watching the city’s green spaces develop and seeing horticulture, biodiversity and sustainability become increasingly important to residents, community groups like Tidy Towns or Men’s Sheds, and to businesses operating across the city.

I think people are more aware of what Cork City Council’s Parks crews do now to improve quality of life in the city. Before, people thought we just did things like cut the grass, but especially since the lockdowns, people tell us how much they enjoy our pollinator planting at roundabouts, the 80 tiered planters and containers we’ve placed around the city, our wildflowers meadows, and our ongoing work with groups like Green Spaces for Health to support community gardens, etc.

Did you need a qualification for this job?

Yes, I have a degree in horticulture, but you are always learning about better ways to support horticulture and sustainability in local communities.

In recent years, we are moving away from traditional seasonal annual bedding to planting and maintaining herbaceous perennials and pollinator friendly annuals. There are always new learnings to impart to staff.

How many hours do you work: I work a four-day week and am on call as requested.

What do you wear to work? I’m a jeans and jumpers girl, high heels for special occasions! You’ll generally find me in runners or in safety gear if I’m on site.

Describe a day at work: Genuinely, every day is different. There’s always emails or telephone requests from councillors, residents or community groups that you need to follow up.

Liaising with staff is important to ensure that day to day operations run smoothly and that we can respond in a professional capacity to whatever the day brings .

I make sure staff are aware of and can implement changing beneficial horticultural practices to provide top class amenities across the city.

Some of the other areas within Parks & Recreation I am involved in include cemeteries, playgrounds, Mahon Golf Course, and allotments to name a few.

In my case, the newer practices often better support biodiversity, like our increased usage of pollinator friendly plants in floral displays in the city. Up to 85% of all summer bedding was pollinator friendly last year – a 55% increase in two years - and 1,100 pollinator friendly herbaceous perennials were planted in phase 1 of Marina Park. Over 2,000 pollinator friendly trees were also planted across the city last year.

Also, I will advise staff around planned changes in policy, eg, we are working towards the zero use of herbicides in all amenity recreation areas – having begun by banning glyphosate last year - and we are now reviewing alternative methods of weed control – organic herbicides, mechanical and manual.

There is always something new to learn and impart in this game. In April, we started a community garden at Gerry O’Sullivan Park, working with and supporting community groups and local schools to learn about horticulture and biodiversity.

We support a number of Community Gardens across the city.

Is your industry male or female dominated: I work with men and women across administration, political and operations roles in the Council. Horticulture is an industry where it doesn’t matter if you are male or female , as long as you are hard working.

Is your job stressful? Sometimes, everyone thinks I have a ‘lovely job’. And yes there is great satisfaction in seeing the ongoing greening of the city and thinking ‘I’m responsible for those trees or plants’. However, as I’ve got older, I’ve learnt that it is only as stressful as you allow it to be.

Do you work on your own or as part of a team? I work as part of a great team of about 130 people – working with all grades of administrative staff, Operations crews and my Director of Services. My day involves both taking instruction and giving guidance.

When do you plan on retiring? I’ll stay as long as they’ll keep me...

Best bits? Job satisfaction. I really believe our continued efforts are making a difference by supporting nature in the city. We’ve helped create lots of wildflower meadows and green spaces for biodiversity at community level in places like Sunvalley Drive, Meelick Park, at the Curraheen River Walk, and at Clashduv Park in Togher.

I’m also very proud of our four Green Flag Awards last year at Fitzgerald’s Park, Shalom Park, Ballincollig Regional park and Douglas Community Park.

Advice to those who want your job: You need to be motivated and have a love for all aspects of horticulture and the great outdoors , have good communication skills, and be prepared for all eventualities.

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