Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events — flowers blooming, leaves unfolding and falling — and is a great tool in charting the impact of climate change.
There are phenological gardens dotted around the country, recording the activity of tree life, but you’ve probably spotted changing patterns in your own garden already.
We may be concerned about how future extreme weather events due to climate change will affect us, but we should also be thinking about the wider natural world because all aspects of it are interdependent.
It is extremely difficult to unpick and unravel all the relationships between insects, plants, birds, grass, bigger animals, etc. and therefore very difficult to predict exactly how climate change will disrupt nature.
Everything living in Ireland today has adapted to our environment and climate over hundreds and hundreds of years. If you think of the not too hot, not too cold, pretty damp weather that we associate with life here, it will be a big change for our plants and animals if we have regular droughts in the summer and much wetter winters, as climate models predict.
The worry is that lots of plants and animals won’t adapt quickly enough to deal with a changing climate. They just won’t survive. And when they’re gone, that’s it.
Of course, lots of other things like pesticides, fertilisers and poor land use impact on biodiversity too and have nothing to do with weather or climate change, but due to warmer temperatures we now see daffodils in January rather than March (although I’m informed there are some daffodil varieties that always bloom early) and more frost-free days in winter are predicted in the future. When there is no frost, flowers think it is time to bloom.
This in itself is not a problem except for the symbiotic relationship of insects who live or eat these flowers and subsequently the birds who eat these insects.
Insect populations are very important for pollinating and processing decaying matter (we’d be up to our knees in dead leaves and animal faeces except for insects!) and more tangibly as food for fish who, in turn, facilitate angling and tourism.
Bird populations eat insects like mosquitoes and keep insect populations in check. Up till recently, everything has been tightly choreographed and balanced. If one part of an ecosystem can’t adapt fast enough and disappears, it can have a cascading effect.
We’ve all heard about the plight of the humble bee. There are a 100 species of bumblebees and honeybees in Ireland and if we lose some of those, we might lose our ability to grow strawberries or oil seed rape or lots of other important crops in Ireland.
Pollinators are incredibly important for food production, food security, world trade and human health — 75% of food crop species need pollination.
Ireland imports a huge amount of food — cereals, rice, fruits and vegetables — so disruptions to ecosystems in other countries could significantly impact us too!
Humans are an urban species now — just over 50% of us live in cities around the world. Although many of us city dwellers may not feel that connected to nature on a day-to-day basis, we totally rely on the natural environment for our absolute essentials — air, food and water.
We also need the natural environment for our health and wellbeing, the beauty and intrinsic importance of trees, beaches and birdsong and all the things we (and the tourists who flock here) enjoy about nature.
A wildlife oasis a mere 10km from Patrick Street can be found in Blarney Castle where the gardens have been managed in a sustainable way to support native species. You might spot red squirrels, kingfishers and otters when visiting, and Gardens Manager, Adam Whitbourn, says the gardens are as biodiverse as they were 50 years ago.
The efforts of Whitbourn’s team to improve biodiversity has been recognised with a ‘Wildlife Estate’ accreditation and their 600-year-old yew tree is in the running for European Tree of the Year.
There’s a poem by Kilmer that starts “I think I shall never see, A poem as lovely as a tree” and the ancient yew tree at Blarney is impressively lovely (and worthy of a vote!)
Whitbourn is also trying to conserve endangered plants and has travelled to northern Vietnam to see if some plants at threat of extinction might thrive in the Irish climate.
Horticultural and zoological sciences are really at the front line of protecting and preserving the natural world from climate change and loss of biodiversity.
A sign of desperation is the creation of seed banks and animal tissue banks around the world, including a famous one in San Diego Zoo, building an ark for endangered animals so if any go extinct perhaps we could reintroduce them when we finally clean up our act.
The idea of trying to recreate a whole ecosystem from a few seed and tissue cells may be the stuff of science fiction, but it hammers home the importance of reducing emissions now to steer us away from a bleak future towards a greener future.
To vote for Blarney’s yew tree go to https://www.treeoftheyear.org/vote