“Mysterious and little-known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendour awaits . . ”
EO Wilson, who first published the term “biodiversity”, is a rigorous scientist, but he always insists that both the search for knowledge and the passion for conservation begin with a simple thing – with a sense of wonder at the infinite variety of the natural world.
Some years ago, he told this reporter that “we are often failing to foster that spark of wonder in our education systems. Just as a good music teacher will let children experiment with different instruments until they find one that is congenial, so we should offer them direct encounters with birds, reptiles, mammals, plants and, of course, insects, until they find a group they love”.
There is no better moment, at a countrywide level, to engender that sense of wonder, and allow children (and adults) to fall in love with the species with whom we share the world, than National Biodiversity Week, which starts today.
There is a special focus on food and health this year, so events involving pollinators (bees, bats and butterflies) and gardening are particularly well represented.
But it's a broad menu – there are also varied opportunities to engage with whales, bogs, birds and trees, whatever takes your fancy, in many parts of the country, with more than 50 events across nine days, from Donegal to Waterford, via Dublin and Galway.
The timing this year coincides with an exceptionally high media profile for biodiversity, because the week follows hard on the publication of the devastating UN report on unprecedented declines in species worldwide, and the dire consequences for humanity. https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-AssessmentBut that is all the more reason to participate. We only value what we know, and we are much more likely to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world when get more intimate with its particular inhabitants, with what Wilson calls "the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us".
Starting small, there are several events focused on bees. But these are not generally about bee-keeping – the stress is much more on the 97 or so species of bees and bumble bees that we don't manage for honey, but that are essential to the pollination of many plants.
Our knowledge of them is still limited, so we need more citizens scientists to monitor their presence and behaviour. If you want to learn more about this, there are workshops in St Enda's Park in Dublin, and in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
If you want to try to attract bees and other pollinators to your garden or area, there are options at Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Co Tipperary, the Bog of Allen Nature Centre near Rathangan, Co Kildare, and Ballybough in Dublin, among others.
Garden biodiversity features strongly in events in Stradbally, Co Laois, and you can explore organic gardening in Drumcondra, Dublin.
Meanwhile, gardens for health are the topic at a nature trail in Cloughjordan Ecovillage, highlighting the sensory and medicinal aspects of plants, and there is also a 'healing afternoon tea' event in Drumcondra, Dublin, and food and bee workshops in Ballymun GAP community garden.
All biodiversity depends more or less directly on plants, and all plants start with seeds. Seedsavers Ireland have done good work in promoting the importance of creating seed banks for our food security. You can tour the gardens and heritage orchards that supply those banks in Scariff, Co Clare as part of the week's activities.
If you want to go a little further for biodiversity in your garden and your home, there is an event at Golashane Nature Reserve in Kells, Co Meath, that promises to help you to 'make your home a nature reserve', whether you own a large expanse of land, or just a balcony or window sill.
You can learn to build bat boxes at Golashane, and bats are exceptionally well represented in the coming week, with walks planned for Naas, Co Kildare, Trim, Co Meath, both Foxford and Belcarra in Co Mayo, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, and Rossmore Park, Co Monaghan.
At the other end of the scale, in terms of habitat and especially size, anyone interested in whales and related species also has a number of opportunities to learn more, without ever stepping into a boat.
There are walks at Loop Head, Co Clare, Slea Head, Co Kerry, Bray Head, Co Wicklow, Cloghna Head, Co Cork, and Helvick Head Co Waterford. Bring binoculars, and preferably a telescope. There is also a whale and dolphin talk in Fenit, Co Kerry.
For more information on the threats to life in the sea, and how to combat them effectively, there is a discussion on the need to create bigger and better marine protected areas in Ireland at Sea Life, Bray, Co Wicklow. The principle here is wonderfully simple, but critically important for conservation in the ocean.
If we simply stop all fishing in specific areas, populations recover very quickly. And because fish are highly mobile, these populations swiftly spread out into areas where fishing is permitted, thus sustaining the fishery industry, and supplying our need for a continuing supply of food.
And if your foraging has been restricted to dry land, you might enjoy exploring the edible options, and learning about biodiversity generally, in the intertidal zone, at Garrarus Beach, Co Waterford.
The role of butterflies as indicators of healthy habitats, and as useful pollinators, is only beginning to be generally appreciated. If you want to find out more about Ireland's very varied species, and their role in ecosystems, you can do a butterfly walk from the Bog of Allen Nature Centre in Co Kildare.
Inevitably, and rightly, trees and forests also feature strongly among the week's events. It's fitting, in this era of youthful climate activism, that children should take a lead, and you are invited to the ceremonial completion of the Plant-for-the-Planet Climate Conference in Portmarnock, Co Dublin, to show your support.
Lovers of forest walks are also well catered for across the country: you can stroll in woodlands in Belvedere House Gardens in Mullingar, in Clonbur, Co Galway, in Flagmount and Tuamgraney, Co Clare and in Lough Boora, Co Offaly.
You can learn how to set up a tree nursery in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan, and learn about the trees of Dublin in Raheny and Drumcondra Libraries.
Recent years have seen a rise in interest in the richness of plants and animals in the capital, and the week offers several chances to explore Dublin's urban ecology.
Farming is a land use with vast biodiversity impacts, and it would have been good to see this sector more broadly engaged in the week's events. However, there is a walk on Mount Allen Biodiversity Farm in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim, and a chance to explore wildlife refuges on farmland in Jenkinstown, Co Kilkenny.
Where to go, when, and what you need
National Biodiversity Week is organised by the Irish Environmental Network, with support from the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
As well as the events mentioned here, there are a number of general biodiversity activities on offer, promising to help adults and children to reconnect with nature.
All events are free, but booking is necessary for many of them, so check the Facebook page for details, as well as for dates and times. https://www.facebook.com/biodiversityweek2019.
Note in particular also that many events require robust outdoor clothes, and that binoculars, hand lens, and sometimes telescopes may add to your enjoyment.
And if you have a camera, you might want to enter the week's photographic competition, see https://biodiversityweek.ie/photo-competitions/