Shadow of a drought: how to help birds and plants survive

Birds struggle to source water and food, and plants are ‘under stress’ – here’s how to help

Nature is being hit hard by the drought and, while it is reacting to cope in its own natural way, it could do with a helping hand, according to plant and bird experts.

Brian Burke, co-ordinator of Birdwatch Ireland's garden bird survey, says the most important help people can give birds in the current hot, dry weather is to make sure they have a source of drinking water.

“Put out a bowl of water, maybe with a stone in the centre so smaller birds can perch on it while drinking,” he advised. “Most birds need to drink twice a day and rely a lot on puddles. There are none now and so drinking and washing becomes a problem.”

Hard earth, baked dry, creates particular problems for birds that grub around the soil for worms, insects and seeds.


“One of the things you can do is cut an apple in half and stick it on the branch of a tree for the blackbirds,” says Burke. “That would make life a lot easier for an adult foraging for a fledgling.”

For ground feeders, he suggests spreading sunflower seeds, meal or grated cheese. He thinks most species will cope adequately, as the hot weather has developed gradually, unlike the February extreme cold, which hit hard and suddenly.

Paul Maher, curator at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, said that while plant life was under stress, most would cope well.

“The normal flow of water nutrients to any plant is very much reduced by the drought, and obviously there is a lack of moisture in the ground and there is also the heat levels and drying winds,” he said.

“What you do find, largely speaking, is that you see autumn colours setting in, along the M11 and other places. For example, you see that with the birches. That is one of the mechanisms by which plants slow their metabolism down, but if there’s rain next month they will bud again because we will still have long days. The plant has a learned mechanism.”

Obey the ban

Grass recovers well and easily, and he advises people to obey the hosepipe ban and not waste water on lawns.

“The hosepipe ban is warranted and necessary, and perhaps this is a very nice learning curve for some of the younger generation,” he said. “It’s been a long, long time since we’ve had a drought and people are learning [now] about the hard work and cost of harvesting water and the need to use it carefully.”

The Botanic Gardens have stopped using hoses in favour of watering cans, and is concentrating on its collection of rare species, most of which are in glasshouses.

“Obviously we feel sorry for our plants, but we are not worried,” says Maher. “Our big concern is with some of our conservation collections. We could be one of the last institutions holding a species of a particular plant, and they’re the ones we direct our watering efforts to.”

Regarding herbaceous borders and suburban gardens in general, he says plants that have grown from tubers or bulbs will fare best during the drought. Tulip bulbs, in particular, love hot weather at this time of the year and should flower well next spring.

He suggested there were no long-term implications for plant life, assuming the drought does not go on for months on end.

Comparisons with 1976

Despite the current heatwave, Ireland’s trees should avoid the destruction they experienced in winter after the 1976 heatwave. Large numbers of trees were knocked down that year after suffering from drought the previous summer.

Dr Nick McCarthy, a professor of land management in agriculture, horticulture and forestry at Waterford Institute of Technology, notes the conditions this year differ from those in 1976.

“The 1976 heatwave was preceded by a relatively dry, mild winter with well below average precipitation, while the 2018 heatwave has been preceded by an almost endless winter of wind, rain and unprecedented snowfalls,” he says.

“Tree’s roots can also be affected by severe drought, which then can lead to unstable trees the following winter. That said, trees tend to have large root systems which can grow down to the water table deep underground, thus usually preventing any ill effects except for in the severest of droughts, which is what happened in 1976.”

But the heatwave has the potential to have serious a impact on forestry, according to Marie Doyle, a lecturer at UCD's department of agricultural science. "It's going to add a level of stress in the trees," she says, warning that newly planted trees are fighting for survival in the heat.