Catherine Keena, Teagasc Countryside Management Specialist
Be aware of nature on your farm
Do not disturb birds nests
No more hedgecutting from 1 March to avoid disturbance to birds and their nests. Birds, their nests and eggs are protected under the law. Under cross compliance, there are penalties if there is evidence of hedge cutting during the bird nesting season. Look out for birds’ nests, while still visible, before leaves form a protective cloak around them. Branches, twigs, grasses, moss, hair and sheep’s wool are used to build them. Nests differ, with every species having a specific design and structure. Identification can be easy if the associated bird is to be spotted. The magpie’s nest is usually high up in the fork of a tree, but can be in a hedge. It is elaborately constructed with a foundation of clay, with a domed nest of twigs on top, lined with grass.
Allow hedges provide for bees
Before the conspicuous displays of blackthorn flowers in late March and whitethorn flowers in May, catkins on hazel, willow and alder provide valuable sources of pollen. The sight of hazel catkins called lambs tails appearing before the leaves is a true sign of spring – very conspicuous in hedges, woodland and scrub habitats just now, as the male catkins burst open and expand into beautiful fluffy yellow flowers, fluttering in the breeze which facilitates pollination when clouds of released pollen drift to the tiny bud-like female flowers fringed with a tuft of red hairs. Bees use this early source of pollen.
Immature male catkins are covered in grey fur and elongate and open to allow the pollen drift on the breeze to pollinate. Catkins appear before the leaves on our most common varieties such as goat willow, grey willow and eared willow. There are up to twenty varieties of willow in Ireland including hybrids and are difficult to distinguish. They vary from tall trees to small bushes. Goat willow is the most common one in hedges and has broad leaves. Willows also known as sallies grow in damp ground.
Alder catkins which are reddish in colour obvious now before the leaves, in clusters of 3-6 at the tip of branches. Male catkins are longer while female catkins resemble small pine cones and contain seeds loved by finches, tits and goldcrests. Growing along watercourses and in damp places, alder seeds have oily coats and air pockets, enabling them to float in water, facilitating dispersal. An association with a special bacteria living in the roots enables alder to fix nitrogen.
Hazel, willow and alder catkins
Allow non-farmed areas to flower
Non-farmed areas are invaluable space for nature on your farm, provided they are allowed grow and flower, provided they are not ‘tidied up’ by spraying or cutting routinely. Look out for lesser celendine on banks at the base of hedges. This low, fast-growing plant is one of the first flowers to bloom in spring when temperatures begin to rise but while hedgerow shrubs are not yet casting shade and dies back before being engulfed by taller grasses and vegetation. The bright glossy yellow star flowers have narrow petals. It can be mistaken for buttercup but has eight petals compared to five. It closes up in overcast conditions and at night. Even in fine weather it only opens during the working day from 9-5. It supplies nectar to insects and bumblebee queens as they emerge from hibernation. Lesser celandine is part of our native Irish biodiversity.