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‘Nature will flourish when we cease harmful interventions’

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In her new series on the environment, Bridget Ginnity speaks to ordinary Clare people who have been moved to make changes in their life in response to the climate change crisis that looms ever larger. First up is Colette Reddington, former science teacher in Coláiste Muire Ennis and co-founder of Clare Haven and Haven Horizons

BACK in the ‘90s, there was suddenly a huge amount of algal blooms in the Clare lakes – it smelled like boiled cabbage water. I remember a dog died drinking the water from Lough Derg. Some time later, Cullaun Lake had a fish kill of 20,000 fish. Looking back, that was the first time that I really started to think about how we unintentionally damage our environment. I was impressed that local landowners, Teagasc and angling groups got together and within two years had resolved the problem. It encouraged me to see that while we do damage, we can also reverse it by changing our behaviour.

The inspiration of youth

As a teacher it’s been a joy working with young people and guiding them to combine their interest in the world with scientific enquiry.
Many of my students have taken part in various science competitions like ECO UNESCO and the Young Scientist, often with ecological projects.
Over the years, I could see the degradation of the results in environmental surveys the students were doing in Clare – things like the quality of the water and air.
For example, within 20 years the water quality in wells changed from about nine in ten being good quality to nine in ten being poor quality.
One time a group of students did a systematic beach clean-up in Doughmore beach over a six month period and they got to meet President Mary Robinson in the Mansion House.
She showed great interest in the sand they brought from the beach with lots of tiny, brightly coloured bits of plastic in it.
The wider impact on our food chain was clear to us all as they described how the fish eat the plastic and we eat the fish.
Some of these students are now working in the environmental area, and it’s encouraging to think that the work we did together might have influenced that.

Beneath our feet

Now that I no longer teach, I’ve gotten really interested in soil, in understanding what is happening beneath our feet. It’s simply amazing.
It’s already incredible that a plant can trap carbon and convert it to food but there’s a lot more to it.
The carbon seeps out through the roots and works with particular microbes and fungi to form this big underground forest called a microbiome.
This microbiome communicates between plants with all kinds of beneficial effects. It is fascinating.
We used to think of plants as competing and the emphasis was on keeping the soil around plants bare and weed-free. Now it’s realised that with clever intercropping, we get higher productivity and more nutritious crops.
They’ve compared vineyards with the conventional bare ground between rows and vineyards with soil covered with low growing plants. The contrast is enormous.
The bare soil is dry with heavy clay lumps while the soil with lots of ground cover is moist, rich and has a lovely crumbly texture.
I’ve done a few online courses with the National Organic Training Skillnet. They aim to support regenerative farm practices on a commercial scale.
For example, a supplier of barley to Guinness plants a cover crop rather than leaving it fallow and then tills it into the soil with excellent results.
In Clare, groups like Burren Beo and Farming for Nature have shown how organic farming can be done well.
Food security will become a huge issue both directly due to climate change and with the consequent migration. I see a greater understanding of the soil as crucial to helping us respond to this.
If this change in approach was implemented worldwide, we’d trap more carbon, increase nutritional value, improve pest and disease resistance and reduce the need for artificial fertilisers.

Seeing the wood for the trees

Over 20 years ago we planted about 30 acres of conifer wood. Our intentions were good but it was a mistake environmentally.
We removed the birch and willow that was growing there and replaced it with a monoculture of Sitka spruce. There was almost nothing growing beneath the trees, it was like a desert.
Nature took its course though and Storm Darwin knocked them all down so we were granted a second opportunity. We replanted it with mixed native trees and already there is a much greater abundance of plant and animal species there.
Even though we did the wrong thing initially, that doesn’t stop me from doing things like that even though they may turn out to be less than ideal in the future.
The awareness is the learning. It’s so important that we move to more nature-friendly living and away from fossil fuels; it doesn’t matter if what we do isn’t perfect.

What’s happening in our world

I vividly remember seeing a mudslide in Guatemala on TV. A small child was being swept away and no one could save her. That image has stayed with me.
Did climate change and our behaviour lead to this?
The huge devastation and suffering due to those kind of climate related incidents constantly wakes me up to what is happening now.
I worry about tipping points like the gulf stream, that big rolling radiator that brings warm waters to Ireland from the tropics. There’s evidence that it is slowing down due to both rising sea temperatures and increased ice melt. Imagine if it reversed and our weather changes drastically. What would it mean for us in terms of food security? It would be huge.
If there was a hole in your roof you’d fix it before the wind takes the whole roof off. You simply wouldn’t take the same risks on a personal level that we take with climate change.

Making a difference

A text book that was used in school for CSPE had a story that struck me. It was about a woman on a beach who came across thousands of starfish stranded and stated throwing them back in.
Other people out walking saw her and went over to her, saying “why bother, it’s not going to make a difference”. She had a starfish in her hand, threw it back in the sea and said “Maybe. But it made a difference to that one”.
For individuals, simply having the conversation about climate change and its impact is a big help.
We can make a conscious effort to see how we can change and generate less greenhouse gases. For example, we can buy products in the shops with less plastic or compost food waste.
Sometimes the impact of what we do as individuals can seem really very small but it can have a bigger effect.
For example, if we don’t buy something in plastic it’s a message back to the supplier. Also, the fact we are doing it means the conversation is there.
All these actions and conversations change how people think. We all have a voice, and that is power on its own.
I think we need to be a lot more proactive with our elected representatives to be the voice that we need them to be. We have such a small number of representatives who are talking like that.
Even if they don’t feel the sense of alarm that we may feel, we can still get them to listen to what we need and what we want. And they will understand that they need to implement climate-friendly policies to get back into power.

Colette Redington in her Poly Tunnel at home in Ballyea. Photograph by John Kelly

The outside influence

A huge challenge I see is the amount of stuff we are surrounded by, and much of it has built-in obsolescence.
If your washing machine breaks, it’s almost as cheap to buy a new one as it is to repair it. EU policy regarding the circular economy is hugely important in creating the change to making things repairable, and requiring things like phone chargers to be interchangeable.
Without the EU and our government driving this, it’s difficult for us as individuals to have an impact.
Lots of changes need government support. Wouldn’t it be great in Clare if we all drove electric cars? For that to happen, it needs to be made affordable.
We’ve no shortage of wind and imagine if lots of rural houses had small wind generators. Again government support and sensible planning is needed.
I have great hope in technology, we’re very creative. I was reading recently about marine microbes that can digest greenhouse gases and create a polymer as waste that can be used to replace plastic from fossil fuels.
But even with clever solutions like that, we still need to cut down on fossil fuel use.

Grounds for hope

When I get a bit overwhelmed by the problems we are causing to the climate, I often go back to what happens at a cellular level.
What amazes me is how cells are constantly changing, striving for recovery when there is damage, creating diversity all the time.
There’s a magic inside the cell – the dance of the chromosomes at the crossroads as they are about to divide, the total randomness of it all – it’s like the Ballroom of Romance.
Everything about genetics is pretty miraculous when you think how whatever crawled out of the primordial soup has changed and evolved to create the diversity we have now.
I also like to think about things that we can reverse. Just as the algal bloom problem in the lakes was solved, I do believe that life will flourish when we stop having negative interventions on nature around us. Left to itself, it will recover.

If you would like to feature in this column or know someone who would please contact bginnity@gmail.com

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