Getting out for a walk at this time of year can reveal lots of hidden secrets about our environment. And while we may think that nature is dormant for the Winter months, there’s still plenty going on for us to notice and appreciate, it’s just that sometimes things are a little harder to find.
So, whether it’s whale watching in Sligo Bay, or birdwatching in our woods and forests, there’s still plenty to see, hear and do, and it all comes back to allowing nature to take its course as it gets ready to thrust back into life next Spring.
According to Ruth Hanniffy, the new Biodiversity Officer with Sligo County Council, “Winter is a really special time of year and there are things that we won’t see at other points,” adding that “these activities are very important because you’re in nature but you’re also away from screens. This is good for us physically, mentally, in every way.”
A recent arrival in the county, Ruth has had a long and experienced career in environmental organisations both here and abroad. And now that she has put down roots here in Sligo, she is anxious to explore some of our walks this Winter.
Originally from Galway, Ruth grew up beside the sea, and as a keen surfer and year-round sea swimmer, she says that Sligo’s walks have lots to offer throughout the Winter months. From otters in our waterways to bats, hedgehogs and other animals that hibernate (but that we can still stumble across in the undergrowth), there are a lot of interesting animal sightings for young and old to enjoy even as the days shorten.
“In Sligo, we have the Sligo Bay complex, this is about 5,000 hectares where we have about 12,000 birds recorded over Winter. So, we can expect flocks of over 1,000 barnacle geese, having come from Greenland and Siberia, to over-Winter here. If you can access a pair of binoculars, it’s worth keeping an eye out on the many, many species we’ll have within this huge Sligo Bay area.”
One of nature’s great spectacles – that of murmurations of starlings – thousands at a time – moving in tandem over lakes and bogs – is something that also happens at this time of year and that Ruth describes as “truly magical.” She also says to keep an eye out for white tailed eagles that migrate from Donegal, and for many other bird species that populate the skies at this time of year.
As part of the development of the SligoWalks.ie website, we are currently rolling out information that relates to biodiversity, providing information to readers about what they should look and listen out for.
“Sligo Walks is a fantastic resource and I’m keen to add biodiversity information, so that when people are out and about, they will know what species are likely to be found on that walk and what species make that walk special. For example, if there’s a specific bird species that has a unique call, we will have that there for you on the website to listen to and those classic calls can be a way to identify that it is present.”
Of course, with pictures beamed daily on our television screens of devastating scenes of climate change and dynamic weather events occurring with increasing frequency, our natural environment remains very much at a tipping point. But Ruth has a positive outlook, reminding us of nature’s resilience and that if we all change our individual habits one step at a time, collectively these can make an impact.
Working as one of 22 biodiversity officers in various counties around the country and supported by the Heritage Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Ruth suggests that there is a lot more joined up thinking when it comes to dealing with environmental challenges. There are also climate change teams working with county councils nationwide, and, by pooling resources and expertise, this should have a positive knock on effect into the future.
“It’s working with people on the ground. You see such enthusiasm, and you see people who aren’t fazed by the fact that they can’t do everything. But they know that (change can happen) by taking the things that we can do, working with other groups and people on the ground who can help.”
And while putting away the phone when walking is a good idea generally, it is also a really useful tool if you want to paint a picture of the health of our walks this Winter by becoming what is known as a citizen scientist. A keen wildlife and landscape photographer, Ruth says that people can use the technology available on their phones to help gather valuable data that can help track and manage the creatures that inhabit our fields, forests and towns.
Any of us can take part in environmental surveys that can help build a picture of the health of the flora and fauna around us. Pointing to all of the online posts by the public about the presence of humpback whales in Sligo Bay throughout the Summer, Ruth says that the collection of this data goes on throughout the year, but that particular species come to prominence around now.
“You can look at any species and see if it’s in your locality,” says Ruth of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, whose website analyses this data. “Some of the surveys that are underway at the moment, you can contribute to. One of those is an Irish stoat survey. If you’re out and about and you see a small, light brown animal scurrying and running low across the ground, the black tailed tip is indicative of the animal. And have a look at the survey page, because they are a fascinating animal that have been here since the Ice Age.”
Saying that “citizen scientists should never be undervalued, because it’s a hugely important role,” Ruth adds that you don’t even have to leave your home to provide valuable information. A garden bird survey begins on November 22nd next and the public are invited to get involved. As growth slows down, it’s a good idea to put away the lawnmower and allow your garden to become a little overgrown generally. This encourages all of those small creatures that find safety in the undergrowth to come to the fore, and this survey will enable you to identify both the type and quantities of bird species in your garden and then upload your findings to the Birdwatch Ireland website. By installing a bird feeder with some nuts and seeds, you’ll have a better chance of attracting birds to the garden.
Having worked previously in Sligo, where she worked on a project at Lough Talt a decade ago, she says that even in an island as small as Ireland, there are great differences between places in terms of habitats and environment.
“I was really amazed by how different every county is. It’s not a north, south, east, west thing, it’s just the variety when you go into Cavan, across into Longford, into Sligo, down to Mayo. They are hugely diverse and for a small country, we have such a huge range of ecosystems and microclimates.”
Having previously been based at NUIG, and with over 20 years of experience in the environmental field herself, Ruth says that there are great job opportunities for young people who are passionate about the environment.
“For years I would encourage students to get as much experience as they could, but that it’s a really tough field. And now I’m thrilled to say that there are so many more jobs in this area in Ireland. There’s a real focus on biodiversity, we know that there’s a climate crisis. But I think that despite the climate crisis and despite the biodiversity loss, the effects of invasive species, the extinctions we see, in Ireland it’s a time to be proud and be encouraged with how much is happening.”
Sometimes we can be overcome with a sense of helplessness about the scale of the environmental challenges that lie ahead, but it is good to hear that we all have a role to play in helping slow down and maybe even reverse the speed of climate change. Whether as individuals who do what we can to protect our environment or we decide that a career in one of the environmental fields lies ahead, the path is there for everyone to contribute, whatever route we decide to take.