Back to the future in the national park

A time to reap: Will O’Sullivan harvesting a wildflower meadow using Muckross Traditional Farms Clydesdale horses, Bud and Budweiser, and traditional machinery, as part of the National Pollinator Plan, in Knockreer Estate.
Pictures: Valerie O’Sullivan

THE old saying ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ might seem very apt in Killarney National Park – an area renowned for its magnificent oak woodlands – but the current focus is not on oaks but the conversion of amenity grassland to semi-natural or neutral grasslands.

From a simple conversation in the field at a local park, the seed of that all-important acorn was planted and following a spring and summer of careful planning and nurturing, the fruits of the labour of three different organisations – Killarney National Park, Kerry Educational and Training Board and Muckross Traditional Farms – is now being witnessed.

It all started with a desire to respond to the National Pollinator Plan and increase the biodiversity of some of the grasslands in the town park at Knockreer.

Head gardener at Muckross House and Killarney National Park, Gerry Murphy, and national park staff, Brendan O’Neill and Micheal Lynch, got to work managing certain areas in Knockreer to promote the pollinator plan and to increase the available habitat for insects and invertebrates.

Will O’Sullivan using his skills with traditional methods and machinery

When Chris Barron from the Kerry Educational and Training Board, who runs the education centre in Knockreer House, got involved, the idea of the grassland management soon took hold.

As the idea became a reality and as some of the meadows began to emerge, conservation ranger staff working on a low carbon model of grassland management elsewhere in the park suggested there was potential to trail some of these methods in Knockreer.

A decision was quickly reached to go back in time and use the old traditional method of horses.

The methods were sourced in Muckross Traditional Farms were farm and events manager, Toddy Doyle, coordinated the machinery and horses and the project was able to use the old traditional method of cutting and harvesting the grassland.

The assistance of Will O’Sullivan, whose expertise in the use of a team of horses and traditional machinery, was also crucial

Horse power: Will O’Sullivan driving the horses with national park staff, Brendan O’Neill (left) and Michael Lynch

Danny O’Keeffe, District Conservation Officer with the NPWS, said there was a need to reduce the weight and loading on soils to prevent compaction and reduce, as much as possible, the amount of carbon that went into harvesting the grass.

“This, in turn, gave us an opportunity to display the importance of preserving traditional methods, machinery, and above all, craft and skill,” he said.

Semi-natural grasslands are hugely important habitats supporting a diverse range of invertebrate, bird and mammal species as well as many rare plant species. They are vulnerable habitats in Ireland and in many instances owe their continued existence to either a continuation of traditional extensive farming practices or conservation measures as these habitats requiring ongoing agricultural management.

Working to increase the biodiversity of grasslands in Knockreer Estate

Without periodic grazing or a minimum amount of mowing, most grassland areas would become rank, scrubby or invaded by other species such as bracken. Killarney National Park includes grassland areas which support invertebrates such as the small copper butterfly – a species in strong decline in Ireland – and plants such as the greater butterfly orchid which has a limited distribution in Kerry.

Management of the park’s grassland areas includes measures to assist biodiversity and, in particular, the precious pollinators. Measures include harvesting a portion of the yellow-rattle for sowing since it is a plant that helps keep down grasses and thereby assisting the growth other wildflowers.

More recently the use of traditional methods, such using horse-drawn machinery for keeping the sward in check, has helped a great deal.

It is hoped that the Killarney project can serve as an inspiration to other groups and organisations around the country to look to the past in ensuring a bright future for pollinators and threatened species.

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