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Environmental Engagement Index for Northern Ireland launched.

David McCann   Thu 07 Jan 2021   updated: Tue 02 Mar 2021

Take part here.

We are delighted to launch the new Environmental Engagement Index in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Queen's University Belfast and Live Here Love Here.

The Environmental Engagement Index is unique to Northern Ireland as we lead the way in exploring engagement and connection to nature by using this yearly survey. Research has shown that if people are engaged with nature they are more likely to look after it.

The Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said Launching the index, the Minister said: “I am delighted to launch this new index and look forward tracking the progress of environmental engagement in future years. There is definitely room for improvement with only 63% of respondents believing their actions affect the environment but I want everyone to realise their actions affect our environment. The compassionate nature of the people of Northern Ireland has never been more evident than the level of care they have shown to each other during this pandemic and we now need to show the same level of care for our environment.”

The Minister added “When asked what the government should prioritise the largest response was for climate change and I have listened. That is one of the reasons I recently launched a consultation on a Climate Change Bill and I would urge everyone to get involved in the consultation as well as going online and taking the environmental engagement index survey.”

Parkland and butterflies

David McCann   Thu 15 Oct 2020

By,Ross McIIwrath, Reserve Warden, at WWT Castle Espie.

Parklands are fantastic spaces for wildlife; particularly invertebrates. They often have a mosaic of different habitats which make them brilliant for local biodiversity; wildflower meadows, mixed woodland with mature trees and small rivers or ponds. These habitats are brilliant for insects, which in turn is great for our common bird species like Robins and Blue Tits. Parklands are often planted up with beautiful flowers which can be great for pollinating insects. Butterflies are some of our most conspicuous pollinators and many are commonly seen in our parklands.

Mature woodland is a scarce habitat in Northern Ireland. Many of the trees in our parks can be hundreds of years old, which makes them a great resource for wildlife. As these woods are used by people there tends to be lots of sunny glades and open woodland edges. This is great habitat for one our commonest summer Butterflies, the Speckled Wood.

Speckled Woods are a medium sized butterfly with a brown base colour, but “speckled” with creamy blotches and black eyespots, on both their upper and underwings. They are commonly seen on woodland edges, glades and over hedgerows from May to September. Almost counter-intuitively, the caterpillars feed on grasses on the woodland floor, but the adult butterflies need sunny areas to search for food and mates. Male Speckled Woods will be very territorial. They can be seen patrolling their own patch, chasing off other males and attempting to woo females. Sunny patches are a prized commodity and are hotspots for feeding aphids. This is vital for Speckled Woods as although they can nectar on flowers, they mainly feed on honeydew produced by the aphids! Very easy to spot along woodland paths across Northern Ireland, especially in parkland.

Another woodland specialist is the less common Holly Blue Butterfly. As the name suggests, Holly Blue caterpillars feed on Holly. Holly is a slow growing species and a lot of mature Holly Trees can be seen in our parks. And as the name also suggests, they are pale powder blue colour, with small black markings.

Holly Blue flies earlier in the year than most butterflies, April – June. They tend to fly above head height. They are easy to identify as they are Northern Ireland’s only blue butterfly that behaves in this way. Historically confined to the South of County Down but are beginning to spread North and Westwards in recent years. So now an important butterfly to look out for and record in our Parks.

Other conspicuous butterflies to be seen in the Spring and late Summer our; Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell. All these species are common in Northern Ireland. They are strong fliers and can travel long distances to find flowers to nectar on and search for mates. All three species need nettles for their caterpillars, so those nettle patches often seen in the corners of parks are paramount to keep these beauties in our parks; Peacocks are large, red with bright blue spots (like a Peacock). Red Admiral are large, black, with red/pink stripes on their shoulder (like an admiral). Small Tortoiseshell are slightly smaller than the other two, have a base of orange, but have a medley of other colours when observed up close; black, yellow and blue. All these species can be seen in open, sunny areas in our parklands, where nectar rich flowers are abundant.

Photo credit; Jonathon Clark

How can a park help you as a student or young person?

David McCann   Thu 15 Oct 2020

By Polly Vance

With the growth of our cities and urban population, it is important to understand the benefits that can come from going to local parks and green space. Although there is a variety of positive impacts which can come from using parks, some of are more beneficial to students and the younger population.

Going to parks in an urban area can provide physical and mental benefits to a person. This can come from using the space actively or passively, exercising or just sitting on a bench and taking in nature. Since the lockdown, we have been able to appreciate nature more, especially when we can’t have access to it. If a student or young person is able to access parks between classes, it has been shown in a variety of studies that it can improve cognitive ability and information retention. This can overall help their studies and homework, helping them through school.

It is well known that going to the park can make a significant your stress levels. Nature gives a calming affect to a person, helping with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Students can experience high stress levels while at university, so going to the park regularly can help control this. Also, if a young person or student uses parks between there classes it improves their attention capacity for class afterwards.

Additionally, when you visit parks regularly, there is evidence that this boosts mood.

This means if you go to a park when you are upset or worried, it could help improve your mood and make you happier.

Lastly, students and young people are considered to have a poorer quality of life, according to several studies often not eating well or doing enough exercise. This is likely down to them living away from home for the first time . It has been shown that through regular access to parks and green space a person is more likely to make better life decisions regarding their health. This should mean that if a young person or student regularly goes to a park, they would feel like making better health decisions through eating better and exercising because they’re more motivated.

Overall, if you feel low or stressed, want to improve your mental health doing something as simple as going to the park can help. Parks and green space are considered to be the lungs of a city but they can be more than just environmentally beneficial. Parks help everyone to both feel better mentally and facilitate people being physically active.

By Jilly Dougan, Food for Thought Project Officer

The benefits of getting out into green spaces and closer to nature have been well researched and documented. It’s a huge benefit for physical and mental wellbeing, giving us a sense of belonging and connectedness. Belonging to a community garden or allotment association can elevate that ‘feel-good’ factor to a whole other level.

There is something elemental in growing food; to be able to produce something through your own efforts and the wonder of nature is empowering, bringing out the hunter/gatherer/farmer in all of us. It gives the grower a feeling of taking back some sort of control when other aspects of life can be chaotic and stressful. In her book ‘The Well Gardened Mind’, Sue Stuart-Smith tells us “When we go out to gather fruits, flowers and other garden produce our anticipation of reward stimulates an energising dopamine release much as it propelled our Palaeolithic ancestors out of their caves”!

Food is an area where people can choose to make changes which will result in not just physical and mental health benefits but sustainability and environmental benefits too.

Michael Kelly from the organisation GIY believes that when people grow food, the result is a phenomenon known as ‘food empathy’….

“A deeper understanding of food, where it comes from, how it is produced, and the time and effort required. An understanding of seasonality and the lifecycle of 'growth-decay-growth' which is so central to life on this planet.”

It can also waken our palate to a whole new world of flavour which is virtually unobtainable when we shop automatically with large retailers. These industry giants, by their nature, have to purchase for volume, long shelf life and supply chain efficiency. The flavour of something that’s just picked and grown organically is incomparable.

Food growing areas are not just about the produce that is grown though. Undoubtedly the excitement of harvesting something you have sown and nurtured over time is real. Being able to share that just-picked produce with family or friends and neighbours to make a delicious and nutritious meal is very satisfying. Environmentally these green productive spaces provide for biodiversity, are important wildlife habitats, absorb excessive water run-off quickly mitigating local flooding and act as carbon sinks especially where native tree planting and wildlife garden areas are encouraged.

Allotments and community gardens are spaces which also allow people to socialise in a non-confined environment. Sometimes they can be the focus for community events, cooking classes, educating local children about nature and wildlife and so much more. Gardeners belong to a community that more often than not is diverse in terms of age, sex, religion, race and socio-economic background. For people who feel isolated they can be an incredibly important link to the outside world.

So allotments, community gardens and productive green spaces, in urban or rural settings are so much more than they might appear at first glance. If I was the person in charge they would be pre-requisite for planning applications.

John's Story

David McCann   Wed 14 Oct 2020

We would like you to take a few minutes to read this story, it is a story that deserves to be read and told over and over again as it will emboldened your belief in the power of parks and green spaces and community gardening. This is the story of John, the 2019 Green Flag Award Volunteer of the year.

John has spent the past 2 years bringing beauty to the village of Toome. In the cold, dark days of Winter he says only the thought of the exuberance of Spring and the lush colours of Summer kept him going. It was from here that his imagination ran wild until he settled on how he and the other volunteers could bring colour to their own community. Hanging baskets! A simple idea but one that can make the place brighter. As the temperatures raised the workload increased and the team of volunteers, tirelessly hand planted over 60 hanging baskets with care. Within moments of selling them to the community their popularity boomed.

John doesn’t just have a knack for decorating beautiful baskets he is also a remarkable salesman he wasn’t just selling hanging baskets however; to each and every customer he sold the beauty and the benefits of the community allotment garden.

John has personally reaped the physical and mental rewards that getting involved in a community garden can bring and he has made it his calling to involve as many as possible.

John’s story has been one of struggle and determination; and its impact has been personal and public.

John came to the community garden at a time of personal difficulty. Through volunteering in the garden he regained physical and mental strength and in doing so has had a massive positive impact on his own wife and child. His wife couldn’t believe the positive impact the garden had, as she truly had believed her husband had suffered irrevocably. After a period of time, he re-entered education, at Greenmount and used the garden as a place to practice the theory he learned and also as an area to experiment with ideas for the projects he was undertaking. In June 2019 he graduated Greenmount college and credits volunteering in the community garden as the source of his strength and determination.

John’s story has been a source of inspiration to the other volunteers and patrons of the community garden and has inspired them to continue to their efforts even on the hardest, coldest and darkest of days.

John suffered a severe stroke which had a debilitating effect physically and mentally. He had to give up his work, and became more withdrawn from public life. Things were bleak. His family often recall about how down he was during this period and how they were unsure what their future would look like.

That was until he became involved in the garden. Little by little both physically and mentally he regained his strength. When he first came to the garden his motion was very slow and he required a walking stick, now they have to insist that he doesn’t lift as many baskets and flowerboxes and to slow down! His strength and mobility has improved incredibly. In addition to this his great humour has returned and he often leaves the volunteers in stitches to the point where they can’t get any work done!

He insists he hasn’t overcome his obstacles but that he overcomes them every single day and desires to help other in his situation to do so similarly.

Through the local community group TIDAL, who are a Healthy Living Alliance Centre, the local health care providers and the Stroke Association of Northern Ireland together they are in the process of creating a stroke support group to be based in the community garden. The only one in the area.

He truly has made his obstacles his opportunities and he is now determined to help others do the same with theirs.

John is a volunteer at Duneane Allotment Garden, part of the Green Flag Award Community Site at Canal Walk, Toome.

There are 5 Green Flag Award Community sites managed by community groups in Northern Ireland. These are a mix of historical sites, pocket parks, allotments and even a cemetery!

Community green spaces are found in the heart of towns, villages and communities all over the country, we know there are many more out there that could become involved in the award. If you would like more information on how you and your community space could get involved

If you would like more details on TIDAL Healthy Living Alliance Centre please contact tidal_toome@hotmail.com.

Dame Mary Peter’s "little bit of heaven"

David McCann   Tue 13 Oct 2020

By Dame Mary Peters

My favourite Green Space is the Mary Peters Track at Upper Malone Road in Belfast. It is my little bit of heaven. The natural amphitheatre embraces a synthetic running track, which is well used by schools clubs and individuals surrounded by walking paths and a BMX track with easy access to the tow path for those who want to take longer walks. There are some Oak trees which were a special gift to me and I have thoroughly enjoy watching them grow and mature.

I take great pride in taking visitors to see the track in it’s beautiful setting which is my pride and joy. If you have never visited, you haven’t lived. In these unusual times put it on your must visit list.

I thought you might enjoy this picture of some of the visitors to the Track.

Spotlight on Sustainable Businesses: Purple Earth

Claire Leonard   Fri 24 Jul 2020   updated: Tue 28 Jul 2020

It’s Plastic Free July, so what better time to invite guest blogger Julie McFarland, owner of Purple Earth, to share her story and delve into what it means to run a sustainable business in Northern Ireland. Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has been running a competition for Plastic Free July with sustainable giveaway goodies purchased from Purple Earth; don’t forget to shop local and support your small business owners and producers.

How did Purple Earth come about?

Purple Earth has been a natural progression for me, from my previous holistic therapy practice where I offered sustainable products and liquid refills from the treatment room, to attending pop up events and fairs to gauge the interest in the ‘zero waste’ movement in Northern Ireland.

Like many people, I’ve watched programmes such as Blue Planet and Drowning in Plastic and had my eyes opened. Consciously look around any supermarket and see how much single use packaging is being used – it will probably scare you! From a trio of peppers wrapped in plastic to microwave meals in their unrecyclable black trays; from the plastic bags used for dry food packaging to the rows upon rows of toiletries and cleaning products in plastic bottles; and that’s before you even think about our toothbrushes, water bottles, disposable coffee cups and cotton buds. When the sheer scale hits you, you cannot ‘unsee’ it.

I have grown up in this ‘throwaway society’, but as an individual I have a responsibility, not only to our planet but also to my young family and my children’s futures. Remember - when we throw things away, there is no ‘away’.

What’s it all about?

Purple Earth was set up as a not for profit venture aiming to give back to the local communities, help the environment, and cut down on plastic use and food waste, as well as helping customers save money and budget. Purple Earth gives you the opportunity to help you and your family make conscious choices about products you use, the food you eat and the gifts you give, so that together we can ensure the earth's resources are sustainable for future generations.

The product range is sourced as locally as possible, and includes eco-friendly alternatives to household and self-care products such as reusable water bottles and coffee cups, stainless-steel straws, wax wraps, bamboo toothbrushes, etc. I buy loose foods in bulk, in huge paper sacks where possible, and bag down smaller amounts for customers. Before Covid-19 hit, the physical unit was akin to an old-style scoop shop, so it is going back to the way it was a generation or so ago. Our online store offers staples like pasta, lentils, rice, cereals and spices plus sweet treats, nuts & seeds.

I also stock refillable cleaning products such as laundry liquid and washing up liquid, and self-care products like shampoo and body wash. All products are from ethical, eco-friendly companies and many can be refilled at your doorstep – you buy the starter bottle once and I can refill, saving even more single use plastic.

What does the future hold for Purple Earth?

Obviously, Covid-19 has been a challenge for us all. I look to the positives – having to ‘shield’ these past few months has given me the opportunity to get www.purpleearth.net up & running and reach a wider audience.

My vision is not to shame people into acting; or show unachievable images through Instagram or similar. It is to educate and involve individuals to adopt even one or two workable changes into their lifestyle. If we all take just one step, we can create a better future and have a positive impact.

Consider making your Plastic Promise for Plastic Free July by visiting www.liveherelovehere.org/cgi-bin/PlasticPromise and make your pledge to reduce your use.

By Claire Hudson, Tackling Plastics Coordinator at Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful

In the golden age of the 1950s, entrepreneurs and serial inventors were coming up with the best ideas to make our domestic lives a little better – microwave ovens, coloured kitchen appliances, the first non-stick pan. Bliss.

But one invention, hailed ‘throwaway living’ was to be a game changer. No more washing dishes for hours – disposable cutlery had arrived. Those olden days of constant cleaning were over. Now, we could simply eat our dinner and throw those plates and cups in the bin. And it wasn’t wasteful – it was progressive.

This was the start of massive corporations producing and selling these throwaway ‘essentials’. They were more than happy to sell a product, the same product, over and over and over. They were making life-long, happy customers.

How strange, when we look back now, seventy years later on World Environment Day, on what we thought was acceptable. Now we know the damage that throwaway, pointless plastic does to our environment, thank goodness we’ve changed our ways. Or have we?

It’s not my job to demonise plastic. And it might sound a little strange to hear someone from an environmental charity say it, but not all plastic is bad. We’ve all seen the surge in Personal Protective Equipment since the Coronavirus pandemic began – from protective screens in shops to masks and gloves. Plastic has had a vital role to play. It’s our misuse of this ‘miracle item’ that’s the problem. It is my job though to talk about the plastic we don’t need – pointless plastic.

The amount of plastic which the UK is throwing away is set to rocket by over a million tonnes by 2030 – that’s the equivalent of 87,000 more double decker buses worth of plastic waste each year. And here in Northern Ireland, we face our own problems with pointless plastic – from throw away coffee cups and carrier bags to plastic bottles and packaging. It’s what we call ‘single use plastic’, and shockingly, much of it is in our lives for less than two minutes. More than 70% of discarded items in Northern Ireland, those found on the side of our roads, in our play parks, at our front doors, contain plastic. It’s hard to believe but by 2050, there could be more plastic in our oceans by weight than fish.

It’s my hope that it won’t take another seventy years – or another pandemic – to realise that the damage we’re doing right now with pointless plastic is something that we can change. In fact, what I’d like to see is that we use this time as an opportunity to hit the reset button, to think about what we’re purchasing and using, and what we’re tossing aside. The pandemic has shown us how much we can really change our behavior in a couple of weeks. Do we need to just go back to the way things were, or can we think globally, but act locally now?

The greatest fire is started by a single spark; so make your commitment now to reduce your use of pointless plastic at www.liveherelovehere.org/plasticpromise and help to make all our lives just a little better.

A New Normal

Ian Humphreys   Thu 30 Apr 2020

We cannot go back to business as usual.

This is the constant refrain that we hear from civic leaders, politicians and commentators across our society. Over the past 7 weeks we have all had a chance to reflect how we conducted our business practices and engaged with one another socially. There has been so much food for thought as we re-evaluate what’s important to us and how we rebuild following this pandemic.

There are key values that are getting us through these difficult times; looking out for one another and recognising that our actions impact more than just ourselves. We are rediscovering that a brighter day is possible and that together we can meet any challenge but only by taking action, making sacrifices and having a common purpose.

It will be important as we embark upon the “new normal” that we keep some of the core values that have helped us so far during the COVID-19 epidemic.

As a sector, the environment and how we look after it has always tried to bring these important values together. Building for the future, bringing people together and protecting public health.

A new normal has to include how we look after our environment.

We have seen images of empty motorways that were once crowded, lakes with fish returning after years of pollution and quieter spaces. Yet we have also seen more images of increasing fly tipping and people thoughtlessly littering gloves and face masks.

If this pandemic has brought anything home to us it should be that how we look after our public spaces is incredibly important for our collective wellbeing. Just as we have seen how vulnerable we are to this virus, we also know the environment is incredibly vulnerable too.

The key to achieving all of this lies in the need for behaviour change.

Changing people’s attitudes towards just discarding something and thinking it has no consequence on others has to be an important part of the conversation going forward into the future. It is, I believe, a reflection of a deeper malaise in our society. Likewise, banking some of the wider environmental benefits, such as fewer cars on the road and people valuing exercise, is going to be something that policy-makers will have to ensure is continued.

Another important part of our behaviour change approach is how we value our key workers. I am not just referring to those who are working in the health service, but also those who are emptying our bins, sorting our recycling and cleaning our streets on a daily basis. These workers are also keeping us safe and ensuring that public health is maintained during this pandemic. They deserve our thanks and appreciation for all the work they are doing on the publics’ behalf.

Whatever change is coming in the months ahead, let’s make sure it’s positive for the longer term. We have seen that behaviour change is possible within our population and that when we have to meet a challenge, our community can respond.

The values that the environment sector has been talking about for the past number of years can help lead the way and demonstrate what works.

We have a big conversation ahead of us. We need to make sure that we play our part in developing our new normal, but that new normal doesn’t have to mean a change for the worse. If we make the right decisions we can use it as the steps towards a better future for us all.

Hello everyone.

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful has always sought to play a leading role in developing civic pride and a belief in each other’s capacity to take small actions to do big things. As you know we are in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak. This virus has challenged many of the ways in which we have done things up until now. As an organisation we are not immune from the impacts that this virus has on our society. I want to use this opportunity to talk to you about some of things we are doing as an organisation to help.

Remote Working

Since the 18th March, we have instituted a working from home policy. This of course presents a challenge in terms of how we work. As a small team, we are used to being side by side in a shared office, but I am glad to say that so far our team has met these challenges with creativity and determination. Using online workstations, emails and video calls we have been able to keep working and make sure we are checking in with each other as a team. I recognise the value of us as an organisation still working together as one team and helping each other achieve our collective goals.

The future

We are working on plans for how we will go about our business over the next period of time. COVID-19 will be part of our lives for the next few weeks and this will mean us thinking differently and finding new ways to collaborate with our partners. Rest assured that while we are working differently, our goals of protecting and enhancing our environment remain the same. The uncertainty that all of us face, means that we will have to be creative and look at how we can champion our environment while also doing our bit to help the community tackle the virus.

Our Volunteers

To those who give up their time to help us make a big difference, I want to thank you for your continued support and patience as we work together in these difficult circumstances. We have already issued guidance to our groups relating to social distancing, washing your hands and links to the relevant government advice. As things progress, we will continue to work with you and will keep communicating as we move forward. Whilst there will inevitably some disruption and change in approach, I want to assure you that we are still working harder than ever to ensure that when this virus passes, we will be ready to once again give our full support to those of you who are so dedicated to the cause of our local environment. Of course in trying new ways of working, some of these may even prove to be better than the old ways, so there is an opportunity here to innovate too.

To close, I want to ask all of you to please keep in touch. Look after yourselves and those around you. Your values of pride in our local community and believing that we are part of a cause bigger than ourselves are what we need now. Times are tough right now, but with these key attributes we will make it through to the other side.

My continuing thanks to all of you.

Ian.