A botanist’s book recalls his encounter with Co Derry’s ‘meadow maker’
It’s the must-have summer book for naturalists – a young botanist’s journey through Britain and Ireland, documenting the people and flora he encounters along the way.
Wiltshire-born Leif Bersweden’s passion for plants dates back two decades, which is all the more remarkable considering he is only 27 years old.
By bike, ferry and train he traveled last year to Shetland, the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, as far east as possible on the Norfolk Broads, then west to Cork and on the moss-lined ground of the temperate rainforest of Glengariff.
His goal was to try to find all 52 species of wild orchids in one summer.
This time last year he cycled across the North Channel from Cairnryan to Larne, then cycled to east Derry, where he met Donna Rainey, a pediatric nurse by day – and very often the night – but also a biodiversity campaigner who first featured in the pages of The Irish News in 2016, when her Don’t Mow – Let It Grow campaign was embraced by Causeway and Glens council.
Leif got to know Donna via Twitter – she is a prolific tweeter of her own nature photography and in her spare time explores the fringe beauty of Donegal and Connemara.
However, many of her posts are on her own meadow, a field she inherited from her late father seven years ago, which she has set out to rehabilitate. Once a monoculture of cut ryegrass for silage, Donna gradually transformed the five-acre field into a traditional hay-producing meadow.
Its main ally in this process has been the yellow rattle, and a chapter in Leif Bersweden’s Where the Wildflowers Grow recalling last August’s trip is named in honor of the plant – AKA The Meadow Maker – a nickname that could easily apply to Donna too.
The main characteristic of yellow rattle is that it is a partial parasite that reduces the vigor of meadow grasses, allowing wildflowers to thrive.
Donna’s goal is to repair what she describes as “the destruction of these crucial habitats” by mechanized agriculture, while encouraging biodiversity on pockets of public land like roadsides. She even convinced her officials at Causeway Hospital to turn swaths of the hospital grounds into grassland.
“Wildflowers and native grasslands, once an integral part of our farms, villages and countryside, have all but disappeared over the past 70 years,” she says.
“Changes in agriculture have led to more drainage, tillage, spraying and enrichment with fertilizers, mostly in the form of slurry.”
She tells how native flora is “the building block of life on earth” and how many species of butterflies and moths depend on specific plants to reproduce – the common blue butterfly lays its eggs on the red-legged clover. bird, while the swamp fritillary butterfly and narrow-bordered bee hawkmoth prefer devil’s scab.
“Collectively, all of these species play a critical role in farm food production,” she says.
“But in addition to being essential for the health of our ecosystems and food production, native wildflowers are crucial to the aesthetics of our countryside. They are the color and fragrance of the seasons.
Leif remembers his visit with great fondness and says he left inspired by what he saw in the pockets of rural east Derry.
“I got a real boost and excitement from the energy that Donna exudes,” he told The Irish News.
“It was really reassuring to know that there are people like her in the world. It’s always good to spend time with people who share your common goal. And to say that she does all of this by working as nurse, it’s just remarkable.
The author also praises Donna’s “unabashed” love of nature and the fact that she “isn’t afraid to tell people when they’re doing more harm than good.”
“I think it’s great because it’s something I really struggled to do myself – she’s really good at calling out people who, you know, are directly damaging nature.”
:: Where the Wildflowers Grow by Leif Bersweden is published by Hodder and Stoughton.