Biodiversity is the fifth theme of the programme. As with the previous themes, you will see that Biodiversity cross-cuts and integrates with the rest of the themes in many ways.
What is Biodiversity?
The meaning of ‘Biodiversity’ is easy to understand when we break the word down; “bio” refers to life and ‘living things’ and “Diversity” means just that; range or variety. The word refers to the huge variety and variation of life that surrounds us on planet earth. Maintaining a high level of diversity among plants, animals and all living things all around us is essential in keeping the environment healthy and fit for human life. This includes diversity within species, between species and diversity of ecosystems.
“Biodiversity underpins the functioning of the ecosystems on which we depend for food and fresh water, health and recreation, and protection from natural disasters. Its loss also affects us culturally and spiritually. This may be more difficult to quantify, but is nonetheless integral to our wellbeing”
Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations
We interact with and have an impact on living things, directly and indirectly every day through our lifestyles; e.g. the food we eat or how we manage our gardens. So whether your school is based in a city or in the country the Biodiversity theme hopes to connect you, your school and your wider community with the natural environment and cultivate a sense of wonder, appreciation and value for all the biodiversity around us.
The overall aim of the Biodiversity theme is for schools to increase awareness of the importance of biodiversity and for students and staff to come up with ways to help biodiversity. This can be achieved through improving or preserving your local biodiversity whether it is in your school garden, at home, a green space in the city, your local beach, a river way etc. Schools will have the opportunity to play a vital role in promoting and preserving biodiversity both locally and globally.
Some Important Biodiversity Terms:
- Species: A species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. For example, the Mountain Ash is a species of tree, and the Red Squirrel is a species of mammal, the Chaffinch is a species of bird.
- Native Species: Our native species are the species of plants and animals that reached Ireland naturally; mostly since the last ice-age before Ireland was separated from the rest of Europe by the rising sea. As an example, the most common native trees in Ireland include oak, ash, hazel, birch, Scots pine, rowan and willow. Eventually, people brought other plants on their travels many years later. Native plant species are the preferred species for planting in school and home gardens.
- Non-Native, ‘Alien’ & Invasive Species: Alien species are also known as ‘non-native’ species. Tese are plants and animals that would not be found in Ireland without human involvement. Not all alien species in Ireland are able to survive and establish in the wild. Of those that do establish some can impact on our biodiversity and become invasive. The ability of a species to become invasive depends on a number of factors. These can include biological traits such as fast growth and reproduction. Invasive species often spread quickly or can move easily from place to place.
- Habitat: A habitat is the natural environment in which an organism lives, or the physical environment that surrounds, influences and is utilised by a species population. For example, a Red Squirrel lives in a Woodland habitat, and a Humpback Whale lives in a Marine habitat.
- Ecosystem: An Ecosystem is a community of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms that live, feed, reproduce and interact together in the same area or environment. Irish examples include a Bog, Woodland, a Marsh, a Hedge, a Lake, an Ocean or even a Rock Pool. You may also hear about Ecosystem Services. These are the benefits that ecosystems can provide to us, e.g. woodlands provide protection from flooding; forests can regulate climate change; reed-beds can break down wastes and recycle nutrients and can filter and purify water; animals and microbes working in soil maintain and increase soil fertility; plants purify the air; some animals and plants control pests and diseases and provide goods such as woods, textiles and food.
Getting Started & the Seven Steps
Use the 7-Step structure to make your life easier on the Biodiversity Theme. Once you have set up your Green-Schools Committee (Step 1), your next step is to assess your starting point by conducting an Environmental Review (Step 2) (NB: be sure not to jump ahead and make any changes or take action in the school before you have established your starting point). The two main ways to measure your starting point are (1) Carry out Awareness Surveys with Students and Staff and (2) Create a Habitat Map of your School Grounds (see your handbook for instructions on these).
Once you have measured what your school community know, and what species and habitats are present on your campus, you can start to think up ways to raise awareness about biodiversity, and also to encourage species-richness in and around your school. Once you come up with these ideas and actions, write them down as an Action Plan (Step 3). Your action plan should say what your targets are and how you are going to achieve them.
It is important that you plan from the beginning how you will measure the success of your Biodiversity Action Plan. Monitoring and Evaluating (Step 4) improvements in your school can be done by repeating the Awareness Surveys. You may also choose to do other surveys, such as identification surveys of common bird, trees or flowers. You can investigate if physical enhancements to your school grounds made a difference to the diversity of plant and animal species by creating another Habitat Map after a given time period.
Biodiversity in Ireland
- Ireland is home to about 815 flowering plants, about 80 native ferns, more than 700 mosses and liverworts, 3,500 fungi, over 1,000 lichens and 1,400 algae. There are 32 terrestrial mammals, ten bat species, two species of seals and about 24 whales and dolphins. About 425 species of birds have been recorded in Ireland, about half of these birds breed here.
- Many of these species are already under threat, some are even endangered. The freshwater pearl mussel, which lives in Irish rivers and is Ireland’s longest living animal, is facing extinction. If we want all of these species to survive, we must ensure that there are enough suitable areas for all to flourish.
- Ireland also has an extensive coastline rich in biodiversity and so we should not forget our surrounding seas. There is a huge array of life in our seas, most of which we may never see. Unfortunately, this too is being negatively affected in a variety of ways: overfishing, coastal activities and pollution are some examples, and so it is important that our marine habitats are also protected.
The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) looks after the conservation of much of Ireland’s habitats and species. Ireland has six National Parks: Glenveagh, Co. Donegal, Ballycroy, Co. Mayo, Connemara, Co. Galway, the Burren, Co. Clare, the Wicklow Mts. and Killarney, Co. Kerry.
Visit the NPWS website to learn about the various protected sites in Ireland and why they are so important.
Reductions in Ireland’s biodiversity will have serious economic and social consequences. In 2001, Ireland agreed along with other EU countries, to ‘halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010’. This has recently been extended to 2020. In order to achieve this we need to make a concerted effort at local and national level. Individuals, schools and communities can all play their part in halting this alarming loss of biodiversity. Ireland has come a long way in the past decade but we are still a long way off. Failure to protect our most endangered natural habitats and species will result in substantial fines for Ireland by the EU.
The Great Plant Hunt
Primary schools in Ireland undertaking the Green-Schools Biodiversity theme can take part in the Great Plant Hunt, a joint initiative of Toyota Motor Europe and the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). The initiative focuses on getting younger students interested in biodiversity with a particular emphasis on native plants and native animals. The campaign was officially launched November 2015. In Year One, it was being run in ten countries throughout Europe, including Ireland. In Year Two, which started in September 2016, the number of countries increased to 15. The campaign includes educational aspects, based on the FEE Educational Principles, and practical activities based on resources developed by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew with funding from the Wellcome Trust.
The campaign aims to educate students about biodiversity, its importance and encourage them to take positive action. Click here to read project stories and see what participating countries, including Irish schools, are up to!
In 2011, An Taisce decided to celebrate the success of the Green-Schools programme in Ireland and International Year of the Forests by planting a Green-Schools Woodland. The Woodland was planted on November 17th 2011 at Ballinreeshig Nature Farm, Co. Cork in conjunction with Will and Away Outdoor Education Company. In total, 3,560 native trees were planted to represent all schools in Ireland that were awarded the prestigious Green Flag award since it began in 1997, until 2011. The Green-Schools Woodland provides a place for schools to visit and learn about the importance of biodiversity with a particular focus on forests. View photos and news from the Green-Schools Woodland here.