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The Secret world of our Streets by Albert Nolan

The long days of the summer holidays were coming to an end, and all within the household were looking forward to having some time apart, and getting back into a good routine. The shops were very busy and crammed with stressed parents and sulking kids. After a few hours of wriggling on uniforms, and arguing over what constitutes a sensible pair of school shoes, I was ready for a long nature walk. I dropped the kids of at their nans and headed out to explore the streets and its wildlife.  Secret world of our Streets.

Secret world of our Streets

I begin my walk in Rossa Avenue. Black-headed gulls circle overhead waiting for someone to throw out some food. This generation of gulls hardly visit the sea anymore and there are calls from within the birding community to have them renamed “City Gulls. They show no sign of aggression but perhaps that trait only emerges during election time.   Secret world of our Stree




Secret world of our Streets


Many different creatures and flowers live in the city and they can inhabit that harshest of habitats. I pause by an old stone wall that has felt the effect of the horse and cart and the arrival of the motor car. Small cavities have appeared between the stones and allowed plants to move in. Herb Robert, Valerian, Buddleia, Ivy-leaved toadflax and Groundsel are all surviving in desert-like conditions. These flowers support insects that are then eaten by birds and this is a vital relationship in nature. I turn onto the main road and head towards the Tipperary roundabout. A leaking drainpipe has become a home for nature. A small community of flowers has spread up at its base and started to slowly colonise the path. Their spread is checked by countless feet and the wide sweep of the street cleaners. The grass is the first plant to establish and it creates a bed of soil allowing other species to gain a foothold. Willowherb and Sowthistle are already established and if left to develop more plants will soon arrive.

The high wall around LIT is covered in white lichens. These have to be extremely hardy to live beside a busy road with daily doses of dust and fumes. They grow very slowly expanding their territories by a few millimetres each year. War is also waged along the boundaries where two different species met. Slowly they will try to deprive each other of essential ingredients for life. Water, light, and soil are all contested and the dispute may take decades to resolve.


Secret world of our Streets

Hawthorne Tree

Other plants like Maidenhairs spleenwort and Wall rue are more tolerant of their neighbours and like a semi-shaded location on the wall. A mature Hawthorn tree is stretching its limbs over the wall. It true height only becomes apparent when I explore the college grounds.

Daisies and Meadow buttercup have survived the lawnmower by hugging the base of the wall. They can also adapt by not getting too tall and this ensures they keep their heads on. A Field Maple tree is full of Greenfly. These “friends of the gardener” are capable of virgin birth. When a female gives birth to her daughter she is already pregnant and the role of the male is redundant. Left unchecked their population can swell. Luckily nature seeks a balance and ladybirds and birds devour millions of Greenfly each year. I lean against a Birch tree and allow the bells of St Johns church to wash over me.   Secret world of our Streets.

Secret world of our Streets

A yellow Rose

A single yellow rose is in flower in a bed and I also find three different species of wild grass. Overhead I see my first bird of the day, a Rook or a crow. They build their large nest in trees and there is a Rookery in the Peoples Park each spring.

I leave my little oasis and continue on the walk. It is interesting to see the different personalities and necessities expressed by the owners in their front gardens. Many of the gardens have bene paved over to accommodate the family cars or to reduce the strain of cutting grass as the years take over the body. Others in ground flats have just a room for a wheelie bin.  Secret

The older houses have thankfully retained their large gardens and these are a riot of colour. I am amazed by the deep red colour of an old fashioned road and if it was growing out over the wall I would be tempted to take a quick cutting.

At the corner of St Johns Avenue, the flowers of Fushia are hanging over the wall. These are a magnet for bees and the beautiful colours also entice people. Nature cannot tolerate any space been empty for long and the site of an old house has been colonised by wildflowers.

The most interesting are Ragwort and this is banned in the agricultural landscape. The whole plant is toxic to cattle and horses but the caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth feed on Ragwort. They are black and amber (like Kilkenny) and this is a warning colour in nature.

Secret world of our Streets

Jackdaw Bird

On a chimney pot, I see a pair of Jackdaws. Traditionally they nested in holes in trees and caves but our cities and towns have given them an abundant artificial source. Disused   chimney pots are warm and snug and have large ledges that are ideal for building your home on. Their droppings add a dollop of fertilizer and this helps plants like the Polypody fern get established. Starlings also nest in holes in buildings but do not use chimney pots so there is no competition between the species. Secret world of our Streets.

As I near the railway bridge the houses become more spaced out and the gardens grow in size. Big white daisies stand tall in a flower bed while beneath Dandelions and Docks try to avoid the sprayers. One garden has lots of herbs including thyme and a large Clematis growing over a trellis. In the beautiful sunshine, the plants brings a touch of the Mediterranean to a city garden.

Secret world of our Streets

White Clover

By the entrance to Woodlands estate, White clover and Black medic have taken over abandoned gravel lawn. These
flowers are excellent for bees providing plenty of nectar and pollen. Just before the bridge, there is a large garden with lots of mature trees and shrubs. Trees bring bird song to the city by providing them with nesting spots and food.

A gnarled Hawthorn tree stands guard by the entrance and this tree has a rich mythology surrounding it. The Mountain ash is also included in tall stories and both produce lots of berries for birds. Snowberry is a low growing shrub and has seasonal white berries. Children call them Billy-busters and when you squeeze one near a person’s face they get covered in juice.

Tress also support insect life and when I turn over a few leaves I find the delicate eggs of spiders. These creatures are the health workers of nature and they keep the populations of pest flies under control that attack both plants and people. Bush vetch is scrambling up through the plants and it is in the same family as our garden pea. It has small black pods in late summer and these contain tiny but edible peas.

Leaving a few nettles to grow is essential as the caterpillars of several of our native butterflies feed on this plant. If we kill all the nettles our butterflies will also decline.

I pass beneath the railway bridge and its bordering hedgerows act as a green corridor for wildlife. Birds move from tree to tree as they enter the city and bats between feeding and roosting grounds. I hear a Chiffchaff calling and this is a summer visitor to Ireland. Its song sounds like its name and is a repeated Chiff Chaff call.

Between the busy road and the railway line, there is a very interesting piece of ground. Many people would call it waste but it is one of the richest habitats in the city. The bare ground and rubble are slowly been covered in a rich carpet of flowers and all play their role by feeding the wild creatures. Red clover, Meadow buttercup, Ox-eyed daisy. Creeping thistle, Cleavers and Birds foot trefoil. This a nature meadow cultivated by the demands of the busy city. I hear a Goldfinch and Chaffinch calling and they will feast on the seeds of the wildflowers and especially the thistles.

Secret world of our Streets

Blue Butterfly

Insects have come to dine and some of the more obvious are Common carder bees and Common blue butterflies. Others take a little bit detective more to discover. In a rolled up willow leaf I find evidence of previous tenants. They have completed their life cycle and have moved on. Underneath a long forgotten road bollard I discover an active colony of ants. They scramble into to their burrows with their precious eggs. Eggs need heat to develop and the micro climate of the bollard must be like an incubator.

The last insect is hidden beneath a frothy spit on the Cuckoo flower. When you scrape it away there is a tiny green insect called a froghopper. It’s an aphid or plant sap sucker and creates the foam to protect itself from the weather and predators.

I move along and listen as more birds compete with the traffic. Studies have shown that some species have adapted to urban living by increasing the volume of their songs to compete with the back ground noise. Dunnock is a shy species and unless driven out by cold and hunger stay deep with cover. The blackcap is another summer migrant but some have started to overwinter. Gardeners who feed the birds will often see these colourful species on their feeders. A resident Robin gives a harsh warning call. He does not like my intrusion into his avian world.

Teasels are self-seeding everywhere. In a garden, they can quickly take over but here they have free reign. Their decorative seed heads are used in flower arranging and also attract birds like the beautiful Goldfinch. Bramble travels to new locations in the stomachs of birds after they have dined on its delicious berries. The seeds ripen in their own grow bag of bird fertiliser. Gorse is in flower and is covered in dozens of spider webs.

Natural colonization is apparent on this site. The first to arrive are the hardy Gorse, Birch, and willows. As their leaves fall they start to create soil and pave the way for other species to gain a foothold. A Willow warbler breaks into song from the railway hedgerow. It is another summer migrant but is olive green, stays under cover and its song it is only advertisement. Secret world of our Streets Secret world of our Streets.  Secret world of our .

Secret world of our Streets

A Bee performing pollination

I leave the hard ground and walk through the grassy bank overlooking the roundabout at the old Cork. I sit down in the middle of the meadow and make myself smaller than the grass and flowers. I sit perfectly still and slowly the world around me starts to come into vision and move with many legs. Part of a colony of Common Carder bees and their queen are feeding on the vetch flower. They work slowly towards me but I do not move. The queen spends a long time checking out this strange object in her garden before moving on.

The grass hides dangers all well as treasures. A spider is hunting through a jungle of stems. She pauses every few inches, her feelers twitching as she searches for lunch. I am too big for her but I realize that I am been stalked too. Hoverflies are watching me closely waiting for my guard to drop before striking for a meal. Their large eyes are patient and I will have to be on my guard to avoid been bitten.

Just in front of me, there is a manhole cover, with large raised letters. This creates a maze for an insect that wanders in.  All around on the tips of the flowers, there are colonies of greenflies. Every so often the wind knocks a few of them onto the manhole cover. Here the ladybirds are waiting and if the greenfly cannot find a way out there are quickly devoured.   Secret world of our Streets.

The harsh calls of a Magpie stirs me from the meadow. I realize I have become a habitat for wildlife as Greenfly, spiders and ladybirds are crawling all over my clothes. With a quick brush, I return these residents to their home. They cannot follow me to home just as I cannot stay in their world.  Secret world of our Streets.

I admire the last few flowers and birds before I leave. Common hogweed and Cow parsley compete with Fushia and Elderberry flowers for my attention. Woodpigeon, Blackbird and Great tit play on the last songs while the Swifts scream overhead. Secret world of our Streets.

These small habitats packed with nature are scattered through the city. They are all connected by a green thread and if you remove one part of the web the rest will be damaged. Secret world of our Streets.

For anyone who may have Comments or Questions for Albert click here. Albert is also available to give walks/talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.

Check out more of Albert Nolans work here.

Richard is a presenter, producer, songwriter and actor. He was named the Limerick Person of the Year (2011) and won an online award at the Metro Éireann Media and Multicultural Awards (2011) for promoting multi-culturalism online. Richard says that the concept is very much a community driven project that aims to document life in Limerick. So, that in 20 years time people can look back and remember the events that were making the headlines.