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A farm's old stone structures can house birds, bats – and history

Chris Baraniuk
Chris Baraniuk
6 min read
A farm's old stone structures can house birds, bats – and history
Credit: Shane McAuliffe.

Most of the lime kilns are gone now. Old maps from the 19th Century suggest they were once dotted around the farms run by Shane McAuliffe, a pig farmer in Ireland.

While time has cleared away almost all of them, two survive to this day.

They look a bit like bridges, with their broad stone arches, but detached from any obvious road or other structure. Now heavily overgrown, nestled among lichens, moss and grass, they are long past their working days.

“They were very popular in Ireland because you were able to burn limestone into lime,” explains McAuliffe. “That was used to improve the soils.”

The derelict kilns could now provide ideal accommodation for bats, says McAuliffe, who sees the structures as living history pieces: fragmented records of the farms’ cultural heritage that support life today. There are other examples of lime kilns that have become bat caves, such as those at Brockham Limeworks in Surrey, and one particular kiln along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in Wales, which was specially converted to house bats in 2013.

One of McAuliffe's kilns lies deep in a wooded area where it is rarely disturbed. Bats might roost in its cavernous interior, emerging on the wing at dusk to hunt for insects.

For McAuliffe, old ruins like these offer great starting points for safeguarding biodiversity on his farms, which are located in counties Kerry and Offaly. He mentions that he also has an old ice house and a dovecote, or pigeon house. “There’s holes in it that allow bats to fly in and out,” he says. “But also for the likes of swifts and house martins, it’s really ideal for them.”

And although he isn't yet sure which species of bat are present on his farms, he has also installed bat boxes near a waterway to further encourage them.

How important is it, then, that farmers make an effort to improve biodiversity?

Of all the habitable land on Earth (104 million sq km), exactly half of it is used for agriculture. That’s 50 times the area taken up by towns and cities. Many would argue that, if we are going to change our land use habits enough to make a real impact on biodiversity, then farmers ought to be part of the solution.

Now seems like a good time to find out how to appeal to them, and discover how they may be helping already.

The dark entrance to an old lime kiln's oven, with vegetation growing around the opening.
Another of McAuliffe's derelict lime kilns that could double as a bat cave. Credit: Shane McAuliffe.

In McAuliffe’s case, there are various patches of land on his farms that he has earmarked for wildlife. Rugged, mountainous places that are difficult to manage. These suit the hen harrier, a bird of prey considered endangered in Ireland. McAuliffe is working with a project to support the local hen harrier population.

And he has also installed wildlife ponds and sown flowers to attract pollinators. Most rewarding, he says, are the conversations he’s had with neighbouring farmers. He anticipates that they too will soon launch projects in a similar vein.

In Ireland, just a few tiny slivers of untouched bog and native forest remain. Farms, not wilderness, blanket the island and a big conversation is presently afoot as to how farmers can restore habitats and support biodiversity effectively.

It is, unsurprisingly, the source of many heated discussions. As far as I'm concerned, the inroads being made by some farmers are at the very least thought-provoking. They could end up benefiting wildlife, paving the way for even bigger ideas to follow in the future.

When given the chance, biodiversity can bloom in places where it was once threatened. By protecting abandoned land or structures, and leaving them for wildlife to colonise, farmers may spark a cascade of benefits for plants, animals and people across the whole island. In Great Britain, I should note, brownfield sites in former coal mining areas have become home to one of the island’s rarest birds, the willow tit.

Farming that benefits the environment is sometimes called “regenerative agriculture”, a concept discussed in The Observer newspaper this weekend. Journalist Tim Lewis writes:

“There is no set definition of regenerative agriculture or ‘regen ag’ as it gets called. But stripped back, it is any form of farming – that is, the production of food or fibre – which at the same time improves the environment. Regenerative farmers typically try to disturb the soil as little as possible: forgoing tilling, which disturbs the complex network of worm-holes, fungal hyphae and a labyrinth of microscopic air pockets, and avoiding heavy doses of fertiliser or sprays. Most advocates grow a diverse range of crops, often at the same time, and believe that grazing animals are essential for improving soil health.”

As an Irish farmer who makes the case for looking after nature, McAuliffe is far from alone. For years, many farmers in the Burren, a beautiful tract of land on the island's west coast, have sought to boost the numbers of birds and bees visiting their estates.

A selfie of a man in a field with about two dozen cows behind him.
Credit: Shane McAuliffe.

A movement to do this sort of thing on an island-wide scale may be gathering pace.

Among the things to watch out for are the results of a large survey of farm habitats, the Farm Environmental Study (FES). It will soon be underway in the Republic of Ireland. Hopefully, it will give some sense of the opportunities that exist for bolstering nature on Irish farms.

McAuliffe sees his wildlife drive, in part, as an act of heritage appreciation. That could help to "sell" biodiversity to other farmers, whose families have sometimes worked the same land for decades or even centuries.

“I think we know that we have to feed a growing population but we also have to do it with less impact on the environment,” he says.

“But I am firmly of the belief that every farmer can do something.”

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If you enjoyed last week's piece, on making offerings, or paybacks, to nature whenever we extract resources, have a look at this feature published in Hakai Magazine in May. It's about gold mining companies that support salmon conservation efforts. Hakai Magazine's news editor, Colin Schultz (with whom I often work!), flagged the piece to me on Twitter after he read The Nature Gatherer.

Large scale rewilding projects are nothing if not fascinating experiments. And one such experiment is located in Glen Feshie in the Scottish Highlands. The estate is owned by a Danish billionaire, Anders Povlsen. He has allowed Scots pine trees to spread up onto the hillsides, changing the whole character of the place, as Ben Dolphin explains for The Press and Journal.

“I genuinely can’t recall visiting such a gobsmackingly beautiful and uplifting place,” he writes.

There is a very interesting piece in the New Yorker this week about a stunning lagoon in Mexico that turned cloudy following heavy rains last year. Allison Keeley discusses the negative effects that tourism may have had on the place over the years, and wonders whether the waters will ever return to their former, crystalline glory.

People in the middle distance enjoy hammocks and shallow waters at a beautiful beach.
The waters of Bacalar, Mexico, are famous for their brilliant blue hues and clarity. Credit: Clive Kim from Pexels.

This fascinating new feature by Jim Robbins for BBC Future explores ethnoornithology and the researchers who are documenting the many, many links between birds species all around the world, and local customs or folklore. It’s well worth a read.

“Birds, central to so many different indigenous ways of life, portray the ways cultures inhabit and perceive the natural world, which bird stories tell us is almost unimaginably different to non-indigenous cultures.”

Finally, here’s an interesting thing: a prize of £500 for the best piece of music that “tunes in to nature”, open to 16-29 year-olds in the UK. It’s offered by the Oak Project, a partnership between Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the University of Derby and the Bronze Oak Project Ltd. The deadline is 30 July. Get composing!

BiodiversityAgricultureAnimalsBirds

Chris Baraniuk

I'm a freelance science journalist and nature-lover who wants to find new, hopeful ways to bring people and nature together.