The Biosphere Challenge which was developed in partnership with Nessa Darcy encourages anyone with an interest in the biosphere to undertake simple actions which will help contribute towards the protection of our biosphere by helping us to live a little more sustainably.
Each week you will join other people all across the Biospheres in taking action to protect and connect with the land and sea that we share with other species.
These fun weekly tasks are suitable for all ages and we encourage you to share your achievements with your local community and our Natural Habitat Facebook Page (see below).
A series of videos are available on YouTube to help inform you further and maybe give you a little encouragement as we strive towards a brighter future for Ireland's environment!
Our vision is a network of thriving ecosystems and sustainable communities all across the Biospheres, where humans remember that we are part of nature and live harmoniously with other species. Each challenge is designed to help us be better neighbours to our local biodiversity. Flourishing ecosystems will, in turn, reward us by reducing climate change, feeding us, benefiting our mental and physical health and more!
We encourage families, friends, communities and businesses to work together (in line with Covid-19 restrictions) to rethink our role in the ecosystem and take action. Each of the weekly challenges is a chance to try out a new Biosphere-friendly activity or idea, many of which we hope will become a regular part of your lives.
2. Do Nothing!
The first task challenged us to put away the lawnmower, slow down our busy pace of life, and simply watch nature take its course. As an avid supporter of insects, I had already won over my housemates to the idea of letting our garden grow.
Our lawn was already a flourishing wildflower meadow by the start of the challenge. While working from home, we spent our breaks observing the diversity of wildlife that has increased as a result. Highlights include my first ever ruby wasp, and a whole family of foxes!
So, for a new challenge, I set out with Oisín Slator, a fellow naturalist, to Sandycove beach. We planned to sit in silence with nature for at least ten minutes, and observe it with all our senses.
Having been deprived for so long of interaction with human beings outside of our own households, we had a lot of catching up to do, and keeping silent felt like a real challenge.
Eventually we zipped our mouths shut and quietly extended our gaze out to the rocks among the waves. Our silence lasted three minutes before I exclaimed with surprise, as the rocks we had paid little attention to while chatting lifted their heads and tails, revealing themselves to be seals! Or “the bananas of the sea”, as Oisín so poetically described them.
Who else is living right under our noses in the Biosphere, that we don’t notice because we are so human-focused and busy?
If you are taking on the Biosphere Challenge with young people, this is a great opportunity for them to gain the Dublin Bay Biosphere Award, and use the resources, featuring Naturally Wild’s Dale Treadwell, to guide your nature observations and learn from the natural curiosity of children.
Watch the first of out Biosphere Challenge ‘Our Natural Habitat’ webinars by clicking the link below.
2. Grow the Wildest Plant Pot.
The second task challenges you to question your interpretation of the word “wild” and your relationship with wildness, by growing the wildest flowerpot in preparation for a plant pot pageant.
Can something be wild if it is planted by a human? Are wild and beautiful mutually exclusive? What would it look like if we let wild nature take over the care of one of our flower pots? Are we not wild animals ourselves?
This past year, I have been mentored by two bees who live in a village in Spain. Pol Parrhesia and Jorge Gallardo Altamirano are two of the artists behind Bee Time, “a research and artistic creation group that understands its work as a tool for change that acts by emitting resonances in the natural and social environment”.
There are many parallels between our work, as if our simultaneous awareness of the global ecological crisis has brought about evolutionary convergence in our creative practices.
The Wild Plant Pot competition, or Salirse del Tiesto, was Pol and Jorge’s idea. They had planned to host the pageant as part of a collaboration with their local community, until Covid restrictions curtailed their activities.
The phrase “salirse del tiesto” translates directly as “out of the pot”. It is Spain’s equivalent of “outside the box”, “against the grain”, or even “buck wild”. It signified that Bee Time expected the flower pots entered into their competition to be a bit mad and “out there”.
We discouraged participants from taking plants from the wild and imprisoning them in a pot. As Kate MacLochlainn explained in her talk on the Mount Merrion orchid meadow, many wild species won’t survive away from the community of supportive fungi and bacteria in which they evolved anyway.
But there are certain situations in which pulling up weeds serves a purpose in meeting our own ecological needs. Yes, we humans are part of the ecosystem too.
So, my housemates and I transplanted the “weeds” from the vegetable patch into a large pot. There, they could live out their days in peace, safe from the hoe. The most challenging part was the physical exertion involved in digging after such a long time in lockdown! We are in desperate need of rewilding ourselves.
Isabella Tree’s book, Wilding, describes what can happen when we let nature do her own thing on an even greater scale.
3. Talk to Your Neighbours
One of the biggest hurdles to taking effective action for nature conservation on our own land is that question that hangs over Irish society like a dark cloud, “What will the neighbours think?”
For task number three, I imagined participants offering their neighbours a cup of tea and a guided tour of their new “don’t mow, let it grow” gardens. I encouraged people to create posters explaining to passers-by that their gardens were deliberately wild.
I had grand visions of neighbours forming new connections through the sharing of pollinator-friendly gardening tips and surplus organic courgettes. I saw us uniting against climate change by turning over our lawns to carbon-sequestering vegetation and no-dig vegetable patches.
I quickly realised that we are far from the stage where everyone is ready to really hear my vision. And why should they, when most of the time I’m not really listening to what drives their vision of manicured lawns and orderly flower beds? We need to visit each other where we are, emotionally, economically, culturally, and build a certain level of mutual acceptance, before we can meet halfway on environmental issues.
Ibrahim Roche, a guest speaker at our second Biosphere Challenge webinar, is an Intercultural Ambassador with Dublin City Council, and runs an initiative called Clean Medina. Medina is an Arabic word, it refers to a geographical location, a crossroads where communities and people come together, and live together, in a sustainable manner.
Clean Medina encourages people from different cultural and religious backgrounds to put down roots and get to know their neighbours, by taking part in local environmental projects such as Tidy Towns.
I decided to tone down my frustrated attempts at evangelising about rewilded lawns, and humbled myself to join a local clean-up group. After all, actions speak louder than words, and in working together towards a common goal we begin to really see and hear each other.
Watch Webinar 2: Community Action in the Biosphere by clicking the link below.
See Kate MacLochlainn on monitoring an orchid meadow in Dublin Bay Biosphere here
Meet the Mount Merrion Residents’ Association Environmental Group here
Find out how you can get involved in local environmental projects through the Clean Medina Facebook Group here
4. Compost with Your Community
The emphasis of this task is on community. By swapping skills and resources, we can create sustainable systems much more easily. Let's say I don't know how to build a compost bin out of pallets. Can you help me? Maybe you need more kitchen scraps to fill your compost heap. Let me bring you mine, and we can have a cup of tea and a chat too.
When the pandemic hit Ireland, pasta and toilet paper had to be rationed, due to widespread Hamsterkauf, which is now one of my favourite German words. Our fear of scarcity, maybe the intergenerational trauma of famine, had collided with our sudden awareness of how precarious our food supply chains are, to cause initial panic.
Slowly, a more positive effect emerged. There was an increase in the “grow-it-yourself” movement. Garden centres and seed supply stores were sold out of vegetable seeds in weeks as people working from home now had the time to try producing their own food.
We gave it a shot at my house too. It’s only when you experience first-hand the challenge of coaxing the land into producing a bounteous crop that you understand the vast time, energy and resources that go into stocking the shelves of our food stores.
What we were most lacking was compost. We send our vegetable peels, chicken bones, eggshells, leftover rice and grass cuttings away via bin collection. How can we cycle it back into the soil so that it's fertile enough to feed us into the future? Home made compost is a great alternative to shop bought compost which usually contains peat from our precious bogs.
I escaped the city to live at Coole Eco-Community for nine months. Coole is a project dedicated to land regeneration and community living in Ferbane, Co. Offaly.
Coole taught me the workings of a compost heap and the extraordinary value of cow poop. The scraps from cooking for a community of five, a constant supply of biomass weeded out from the garden, and the dung from eleven cows could barely provide enough nutrients to feed the vegetables all year round.
The members of Coole Eco-Community share their communal approach to composting here.
The Irish Peatland Conservation Council demonstrate DIY peat-free composting, see here.
Justin Ivory, of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council’s Gardening for Biodiversity scheme joined us for our second webinar, Community Action in the Biosphere, see here.
5. Grow something you can eat
For task number five, we encourage you to grow some food for your own table. Nothing tastes better than fruit and vegetables you have witnessed emerging from your home soil or a container on a sunny windowsill of your apartment.
My Dad has demonstrated this for years. One of the joys of my youth was picking sour cherries, in the heavy rain showers that happened at that time of the summer, and popping them straight into my mouth. Now my nine year old nephew picks pea pods fresh off Gramps’ bamboo poles, popping the peas in his mouth and handing the pods to our dog.
You are not expected to become self-sufficient in a week! For this task, even sprouting some beans will suffice. Or why not plant some rhubarb and leave it to the healthy neglect that ours seems to enjoy?
Horticulturist and environmentalist Aoife Munn has some great tips for your first foray into growing food:
- Fill a window box with peat-free compost and sprinkle lettuce seed on it sparingly. Lettuce grows all year round in Ireland. It is a “cut and come again” crop, meaning you can harvest just what you need for your salad and the plant will keep growing. This is a great way to avoid food waste, as most people end up throwing away half the lettuce they buy in the shop.
- Plant peas and Asian salad seeds in seed trays on your windowsill. Snip off the young shoots after 2 - 3 weeks of growing, and eat them as delicious, nutritious, trendy microgreens.
For (imaginary) bonus points, I challenge you to grow something that wildlife can also eat. How do we find the balance between providing food for ourselves and for the insects? What is your interpretation of this?
Not everyone has access to the land and resources necessary to grow their own food, but a shift towards buying or gifting local, agroecologically produced food can also make a delicious contribution to the battle against climate change, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. Dig in at your local community garden, or order your vegetables from a Community Supported Agriculture scheme.
Grow it Yourself Ireland are a non-profit social enterprise helping people grow food and learn about food sustainability.
6. Record Insects for Citizen Science!
In week six, we ask you to get to know and record at least one insect in your local habitat.
Contributing to our knowledge of the world’s species doesn’t have to be an undertaking of Linnaean proportions. Simply watch a patch of thistles, for example, for ten minutes, and notice who comes flying in and out for a feed of nectar or pollen during that time.
That is how the Flower Insect Timed Count works. Carry out one of these simple but valuable surveys, upload your records to the National Biodiversity Data Centre website, and you will have passed the sixth task of the challenge!
If even ten minutes feels like too great a commitment, download the NBDC app next time you see something familiar and common, like a seven-spot ladybird or a common carder bumble bee, pop into the website and record where and when you saw it.
Our hope is that you will get bitten by the recording bug, and start seeking out and collecting facts about real life creatures, the way we do with imaginary ones on a certain augmented reality mobile game.
Every record added to the database of information we have about the biodiversity on this island helps us to gain a clearer picture of the distribution, habitat needs, and increasing or decreasing population figures of every one of these important species.
Finding new species to add to your collection releases the same kind of brain chemical rewards that kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors foraging, and brings us closer to our environment and the other species who share it. Brilliant for our mental health.
Expert beekeeper Jim Ryan talks about pollinating insects and how to identify them, in our third webinar, Things on the Wing: https://youtu.be/nIFH6R0HWVc
Submit your records to the National Biodiversity Data Centre and find identification resources: https://biodiversityireland.ie
Instructions for the Flower Insect Timed Count: https://pollinators.ie/record-pollinators/fit-count/
7. Two Minute Beach Clean
Task seven will take no more than two minutes of your week! On your next adventure to the beach, Clean Coasts asks you to spend those two minutes picking up litter, in order to protect wildlife from swallowing plastic and getting caught in fishing line.
To keep you safe while you work to protect birds and sea turtles, they are giving away free gloves and snazzy reusable tote bags. To get your kit, visit the Clean Coasts website and register for their #2minutebeachclean
Every year, one million seabirds die of marine litter entanglement or ingestion. Ireland creates the highest amount of plastic waste in the EU, at 63kg per person per year, compared to the EU average of 31kg.
When you hear statistics like these, it can be a challenge to even face the reality and scale of the ocean plastics problem. I find myself feeling skeptical as to whether small consumer choices, such as refusing plastic straws, can really add up to make a sufficient difference to these systemic issues.
Now, however, I realise that beach cleans are not so much about removing plastic from the ocean, piece by piece, as they are about bringing caring individuals together to form a movement big enough to bring about the necessary sea change.
In Ireland, champions such as Clean Coasts’ Richard Curtin and Flossie and the Beach Cleaners, have gamified beach cleaning and elevated it to the level of a competitive sport! Teams weigh their plastic catch and post it on social media with hashtags such as #2minutebeachclean and #ifyouseeitcleanit.
Mismanaged plastic waste is, of course, a global problem, and our first round of the Biosphere Challenge attracted enthusiastic litter pickers from over 9000 km outside of Ireland’s Biospheres. Beach cleans took place on the island of Madagascar (see here) and street cleans in land-locked Zambia! I stayed local and joined the Mount Merrion environmental group.
The hour I spend with them each month involves positive human interaction, fresh air, exercise, the bonding that comes from working together towards a common goal, and the happy brain chemicals we are rewarded with when we do good deeds.
These ingredients combine to give us hope, motivation, and a sense of our invincibility as a community—resources which will sustain us for the long haul as we clean up and campaign for our environment.
At our 4th webinar, Life Underwater, Richard Curtin presented statistics, policy, and plans for cleaning up ocean plastics in such a funny, uplifting way that I was able to absorb them and feel hope for a better future.
Where is your nearest clean up group? Join them on their next outing for an almost guaranteed mood boost.
8. Create or Explore a Watery Habitat
It might be clear by week eight that you are not expected to literally complete each task in the space of one week! Most of them are tasters of simple, positive practices you might incorporate into your life. If they even start a conversation about an aspect of the Biosphere, you are doing the challenge correctly.
The eighth task is a chance to take the first steps towards a project, which you can undertake on any scale. Create a wetland habitat of any size, or get to know a local river, lake or puddle and the flora and fauna it supports.
Owen Kelly runs a garden design business called Sod It, based in West Cork. He announced this task with an inspiring and informative video about creating his own garden pond, see it here.
Water is an essential resource for nature that is often lacking in our urban and suburban gardens or deliberately removed from farmland and parks. Different plants and animals require different types of water bodies, from ephemeral puddles to expansive lakes, and from squelchy bogs to flowing rivers.
For many pollinating insects, such as thirsty bees and certain hoverflies, providing even a small amount of water near your home can make a huge difference.
Ellie Rotheray is a researcher in the Buzz Club at University of Sussex. It is “a citizen science club, bringing together gardeners and volunteer scientists of all ages to answer important questions about garden wildlife."
In our fourth webinar, Life Underwater, Ellie showed us the easiest way to offer a wetland habitat to your local pollinators. The hoverfly lagoon consists of a tub, such as a plastic milk bottle cut in half, with a bunch of dead plant matter stuffed into it. This forms a habitat suitable for the larvae of at least seven different hoverfly species to occupy, boosting populations of these species where their natural habitat - rot holes in old trees - is scarce.
There is a lot to be learnt from observing these curious creatures, as Ellie described in her fascinating presentation, and the Buzz Club wants to hear what turns up in your hoverfly lagoon.
The larvae filter feed on microbes like tiny baleen whales feeding on krill. They are known as rat-tailed maggots, due to their telescopic breathing tubes which reach to the surface of the water.
Ellie thinks they need rebranding. Personally, I think the gruesome name and the facial expressions it would elicit were a big part of the appeal of these insects when I was a child. It’s one of the reasons I still fondly remember observing them in a tub in my family garden.
A hoverfly lagoon in every garden in the Biosphere would create a wonderful chain of habitats for these strikingly stripy insects, and bring hours of amusement to children and adults alike!
Full instructions are available here.
9. Create Something to Inspire Thought About Our Natural Habitat
Paint, write, sing, stitch, knit, rap, dance, or doodle on the back of a compostable napkin. Whatever your preferred medium, we are sure that after nine weeks of regularly engaging with nature, you will have something to express about it and share with others.
You might create a portrait of a species you have encountered along the way, or pose a few thought provoking questions on what our natural habitat really means. These are just examples. Let your imagination run wild!
The creations of previous participants might offer some inspiration. Owen Kelly created a self portrait out of home grown vegetables! Elijah Bahate (aka Kenwel Kayz) collaborated with me (aka Queen Beetle) to adapt a verse of one of his songs to pay tribute to bees, beetles, true bugs, the cliffs of Howth, and the Ring of Kerry! See here!
Sachita Suryanarayan and friends sang a love song to water around a melodic fountain in France. See here!
Gino Tolotra and his team built a seating area out of eco-bricks in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar.
And Kerkus Forest School built a miniature world of imaginary insects, such as the Budabu bug, and recorded videos about their ecology and habitats.
We celebrated the completion of the Biosphere Challenge by sharing songs, stories, poems and more at a Virtual Rambling House, something you could easily arrange with your local community.
In Drumcondra, in Dublin, there is a living, breathing work of art which has changed how I see land in our urban habitat. St. Anne’s Road Pocket Park was once an unremarkable wedge of grassland beside the Dart station. Then artist and landscape architect Sophie von Maltzan transformed it into an oasis, see here.
Now you can rest on a bench, play on the slide, explore the wicker tunnel, or even have a business meeting at the mosaic table, among buzzing pollinator plants, wildflowers and oak trees, while snacking on delicious passionfruit. Visit the park to gaze upon the colourful insect information boards we designed with the children of Lindsay Road National School.
The park demonstrates the multifunctional abundance that even a small patch of land is capable of holding. It proves that people and nature can coexist in harmony, when we challenge our preconceptions of what a public green space should look like and how it can be used.
At our fifth webinar, Nature and Culture Connect, Sophie shared the story of how the park grew from an idea, through public consultation, to the well established site of community recreation it is now. A couple of neighbours who originally said the park would never last are now some of its most loving caretakers.
What aspects of our relationship with the land we live on have you questioned during the Biosphere Challenge? Why not put them into words or imagery and share them with your fellow Biosphere inhabitants?
10. Taste Wild Foraged Food
For the tenth and final task we invite you to nature’s table to celebrate your achievements by savouring the delicacies of the wild. Motivating myself to take on this task was easy, as food is always my priority!
Harvesting, cooking and devouring organic fruit and vegetables makes me feel so good. Even better if someone else has done all the hard work of keeping them alive and well and pollinated to the point of fruition.
Nobody does this better than Mother Nature herself. While our vegetable patch largely went to wrack and ruin under my management, the brambles and wild roses produced a great bounty of sweet, juicy fruit. The blackberries have a distinctly celebratory flavour when eaten immediately after picking. It’s almost sparkling.
A clump of wild strawberry plants noticed the absence of lawnmower blades as we let our wildflower meadow grow, and ventured forth to produce berries of their own.
Finding and picking wild berries rewards the same part of my brain that lights up when I spot a rare ladybird species in a wetland, or find Foo Fighters’ Everlong on a karaoke booth song list.
It distracts me from the troubles of the world. I feel prosperous, thriving, immersed in the gifts of nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer best describes nature’s generosity in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.
In our Biosphere Challenge Facebook group, an important question was raised in response to this task. In nature’s current depleted state, can she afford for us to forage these foods which are also shared with the birds, the squirrels, the insects?
There is an important etiquette to sustainable foraging. Only take a sustainable amount, a small percentage of anything you’re harvesting. A taste of the wild is enough to rekindle our connection to it.
Only pick what you can confidently identify or have identified by an expert. As Alexis Nikole Nelson (@blackforager on TikTok and Instagram) says, “Don’t die!”
Robin makes small beds for the wild strawberry runners. She clears excess algae from her pond. She knows that gathering the sweetgrass stimulates its growth. Most importantly, she trusts in nature’s ability to provide for our needs if we take only what we need and no more.
Selene Aswell, a community living coach exploring the Gift Economy, expanded on this idea in our fifth Biosphere Challenge webinar, Nature and Culture Connect. She encouraged us to tune into that trust in nature through an inspiring meditation.
Selene was joined by Sophie von Maltzan who designs spaces where nature and people can coexist harmoniously, such as St. Anne’s Road Pocket Park. There you can pick a ripe passionfruit off the wall in summer, thanks to the bees.
Paying it forward also feels rewarding. All of my family members got apple and blackberry chutney and rosehip jelly for Christmas!