Watering the polytunnel one evening I was taken aback to spot a large insect flexing his feelers on a courgette plant. His slender body spanned almost two inches with long gangly antennae that comically kinked out suddenly. I’d never seen a creature like him before and decided to keep my distance. After gingerly taking a picture on my phone I darted indoors to see if Google could enlighten me. I found no images to match my bug so I sent off an email to the Viney household hoping for some insight. Ethna Viney, writer and wife to Irish Times nature columnist Michael, very kindly advised me to contact the National Biodiversity Data Centre.


Funded by the Heritage Council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the National Biodiversity Data Centre is based in Waterford. They collect data from civilian naturalists from all around the country. That information is then managed and analysed to inform us of any changes to our natural surroundings. It means that the state of Ireland’s wildlife is documented for future reference and monitored so that any potential threats or challenges can be detected and dealt with. As the natural environment directly impacts our daily lives, it is a valuable and worthy activity.

The public are encouraged to visit the website, log in and record their sighting- whether it be insect, wild animal, bird or plant. There are even useful step-by-step instructions to help you through the process. When I opened the website I read that earlier in the day a Pine Marten had been spotted in Sligo, someone had spied a Green Shield bug in Kerry while the day before in Dublin a Rock Pigeon was recorded and Sea Aster was found growing in Waterford. Just a few of the many, many recorded sightings that are logged each day. It doesn’t seem to matter if the particular species is unusual or considered rare, even encounters with common flora and fauna are welcome.

But how could I record my exotic visitor without first identifying him? With that in mind I sent my photo in an email to the experts at the National Biodiversity Data Centre asking for assistance. A speedy response confirmed that my insect wasn’t terribly exotic but, in fact, a parasitic wasp. Dr Tomás Murray assured me that the wasp was harmless, unless you happen to be a caterpillar. The unfortunate caterpillar is host to the wasp larvae. I was a little disappointed not to have discovered a rarity or even a brand new species but at least he will help deter ravenous caterpillars from chomping through my leafy greens.


A week later while walking in the locality I spotted another gargantuan insect on my path. A fat, brown caterpillar with eye-like markings lolloped over the gravel. Aha, I thought, another specimen to record. Google was able to help me out on this one which turned out to be an Elephant Hawk Moth grub. So I dutifully logged on to the National Biodiversity Data Centre website and recorded each insect individually, citing exact location, date and habitat I found them in. Lots of prompts and drop-down menus make the process as easy as possible.

Next time you are outdoors take a closer look at that grass verge, the hedge nearby, the stone wall, the flower bed.  It’s amazing what you see when you really look. Get spotting and recording. You’ll develop a more intimate relationship with your surroundings, you’ll be doing your bit for the preservation of our biodiversity and, last but not least, it’s fun for all the family!

FPW_illustrationWe are all well aware of the potential challenges that lay ahead. The media bombards us with forecasts of melting ice caps, rising ocean levels and calamitous weather patterns. The unpredictability of climate change threatens our food sovereignty and presents us with various tragic eventualities. While it all sounds a bit apocalyptic and melodramatic, because that’s how the media likes to express itself, there is a slice of reality in there. Our destructive behaviour hasn’t done us any favours. Man’s lack of empathy for the natural order of things combined with our misguided sense of superiority may one day lead to our eventual extinction. As George Carlin put it

The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

But it’s not terribly helpful to dwell on omens of doom and gloom. It’s more constructive (and much cheerier) to seek out inspirational, enlightened folk to guide us in the right direction. International Resilience Manager Davie Philip is one such person. A few days ago in Wexford town a group of like-minded people came together to explore how we might build better communities in our locality and plan for a brighter future together. The highlight of the “Future-Proof Wexford” public meeting was an impassioned and uplifting talk by Davie. He spoke about the need for resilience- a more realistic goal than the ultimate ideal of sustainability. A resilient society will adapt to immediate challenges  and find solutions that will accommodate growth. Instead of  worrying about future catastrophic events in the wider world, more can be achieved by collectively overcoming everyday problems within our own working and living environments.


Building social capital is key to the process. For this to happen it takes a period of interaction and observation to suss out the dynamics of the group. To help forge connections, promote inclusivity and move toward common goals it is helpful to first map out the assets and collective skills within the community.

Davie cited the eco-village of Cloughjordan in Co. Tipperary as a relevant case study. A founding member of the community and a resident of the eco-village he gave numerous examples of how people rally together to overcome societal challenges. Whether it be economic issues, security or health and wellbeing, it is clear that sharing the load lessens the burden. Community-supported agriculture (CSA), communal gardening, an egg, milk & bread club, a microgeneration collective and a community workspace for eco-entrepreneurs are a few of the Cloughjordan initiatives where individuals have successfully pooled resources. Not only do these work for the betterment of the eco-villagers, many knock-on benefits radiate out to positively impact the wider neighbourhood.

Touching on the ideas of “less ego and more eco” and making sustainability more mainstream, Davie suggested that the toughest part of the future-proofing process may be changing how we think. We need to lose the “everyman for himself” mindset and re-establish connections. We shouldn’t be consumed by what we want to own as individuals but maybe explore what we it is we actually need to flourish as a community. What exactly constitutes a happy community? Can we come together to achieve a common goal for the benefit of all? Well that remains to be seen. I, for one, am hopeful. If we can fill a room on a Tuesday evening with enthusiastic people all open to change, it can only be a good sign.

Movements such as Transition Town and Incredible Edible Tomorden are just two examples of many great collective collaborations in action. If you’ve got an inspiring story to share about how your community has worked together for social and environmental improvement I’d love to hear about it.

Ragwort_FlowersYou will find swathes of bright yellow swaying in fallow meadows and roadsides despite attempts to eradicate it completely from the land. As a child I remember scouring fields for *buachaláns. Its strong, acrid odour would fill the air as you grabbed the stalk to tug it out. A smell so potent you could almost taste the unpleasantness in your mouth. The reason for its unpopularity lies in its toxicity. In the unlikely event of cattle or horses eating the plant, given its unpalatable smell, the presence of alkaloid poisons have the potential to cause severe or fatal liver damage. It poses more of a problem when the plant is cut and dried as it still retains its toxins. Hence our annual family ragwort purge. The plant is considered such a threat to the agricultural community that it is cited as an offender in the Irish Noxious Weeds Act of 1936.

Ragwort tastes so woeful that it would never be considered as food for humans so it is not a real danger to us. Some alkaloids may be absorbed through skin contact but these are eliminated from the body without causing harm. Ragwort may however cause dermatitis or an allergic reaction to sensitive individuals.


Is it fair to portray the ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) as a demonic scourge? It is, after all, host to over 70 insect species about 30 of which feed exclusively from it. The most well-known is the Cinnabar Moth, whose larvae can safely chomp away on the leaves, unbothered by predators. The plant’s alkaloids are absorbed by the caterpillars, giving the grubs, I imagine, a particularly nasty taste. The clusters of yellow flowers that emerge in late July and August are a great source of nectar and pollen for insects while its downy seeds provide food for birds in the autumn.

The Manx people refer to ragwort as cushag and liked it enough to appoint it as the Isle of Man’s national flower. This may be down to it’s extensive medicinal use in former times. There is early documentation reporting of the use of ragwort leaves as a poultice for rheumatism, sciatica and gout and the plant has even been cited as a cure for “staggers” in horses.

It goes without saying that livestock should always be kept safe and the practice of pulling the plant from grazing pastures is sensible. A prolific seeder and hardy perennial, it is unlikely that ragwort will ever become an endangered species but consider the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) and other insect life that the plant supports. Next time you come across a **bauld buachalán enjoy the beautiful display of radiant yellow, have a scan for any stripy passengers on board and wonder at the marvel of everything having its place in this magical ecosystem we inhabit.

*buachalán buí: Irish for ragwort (probably derived from Irish word buachaill- meaning boy, while buí means yellow) **bauld: Irish slang for bold or naughty

Note: I would not recommend self-medicating with ragwort, despite the wonder-cure claims.

Beech Leaf Noyeau

BeechLeafNoyeau_SMI’m not one-hundred percent sure what Noyeau actually means but from mooching around blogville I’m picking up that it is a tipple with a vague association with brandy. Interestingly, the addition of a single French word always transforms the mundane into instant sophistication. So I’m sticking with it.

It’s too late in the year to make this drink as the beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves have now lost their fresh, bright green lustre. When they first emerge in spring they are beautifully soft and downy with a translucency that plays with the early May sunlight. And that is what we are looking for. I picked my leaves at the end of May and already they were beginning to take on a more robust, viridian hue. Sensing the urgency, I filled a large bag. Although it looked like a big harvest, when I packed them tightly into a Kilner jar they only half filled it. But that was fine – it seemed a bit mean to strip the tree bare. I washed the leaves before making sure to press them down into the jar with some force. Apparently that’s important. I then poured in enough gin to cover the leaves and left them to stew for four weeks.

Four weeks later I strained the gin from the leaves, squishing them to extract as much liquid as possible. The boozy leaves went on my compost heap – your  compost heap is allowed to get a little tipsy once in a while. As with us- moderation is key. The gin had taken on a greeny-brown hue. I then made a syrup by boiling sugar and water. When it was cool, I added it to the gin along with the obligatory splosh of brandy and decanted the lot into a suitable bottle. And….oo la laa…. we have noyeau! Drink neat or enjoy with a mixer of choice. I’m going to sip mine, very lady-like, with tonic water… and a certain air of decadence…

As a guideline should you want to make this next spring: for every 100ml of beech leaf-infused gin you will need about 43ml water and 32g of sugar to make the syrup. I added a modest 15ml brandy per 100ml but you may prefer more.


MaryWhite_blackstairs-EcoToursSouth of Curracloe beach is Culleton’s Gap where a wooded walk, teaming with all sorts of interesting flora and fauna, meanders behind the sand dunes. The sun was shining, there was a cockoo calling and a red squirrel was spotted scampering through the tree tops. A magical backdrop for our forest forage led by Mary White of Blackstairs Eco Trails. The group huddled close as Mary and her partner Robert went through the ethics of foraging for wild food. We were advised not to over indulge – to leave some for the insects and animals to feed on and enough to enable the plant to reproduce. “We take no more than a third of a particular species in a given area” Mary explained “and if it is a rare specimen, such as pig nuts, then we leave it alone altogether to give it a chance to re-establish itself”. Most importantly, “if in doubt- leave it out”. Some plants are easy to identify but others require some experience. There are several plant species with white umbel flower heads that look remarkably similar and while a lot of them are safe to ingest there are a few that are poisonous- some deadly. So bring along a good wild plant guide to help you make informed choices and if you are unsure please don’t take the risk.

With the sensible advise underway we continued on our walk. Stopping frequently to point out plants of culinary interest, Mary and Robert highlighted their individual characteristics to aid identification. They shared interesting tips and facts as well as practical recipes to try out. So engaging were our two guides that the 90 minutes flew by. I was particularly taken with a recipe for fried dandelion heads so I rushed home to scour our lawn for ingredients to make an afternoon snack. Everybody knows dandelions, or Pissy-beds as they were charmingly referred to round these parts due to their strong diuretic qualities. Also embedded in our childhood memories are the floaty seed heads which we would puff at to tell the time. But if you actually go hunting for a dandelion there are a number of yeller flowers that bear a striking resemblance to it – like Lesser Hawkbit and Sow Thistle. So here are a few tell-tale signs to make sure you’ve made the correct choice.


Apparently it’s best to harvest them at midday or when the sun is at its strongest so that the flower will have maximum sugar levels. Sun still blazing I filled my colander with the yellow heads, washed them, patted them dry and removed as much as the green calyx as I could. Then I dipped them in whisked egg and coated them in flour mixed with salt, pepper and a few herbs. I used some thyme and oregano and my flour was buckwheat but you can alter the recipe to suit what you have to hand. I fried them in olive oil and -wow! Totally delicious- we scoffed them down in the blink of an eye.

Soap making gearGoggles- check, mask- check, rubber gloves- check…….Yes, we did look like a couple of nerds about to embark on a scientific experiment. By this stage we had our equipment to hand and our ingredients organised. Our soap saga was ready to take to the next level –  the actual making of the soap. The process involves chemicals and (potentially hazardous) reactions so, as you can see, we togged out accordingly. Here’s how we proceeded:

Getting ready

  1. After decking the kitchen with several layers of newspaper we read our instructions thoroughly, and once more for good luck…
  2. We decided to use an infusion of herbs instead of pure water so first off, we poured boiled, filtered water over fresh herbs and and left it to cool before straining.
  3. Using a digital scales we weighed out all our ingredients, bar the caustic soda.
  4. Then we put on our protective gear (amid giggles and snorts).

The “scary” bit……

  1. Placing our small designated glass bowl on the digital scales we carefully measured the caustic soda and set it safely to one side.
  2. We placed our larger designated glass bowl on the scales and poured in the required amount of water (which was actually a herbal infusion.)
  3. After that we moved both vessels to the sink, close to a large open window (ventilation is important) and as one of us very carefully poured the caustic soda into the water* the other gently stirred the mixture with a hand whisk. We both held our breaths during this step to avoid inhaling any fumes. I’m pretty sure our faces went a funny colour…..*CAUTION: NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE CAUSTIC SODA – IT COULD HAVE EXPLOSIVE CONSEQUENCES…
  4. When all was combined we left the bowl standing in a safe position in front of the open window to cool a little while we finally gasped for air.

Blending ingredients

  1. The bain-marie was then brought to the boil, using a large saucepan of water and an equally large pyrex bowl, to melt the hard fats. The liquid oils were added to the melted fats/butters. This was also left to cool down a bit as the temperature of the lye and the oils must both be within a certain range- between 40°C and 50°C .
  2. We used one thermometer to read the temperature of both bowls making sure to wipe it well after dipping in the lye- we were still wearing our gloves and being very cautious. On reflection – 2 thermometers would be handier….
  3. After about 5-10 minutes we had reached the correct temperatures and it was time to carefully pour the lye into the oils. This is where the stick blender comes in, making sure to use it as low as possible in the pan to avoid any splattering.
  4. We blended until the mixture became the consistency of custard. What is known as “trace” occurs at this point. When you lift the switched-off blender out of the mixture and run it across the surface it should leave a line or trace for a few seconds before the surface becomes smooth again. Time to stop blending when this happens.

The final stage

  1. This is the time to add the smelly, scrubby elements. It’s important to work fairly quickly to avoid the mixture becoming too thick to pour. We swiftly mixed in the essential oils (and for one batch, our poppy seeds) stirring the mixture well.
  2. Next up, the whole lot was poured into our moulds. We had a mixture of plastic moulds. Some were specifically for soap making – one large tray for a slab-like block that would require cutting (not best choice) and another with individual sections for complete bars (good choice)-  and then some small takeaway containers which had lids (perfectly adequate- lids a plus). We later made a mental note that silicon moulds would be the easiest to work with.
  3. The moulds were covered with cardboard (plastic lids for the takeaway boxes) and left in a warm place for 24 hours before removing them from their moulds. We cut the larger slabs of soap into bars (no need if you have dedicated moulds) and left all the soap to air. We did have some difficulty removing the large blocks from their moulds, even after 48 hours and had to cut the soap in its container first. Leaving it in the fridge for a spell can help with loosen the soap- if your container is small enough to fit. We then placed the soap bars on cooling racks in a dry dust-free spot to air for 4 weeks. The soap needs this time to cure.We’ve been using the soap for a few months now and find it lovely and creamy with a great lather. The lavender version is my favourite.

And that, is how we made our own soap! I hope I have demystified the process enough for you to give it a go. I imagine we will be making the ritual a bi-annual event so that we have enough for our familes and some for gifts. Have you made any interesting soaps? I would love to hear your recipes and stories.

By now you should have all the hardware and equipment to hand to make your first batch of cold-process soap. Next you need to pinpoint a recipe and source all your ingredients. There are zillions of recipe ideas to be found online but the basic elements will consist of  fat, lye and some “flavour” ie. nice smelling stuff.. You may also want to add some texture that will allow for some gentle exfoliation while you wash, such as poppy seeds, oats…etc.. You can also use clays to add colour but we haven’t progressed to that level yet!

Often it is the use of lye that cause folk to shy away from making their own soap. Lye is a strong alkaline called sodium hydroxide or caustic soda (bit confusing as it has highly corrosive acid-like qualities, but that’s chemistry for you!) which is added to water. This is then combined with the oil/fat ingredients (the actual acid in the equation) to produce a chemical reaction known as saponification. And that is how a hard bar of soap is formed. Extreme caution is needed when handling and preparing the lye – protect your skin against any contact and avoid inhalation of fumes. It is worth noting that all the sodium hydroxide evaporates from your soap and will not be present in your end product- it is just needed to instigate the saponification process.

Our soaps are based on the following basic recipe with variations in the herbal tea and essential oil ingredients :

  • 400gr Spring Water or Herbal Tea
  • 150gr Caustic Soda
  • 550gr Solid Fats: 300gr Coconut Oil, 200gr Beef Tallow, 50gr Cocoa Butter
  • 500gr Liquid Oils: 250ml Olive Oil, 250gr Almond Oil
  • 25ml Essential Oil

When devising your own recipes you need to work out the water/caustic soda/oils/fat ratio. Consult a Lye Calculator to get exact measurements- there are many more online to help you. Alternatively you can follow our basic recipe with some personal variations. Most recipes beyond the most basic ones call for a mixture of both oils (liquids) and fats (solids). Many oils have unique properties that when combined form a well balanced soap. This link provides information on the differing qualities of each. For instance, coconut oil makes fluffy suds and olive oil is very moisturising.

When it comes to the addition of fat there is much debate over the use, or not, of animal fat. Palm oil is commonly used as it ensures a hard, creamy soap bar. Recently, however, it has fallen out of favour due to it’s extensive, monoculture cultivation. This in turn leads to widespread deforestation of valuable rainforest and the destruction of Orangutang habitat in SE Asia. Not wanting to take any chances we opted to use animal fat. It is available locally and a by-product of the meat industry- more good reasons to use it. I assured my butcher he was doing his bit for the conservation of Orangutangs when he handed over the beef “dripping”. He still smiles nervously when I go into his shop…. Before I get too side tracked by the ethics of palm oil- I just want to add that some palm oil is actually sustainable produced and is a valuable income for small farmers in Brazil, Africa and Asia so I am not endorsing a total boycott. More of check-the-label-first tactic. It it doesn’t say sustainably produced then it probably isn’t…

Essential oils not only add gorgeous scent to your soap but have therapeutic benefits. For instance we used lavendin for it’s calming effect. It helps ease aches and pains and has a positive effect on the respiratory system. Lemon aids the removal of dead skin while eucalyptus is mildly antibacterial. We combined both with some scrubby poppy seeds for a more invigorating morning wash. You’ll find a lot of ingredients in your local health food shop. For the more specialised products there are many online providers. Have fun tailor choosing your ingredients and drop back soon for the finale….deh,deh,dehhhhhhhhhhh….Soap-making part 3 – the METHOD!


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