An Environmental Love Story

An Environmental Love Story.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

An Environmental Love Story. Image: Fiona Bradwell

Reading Time: 5 minutes

An environmental love story encompassing a couple, their kids, and nature’s way of rewilding.

I met my future husband on a blind date. He had two tickets to a Whale and Dolphin conference in London hosted by John Craven of Countryfile on the BBC and it was the perfect start to our environmental journey together. Not that we realized that back in 1992.

During lunch break I happened to mention that my parents lived in the West of Ireland and Rob said it was somewhere he had always wanted to live. We carried on dating despite living at opposite ends of the country, me in Woking, Surrey and Rob living on his 21-foot yacht on a marsh near Lancaster.

In May 1994, after lots of planning, saving and hard work we set sail from Glasson Dock in Lancaster. Ahead of us lay a four-month sailing voyage, mostly travelling around the Western Isles. Along the way we would encounter whales and dolphins and a whole host of wonderful wildlife. And despite some pretty terrifying adventures including storms and serious engine failure in the Outer Hebrides our love for each other and for sailing and our passion for nature increased tenfold.

The voyage ended in Rosmoney Harbour in Westport, Co Mayo, Ireland and this is where we stayed. My parents allowed us to park a small caravan in their next-door field. Back in 1994 most people were not very aware of the huge damage we were already inflicting on our precious biodiversity, but my parents were different.

In the late 1980’s my dad Paddy Hopkins had spearheaded a huge and ultimately successful campaign to prevent polluting gold mining on Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain. He was also the founder and chairman of the Mayo Environmental Group and a dedicated environmentalist. A documentary about the anti-gold mining campaign is currently being filmed and due out in 2024.

At home, just above our caravan my mum was busy planting a small woodland. All the trees were locally sourced, grown from seed or donated from gardens. She spent the whole winter either planting trees or lovingly trimming the grass growing around the tiny saplings. Mum sadly passed away in 2001 but her woodland carried on growing.

By now we were busy bringing up two young boys and Rob had added two small rooms to our caravan. During this time we became a bit disconnected from the land, but as it turned out the land didn’t need us anyway.

Almost unnoticed by us the steep field below our caravan was busy rewilding itself. Willows, hawthorn, ash, birch, holly and ivy were now growing in abundance and as our boys grew so did our plot.

One day, I realized that my mum’s wood could be walked through and, maybe because it had been abandoned for so long there was quite an eerie atmosphere as though the trees were saying “who invited you here anyway!”

As the years passed the numbers of birds and insects especially butterflies living in mum’s wood increased. Mosses, fungi, ferns and ivy appeared and then one day we dug a pond. Happily large numbers of frogs filled the pond every spring and the frog chorus was (and still is) uplifting and delightful.

About ten years ago we finally built a house just below our hut. When the long, sloping driveway was dug it looked so shockingly bare and awful we felt huge guilt for causing such environmental destruction. When family and friends saw the driveway, the pressure was on to plant up the banks as soon as possible. Either that or cover them with plastic mulch to prevent the weeds from growing. Much to everyone’s dismay we rejected those ideas and decided to let nature take its course.

Now our driveway is a delight. Trees and wildflowers have grown in abundance and each side of the driveway hums with insects every summer. We feel we have made up for the initial destruction.

Image by Fiona Bradwell
Image by Fiona Bradwell

The naturally rewilded half of our plot remained unexplored until one summer about five years ago my son dug some steps into the slope and we ventured down into an incredibly wonderful woodland. I had no idea that willows could grow so big and tall. We named it the rainforest although it isn’t really a rainforest but who knows, it might be one day.

A couple of years ago I cleared a tangle of brambles below the ‘rainforest’ and we dug another pond. Very quickly the pond filled with water beetles, whirligigs, water boatmen, pond skaters and happily lots of frogspawn. I worried that the beetles would eat all the tadpoles but by the end of the first summer there were so many froglets hopping about I stopped visiting the pond for several weeks just in case I stepped on one.

Then I decided to clear a few more brambles and plant a meadow around our pond. I did this by digging up all the wildflowers that had self-seeded in the middle of our driveway, birds foot trefoil, devils bit scabious, meadow thistle, selfheal, ragged robin, dandelions and ragwort to name just a few. In fact the middle of our driveway provided me with many bucket loads of wonderful wildflowers, better than any garden center and all for free and infinitely better than spraying.

Last year I read on X formerly known as Twitter that Brimstone butterflies are quite rare in Ireland. They breed on buckthorn or alder buckthorn (also quite rare) and I wondered if I could do anything to help these beautiful butterflies. Then one day in late summer my heart skipped a beat to see a pale green, almost white female Brimstone butterfly feeding on the devil’s bit scabious beside one of our ponds. And even better the next day I spotted a beautiful green male Brimstone butterfly in the same spot.

I was so excited I immediately ordered one very expensive potted alder buckthorn in the hopes the butterflies would see it and stay but sadly I didn’t see them again. This November I bought ten more bare rooted alder buckthorns. Hopefully one day we will have an alder buckthorn thicket filled with Brimstone butterflies.

Image by Fiona Bradwell
Image by Fiona Bradwell

Going forward, we are hoping to buy a small plot of land adjacent to ours. It’s less than an acre but it has a small wetland, lots of trees and a big patch of brambles. We would like to clear some of the brambles to create more meadow land. My dream is to have lots more ragwort which will hopefully attract cinnabar and six spot burnet moths, sadly missing from our plot at the moment. We are surrounded by farmland and sometimes feel we are like an oasis in the desert for wildlife.

Our world is in crisis but it’s up to each and every one of us to make changes no matter how big or small. It doesn’t cost anything to leave a wild patch in your garden or window box, throw away your sprayer or make lifestyle changes like eating less meat. Everything we do makes a huge difference and it’s in our hands to make the planet a better place for us all.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this wonderful blog Fiona. so positive, and your love and respect for nature has given me some warmth on a very cold day, and more hope for the future knowing there are people like you doing what you are doing x 🙂

  2. A brilliant story of love. All the best kinds. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful adventures and your parents’ legacy…and now yours. A vitality important example for us all! Absolutely delightful, Fiona! ????

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