Teachers' Resources

Teach your pupils how to build a giant nest, create a butterfly garden or make their own family tree!

The resources provided here have been submitted by Heritage Experts, teachers or prepared by other educational organisations. The resources are both fun and educational and are designed to inspire and develop an appreciation and curiosity about Ireland’s wonderful natural and cultural heritage.

Resources can be searched for under the following categories:

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science)

White Clover (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Latin name: Trifolium repens

Irish name: Seamair bán

You’ll find worksheets, illustrations and outdoor activity ideas all about White Clover below!

This plant grows commonly in lawns and fields. Early in the year only its leaves are obvious. These are described as trefoil leaves - three leaflets from one stem. These trefoil leaves are easy to find and to recognise. Each leaflet is heart shaped with a pale V-shaped mark. The Irish word for clover is seamair. In spring when there are no flowers out yet, the leaves are young clover - seamair óg or shamrock.

There is a tradition that St Patrick used the leaf of the shamrock to illustrate his teachings about the Holy Trinity to the Irish people long ago. Just as there were three leaflets united in one leaf of the shamrock - so were the three deities of the holy trinity united as one God. To commemorate this, Irish people wear a bunch of shamrock in their lapels on March 17th - St Patrick’s Day.

The plant begins to flower in April and there are white clover flowers all summer long until the end of September. The white clover flower head is actually a cluster of small individual flower heads. The flowers can be visited by honey bees who gather the nectar to make particularly delicious clover honey. As the clover is a member of the pea family, its seeds are carried in pods.

Clover was planted by farmers in their pastures to improve the fertility of the soil. Plants need nitrogen in order to grow and usually, to get a good crop, the farmer must add nitrogen as a fertiliser to the soil. All members of the pea family - including the clovers - are able to take in the nitrogen from the air and use it to grow. They are able to fix nitrogen in this way because they have special nodules on their roots. These nodules are formed because the plant can form an association with a particular type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and together the plant and bacteria work in a symbiotic relationship to fix nitrogen from the air. Thus, in the days before farmers had large quantities of cattle slurry to restore the nitrogen levels in their soil, they were very glad to plant clover and let it improve the nutrient quality of their soil.

Things to do with Senior Infants
1.    Around St Patrick’s Day, the class can be brought out to collect shamrock from the school lawn or field. They can be told about the tradition of St Patrick and the shamrock.
2.    In May or June the class can go out to look for clover in flower. White clover has obvious white flower heads. Pupils may also find red clover which has purple flowers which are larger than those of the white clover. They may also find small yellow clover flowers. These belong to a different species - yellow clover - which grows in the drier parts of grassland areas.

Woodlice (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Woodlice are very common creatures found in gardens and school grounds. All you have to do is turn over a stone or a flower pot or look under dead leaves and a colony of woodlice will be uncovered. They are not insects — they are members of the group Crustaceae and are related to crabs and lobsters. Insects all have six legs but the woodlouse’s body is made up of seven segments with a pair of legs on each segment — giving it fourteen legs in all. Their bodies are different to those of insects too and will dry out if exposed to light for too long. So woodlice come out at night and hide away during the day to avoid drying out.

Woodlice feed on dead plant material such as dead leaves, rotten wood and dead plant roots. They play a very important role in the food chain as the nutrients locked in the plants are broken down and released by their activities. This is why they are so abundant in the leaf litter at the bottom of a hedge or in woodland. They in turn are part of the food chain, being eaten by spiders, pygmy shrews, hedgehogs and any bird sharp-eyed enough to see them. We have over 20 different species of woodlouse in Ireland — one called the pill bug is able to roll itself into a sphere when disturbed and this helps it to evade capture.

Things to do
1.    Do woodlice prefer light or darkness?
Get a shoebox. Have half the box covered with a lid. Put six of the woodlice into this box. Have a second similar shoebox with no lid as a control to show that you are doing a fair test, and put the other six in there. Come back later and observe where the woodlice are. They will all be in the shady side of the box.
2.    Do woodlice prefer damp or dry?
You can set up a similar experiment with the two boxes only this time no lids on either but a damp sponge in one section of one of the boxes and a dry sponge in a different section. Put two dry sponges in the second box. Put six woodlice in each and observe what happens. Are there more woodlice at the damp sponge than at the dry sponge?

Wasps (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The wasp is a much-maligned insect. It actually does not spend its time going round looking for humans to sting! The life cycle of the wasp actually plays a very important role in our natural environment. Wasps are native social insects.

This means that there is a queen and a colony of workers that live together in a nest. The queen hibernates for winter and in March wakes up. She emerges, chooses a nest site and begins to build a paperlike nest from chewed up timber. This nest can be in a hedge, in an attic or roof space, or in a disused shed. She lays eight eggs and when the eggs grow into worker wasps they take over the running of the nest. The queen goes into egg production full time and the workers build six-sided cells for the eggs. The workers are all female and they feed the baby wasps with chewed up greenflies, aphids and other insect garden pests. The adult wasps, on the other hand, feed on a sweet-tasting substance excreted by the grubs in the nest.

So all summer long from April to August, wasps do a great deal of good, keeping down the numbers of harmful plant pests. By the end of August, the queen will have laid up to 40,000 eggs and is beginning to tire. The nest can be the size of a football by now. The workers build different shaped cells in which eggs are laid that go on to be queens, while different shaped cells again cause her to lay eggs that produce drones.

These all leave the nest when mature, mate with those from other nests and the newly fertilized queens go into hibernation at once and emerge to start the cycle all over again next March. The old queen back at the original nest lays a last round of eggs and dies by the end of August. This last round of worker wasps have no younger babies to feed with insects, nor indeed any grubs to lick sweettasting liquid from. It is these last wasps during the months of September and October, for the six weeks lifespan that they have, that have to hunt everywhere for sweet food. They can eat nectar from flowers, or suck the juices of fallen apples and blackberries. But many of them do come into our homes seeking sugar there.

Of course they will sting if assaulted by an angry or terrified human. But they don’t seek us out deliberately to sting us. By the end of October, they will all have died. The nest is empty and won’t be used by next year’s queen. The whole cycle will begin again the following March.

About their sting — the sting of a wasp is like a needle and can be withdrawn after it is used in order to sting again. The bee has a sting with a serrated edge which gets stuck in our thick skin and cannot be withdrawn so a bee is torn apart as it tries to withdraw it from a human and will later die.

Things to do
1.    Get hold of a disused, empty wasps’ nest. Spray it with hair spray to render it less brittle. Bring into school and let the class examine the nest in detail. It can be cut in half in due course so that the intricate cell structure can be appreciated.

Vetch (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The vetch is also a plant that grows in shady areas. It uses a different strategy to survive in a habitat where light is restricted — it can climb up towards available light. It is a member of the pea family — the legumes. Like the sweet pea that flowers in gardens, it produces tendrils at the end of its leaves. The leaves are positioned alternately along the stem and each leaf consists of a number of opposite pairs of leaflets. At the end of each leaf however, is a set of stringy tendrils which seek for something to catch onto. In the wild hedge this is usually other plants such as brambles, or grasses. With this support, the plant is able to assist its passage upwards towards the light.

As a result, it can flower later than hedge flowers with no such support and the purple flowers of the vetch can be seen in hedges right up to the end of July. As it is a member of the pea family, the flower is typical of this family. It is described as being irregular — the petals are not symmetrical around a centre but are of different sizes and shapes and form a closed hood over the male and female parts. As a result, the flower is self-fertile and pollination occurs inside the closed flower. The seeds are carried in pods similar to those of a pea but much smaller and these turn black when ripe. The pods then split open suddenly and the seeds inside are shot out by the force. They settle further away and a new plant can then germinate.

All members of the legume family including vetches are, unusually among plants, able to fix nitrogen directly from the air. Plants need nitrogen for growth and cell formation, and normally plants absorb it from the soil in the form of nitrate. Vetches however have nodules on their roots which are formed in conjunction with special soil dwelling bacteria and these nodules are able to absorb nitrogen in a gaseous form directly from the air around the roots. When the plants rot back into the soil after death, the nitrogen is released as nitrate and thus leguminous plants enrich the soil in which they grow for other plants. This is why gorse can grow so well on poor soil or why farmers used to plant clover — another member of the legume family — in their pastures to improve conditions for grass growth.

Things to do
1.    Go out to hedges in May and June and look for this plant. Observe its tendrils holding on to other plants.
2.    Grow vegetable peas and sweet peas in the school garden or in pots in the classroom window and watch how they grow and climb.

Oak (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The oak tree is described as the king of the woods. It was greatly valued in olden times in Ireland and was considered to be one of the “nobles of the wood”. It is the canopy tree in our native oak woodlands that have been here since the end of the last Ice Age ten thousand years ago. Oak trees are one of the last trees in Ireland to get their leaves each year — it is usually the end of April before they emerge from their brown buds.

Oak leaves are particularly prized by all sorts of insects who feed on them. The caterpillars of the purple hairstreak butterfly depend on them, as do many species of greenflies, shield bugs, moths etc. It fact it has been estimated that some 286 species of insects and other invertebrates feed on the leaves of the oak. All this eating of fresh oak leaves in May and June leaves the tree somewhat depleted. But the tree fights back, producing a new growth of leaves with lots of unpalatable tannin in them and quite browny-purple in colour at the end of July. These are called “Lammas Growth “, Lammas being the time of year between July and August.

Catkin-like flowers are produced by the tree in early April before the leaves are formed. This is because they are wind pollinated and the presence of leaves would get in the way of the blowing pollen. Acorns are formed from the fertilised flowers and ripen in autumn. These are prized as a source of food by birds such as jays and rooks, squirrels and by mice. Grey squirrels are able to eat unripe acorns, red squirrels must wait until they are fully ripe, by which time if there are grey squirrels in the area the acorns may be all gone, leaving the red squirrel short of food and unable to compete with the grey.

New oak trees will emerge from acorns which may have been buried and not retrieved by their owner later in the winter. There are two native oak species — the pedunculate oak whose acorns are borne on stalks and the sessile oak whose acorns have no stalks. Both are very long-living trees and can survive for well over five hundred years in ideal circumstances. The Irish name is dair and many places in Ireland reflect this. Counties Kildare and Derry are called after the oak as are all the place names beginning with Derry such as Derrynaflan and Derrynane.

Oak trees produce tannins so oak bark was much in demand by the leather tanning industry. Its timber was excellent for shipbuilding and for use as charcoal. So it was no wonder at the time of the plantations — particularly the Cromwellian plantation in the 1650s when soldiers were paid in land rather than money — that the first thing the planter did was strip the land of its timber in case their tenure there didn’t last very long.

Things to do
1.    Find an oak tree that the children can be brought to see. Collect leaves and acorns.
2.    Back in class get the pupils to draw outlines of the leaves so that they will learn their characteristic shape.
3.    The acorns can be sown in pots of compost and planted out the following summer when the seedlings have emerged.

Swans (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The swan is unmistakable. It is a large white bird with a long neck and an orange beak and it lives on ponds, lakes and canals. It is found in ponds in parks, in cities and towns and on rivers and lakes in rural areas. It also can live in estuaries by the sea. Swans are thought to mate for life and a pair will occupy a territory on a pond or river and build a nest each spring.

Nests are large affairs made from reeds and sticks, and litter and rubbish can be added in too. Five to seven eggs are laid between March and May and incubation takes about 36 days. The young are called cygnets and they are able to swim the moment they hatch out. They are minded very well by both parents who will attack intruders by snorting and hissing at them, raising up their feathers in a threatening manner and indeed attacking if pressed. The young are taught to feed on submerged vegetation which they collect by upending themselves, stretching down with their long necks and pointing their tails up in the air. They will also come to eat bread if they are fed.

Young swans have browny-grey feathers and they don’t get the snowy white feathers until the springtime. At this stage they leave their parents and assemble in large bachelor herds at coastal estuaries or other good feeding grounds. Here they will stay until they are old enough to breed at two or three years of age.

Migratory swans have straight necks and yellow and black bills. These are Whooper swans which come here in winter from Iceland and Bewick’s swans who come from Russia and Siberia. These pass the winter in Ireland and return to their northerly breeding quarters when the snow and ice there has melted in mid-April.

Things to do with Senior Infants
1.    Tell them the story of the 'Children of Lir' or Hans Christian Anderson’s 'The Ugly Duckling'
2.    Take them to the park to feed swans with bread if there are any in the nearby locality.
3.    On their return get them to draw pictures of swans in their copies and colour in the beaks

Swallows (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Swallows are Irish birds because they are born here in Ireland in summer. The nests are built from mud which both parents scoop up in flight as they fly over muddy ground in rural areas. They are lined with feathers which the swallows pluck from themselves. The cup-shaped nests are always built indoors in sheds and barns. (Mud nests fixed to the outsides of houses and on gables are built by a different bird — the house martin, swallows’ nests are always indoors.)

The female lays three to six white eggs with red-brown speckles and they hatch after fifteen days. The nestlings are fed by both parents and are able to fly after 20 more days. They then fledge, leave the nest and don’t return to it again. Swallows are carnivores. They feed on aerial insects which they catch in their large gaping mouths. They cannot eat anything else so as the days shorten after the equinox in September, they gather in colonies on telegraph wires and suddenly all fly south to Africa to spend the winter. Irish swallows spend the winter in South Africa where it is warm enough to have sufficient aerial insects to feed them.

Long ago, people didn’t know that they migrated to Africa in winter. When they couldn’t see them flying around they were sure that they hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds. This of course doesn’t happen. When the days lengthen in March they set out once more for Ireland as the longer days in Ireland in summer means that they have up to eighteen hours of daylight to catch insects to feed their young — something that couldn’t happen in Africa as summer days there are much shorter. Their arrival in Ireland depends on weather and prevailing winds — in 2009 the first swallows were recorded here on 16 March.

But one swallow doesn’t make a summer and usually the main group do not arrive until April. There is a lot of folklore associated with swallows. Long ago there was a belief that ailments could be cured by treating them with something that resembled the ailment. Thus, because swallows twittered (rather than sang) they could be used as a treatment for stuttering and for epilepsy. This involved eating the flesh of the swallow, something we wouldn’t dream of doing now as swallows are a protected species. Swallows are seen as birds of good luck. It will bring good fortune if they nest on your property. Or it is a sign of good weather if they are flying high in the sky. They are also considered specially favoured by God so it is really unlucky to kill one.

Things to do
1.   Record the date when the first swallow is seen. Over the years this will give an indication of whether they are arriving earlier each year because of climate change. Go out in May to look for swallows flying in the sky. Ask the pupils to look inside sheds and barns to see if there are swallows nesting.

Squirrels (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

We have two species of squirrel in Ireland — the red squirrel which is our native Irish species and the grey squirrel — an American species which was introduced here to Castleforbes in Co. Longford in 1911. Both squirrels are herbivores and live in woodlands and in parks where there are sufficient numbers of trees to support them. Neither species hibernates for the winter in Ireland (despite what was once taught in schools). Squirrels collect nuts in autumn in order to have them to eat in the winter when there is no food available for them (if they were hibernating, like say hedgehogs or bats, they would be fast asleep from October to April and would require no food).

Squirrels build a nest out of sticks called a drey. This may be in the fork of a tree or more likely in a large hole in the tree and here they live during the winter. If it is too wet to forage they can draw on their stores of nuts but on fine bright winter days they will scamper down the tree and feed on the ground — grey squirrels in particular — and in fact they are easier to see in winter as there are no leaves on the trees. They can have one or two litters per year depending on the availability of food — one in spring and one in summer with up to three or four in each litter. They are weaned nine weeks after birth and the second litter in the year may spend the winter with the mother in the drey.

Grey squirrels are bigger than red and they tend to oust the red squirrels when they come into an area. Thirty years ago only red squirrels were found in the Dublin area but now except for one colony in St Anne’s Park in Raheny they have all been replaced by grey. The grey squirrel has spread south and east from Co. Longford but the red is holding on west of the Shannon. Greys do enormous damage to trees as they feed on bark and buds and this can cause small branches to wilt and snap. They also eat hazelnuts and acorns and can digest unripe acorns, something the reds cannot do. Reds like to feed on the seeds of pine cones as well as fungi which they collect from the forest floor. Red squirrels like to live in woodlands where there are evergreen trees with cones. Grey squirrels can live in the wooded areas of town parks as well as in deciduous and mixed forests.

Things to do
1.    It is quite easy to see grey squirrels if you live in an area where they are known to occur. Early in the day is the best time to go to the park or woodland and the pupils must be quiet and patient.

Spiders (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Spiders are not insects but belong to a group called arachnids. All spiders have two parts - a head and a body. All spiders have eight legs - all of which are attached to the head. All spiders have two palyps at the top of the head (which they use for smell).

Male spiders have longer palyps than females. All spiders have eight eyes and two fangs - which are sharp hollow teeth through which they inject venom into their prey to kill them. All spiders have fangs and venom but in Ireland our spiders are too small to be able to penetrate our skin with their fangs. In South America, the biggest spiders — tarantulas — are found and their fangs can kill birds and mammals such as mice. They can give humans nasty bites too.

In Ireland, we have hunting spiders and web-spinning spiders. The hunting spiders come out at night and run after their prey. They can come into our houses if we leave windows open and can fall into the bath if it is the bathroom window they climb in. They are so big and the bath is so shiny that they cannot climb out again — which is why it is always a huge spider that is in the bath — the small ones can climb up and escape.

Web-spinning spiders make webs from silk produced by spinnerets at the end of their bodies. These sticky traps are positioned to catch unwary flying insects which blunder into them and become enmeshed in the sticky threads. The spider, who is waiting at the centre of the web, rushes in and kills the prey with a bite of its fangs. The spider doesn’t get trapped in the sticky web because it has oily feet that do not stick to the web. Having killed the trapped insect, the spider then sucks out all the soft insides as food, leaving hard bits such as wings and legs behind.

Any surplus flies are killed and wrapped up in silk and stored to be eaten later - or indeed to be presented to the female spider when the male goes looking for a mate. Spiders are not only carnivores, they are cannibals and the female will eat the male if given half a chance. So the male presents the female with a well-wrapped fly and mates with her while she is distracted unwrapping it and eating it. In other countries, the males are not so lucky - how do you think the Black Widow of North America got its name? Eggs are then laid in a web of silk and the young are left to their own devices. When they hatch and begin to move towards each other in an effort to eat each other the movement breaks the web nest and the spiderlings are scattered in the wind.

Things to do with Senior Infants
1.    Teach them Incy wincy spider and Little Miss Moffat. Read them Charlotte’s Web by E B White.
2.    Go outdoors on a damp, misty morning in late September to look for spiders’ webs all outlined with dewdrops. Railings or gorse bushes are good places to look.

Speedwell (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The speedwell is a very common bright blue flower that occurs in unmowed parts of the school lawn or the school field. There are quite a few Irish species of speedwell but one of the most obvious ones is the one illustrated here – the germander speedwell.

It is a perennial plant, which means that it grows up each year in spring and summer, dies back in autumn and re-appears the following year without having to be re-sown. It is a low, straggling plant — reaching 50 cm at maximum length and often much lower than this. The stems are often reddish brown and have two distinct lines of hairs. The leaves are oval with a toothed edge. It is the flowers that attract the eye. These can appear as early as April and the plants flower all summer long until September. The pretty flowers are bright blue in colour and can be up to 12 mm across.

There are four petals — three the same size and one slightly smaller. There are two stamens displayed prominently and the pollen is formed in the white anthers at the ends. The petals are all joined together at the base and if one is pulled they all come off together in a crown with the stamens attached. Examined carefully, the female part can be seen sticking up from the centre of the flower.

Later in the year seeds will form in a flattened capsule on the stem. Pupils in school will be familiar with the rosette-leafed flowers of the school lawn such as daisies, dandelions and ribwort since their junior classes. They now must seek out a flower that grows there under slightly different management conditions and realise that the very technique of mowing determines what wild flowers will exist in an area of grassland. A good diversity of wild flowers is important so that there is a good biodiversity of insect life as well. Thus, by leaving perhaps just a small area unmown, the variety of flowers in the school’s grassy areas can be increased enormously.

This plant was familiar to Irish people in olden times and it was important in folk medicine. It was used by nursing mothers to soothe sore breasts. It was boiled with other herbs and the resultant liquor fed to cows with calves to protect them from ill luck and it was traditionally sewn into the garments of people going on a journey to protect them from accidents.

Things to do
1.   Observing, noticing, describing are all important skills that scientists must have. Having spoken about this plant in class, send out the pupils to find and bring in specimens. They must then write a scientific description of their plant with reference to flowers, petals, stamens, stem, hairs, leaves, where found and perhaps why. Writing this description requires that the pupils examine the plant for the scientific detail required. Use of a magnifying glass may be helpful.

Snails (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Snails belong to a group of minibeasts called Molluscs. They all carry a shell made of calcium, which is part of their body. They cannot be detached from their shell without fatal injury. A very common snail found in fields, gardens, parks, hedgerows and school grounds is the garden snail.

This is a large snail, with a shell up to 40 mm across. The shell is yellowish brown in colour with up to five spiral bands. The snail inside has a dark brown body which it can extend so that its head stretches forward, with four horns visible. The two large horns carry the snail’s eyes and it is able to sense and smell with the two smaller lower horns. It secretes mucus though the flat underside of its body — known as the foot and it slides along on this mucus. It needs lots of water to keep its soft body from drying out and to manufacture enough mucus to slide along. Therefore, when the weather is hot and dry for a time the snail becomes dormant to save energy, goes right back into its shell and seals the entrance with quick-drying mucus.

It prefers warm, wet nights when it can emerge and slide around gardens and parks looking for food. Snails are herbivores and they really love to feast on small delicate garden plants such as newly planted seedlings, strawberries and courgettes. They have teeth all over their tongue — which is called a radula, and each one can do considerable damage at night in a newly-planted garden. When morning comes they hide away from danger and to protect themselves from drying out — often in communal roosts at the bottom of walls or under the overhang of window sills. Snails are all hermaphrodite, which means that they carry both male and female organs — there are no separate males or females.

However, one must meet another one to mate with, before they both go off to lay eggs. Each snail can lay up to a hundred white pearly eggs in the soil. No wonder there are so many of them during wet summers. They hibernate when winter comes, retreating into their shells and sealing off the entrance. They are a favourite food of hedgehogs. Thrushes are able to eat them by bashing open their shells against a stone (called a thrush’s anvil) and gobbling the contents.

Magpies are very good at finding them and crunching them whole. The garden snail is edible for humans as long as they are kept fasting for a while before cooking so that they excrete anything they may have eaten that would be poisonous to humans — such as ivy. Poisoning them with blue pellets is very bad for the environment as birds and hedgehogs that eat snails poisoned in this way will be adversely affected. Beer on the other hand kills snails but does not affect creatures higher up on the food chain.

Things to do
1.    Go out to the school grounds and look for snails. Search in the usual places. Mark each snail with a small dab of nail varnish. Repeat the exercise a week later and see how many of the new batch found is marked. By putting out sheets of old carpet or such like areas of cover, the chances of finding snails are increased.

Self-heal (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Self-heal is a very common purple flower found in lawns and grassland. It is a perennial and grows from year to year, emerging in spring once the temperature begins to rise. It is a small plant with a creeping stem and slightly hairy oval leaves. It has a square stem which makes it easy to identify. The flowers emerge at the end of May and last until the end of September. These flowers are carried in a loose head at the top of each stem.

Each flower is purple in colour and is described as being an irregular flower. This means that there is a top and a bottom to the flower as you look at it. The flower has two lips — the top lip is slightly hooded and the bottom lip is three-lobed with the centre lobe the largest of the three. By Second Class the pupils have already learnt about the daisy, dandelion, white clover and buttercup that grow in the grassy area of the school grounds so it is an exercise in observation sending them to find the purple self-heal flower when they are out of doors on a field trip.

The English name self-heal tells us that this plant played a very important role in the days when people had to get all their medicines from the plants they could gather. This plant was one of the best to heal wounds and so it got the name self-heal from the fact that it was easy for a person to gather it and heal themselves. It was also used for heart complaints — a tea was made from the plant and drunk to cure palpitations of the heart. It was given to children to rid them of worms and it was also thought to cure fevers and, surprisingly, to cure tuberculosis — something that it did not actually do.

Things to do
1.    A field trip to the grassy area near the school should be carried out in September and again in June to find all the wild flowers they know so far. The self-heal will be a new one to the list and should be easy to find on close inspection. One way to do this is to throw a hoop on the ground and examine all the plants within it. Which is the most abundant? How many different species of plants are there within the hoop?

Seaweed (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Seaweed is gathered as food, processed and used as fertiliser, forms an ingredient in many cosmetics and spa treatments, and is the subject of biotechnological and pharmaceutical research. The leaflet below explores the contemporary and historical uses of seaweed, the role of seaweed in biodiversity and provides references for further information.

Things to do
1.    Go to a local seaside or harbour and collect samples of seaweed, noting its texture, feel and smell. Also try to find a tide pool and take or draw a picture of the sea-life and seaweed living in and around the tide pool. Bring the seaweed back to the class room and study the seaweed as it dries out.
2.    Create a sea side mural, drawing the nature and wildlife that can be found by the sea.

Robins (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Let’s start off the story of the robin in winter. This is the time when the robin visits the bird table. So, during the winter months, it is very important to put out food such as nuts and seeds, rasher rinds, bits of bread, cakes of fat even, if you are up to it, and most especially water. Come spring, however, with its lengthening days, robins leave the bird table and start to hold territories and attract a mate. They do this by singing. Only the males sing and other males know to stay away as robins are very territorial and can kill other males if they wander into their territory.

A female however is tolerated and after a while they set up home together. The male collects nest material from which the female constructs a nest and fashions it to her body shape. Robins can have a clutch of up to six eggs which hatch out after two weeks and are fed by both parents with the creepy-crawly content of the garden — spiders, woodlice, small caterpillars and the like. In a good year, the performance can be repeated twice and even three times over, with the same missus of course.

Baby robins are all brown — they do not develop red feathers until they are fully grown. Once they leave the nest on their first flight, two weeks after they hatch out, they never return to it. They are fed by their parents in the garden for a few days until they learn to fend for themselves. So by the end of the summer, your robins could have had at least ten babies, which together with the original parents come to twelve — a six-fold increase in the robin population. But things don’t get to this stage. Most robins don’t survive babyhood. They are almost all caught by predators in the inexperienced early days of flying. They are food for the next level in the food chain. It has to be or they would all die of starvation.

By autumn the pairs have broken up and robins no longer hold territory. They will spend the winter in the garden surviving on whatever food they can find. Robins are omnivores, which means that they can digest food of both animal and plant origin. So they can survive the winter in Ireland and do not need to migrate to Africa like the swallow who can only feed on insects. But we can help them by putting out food.

Things to do
1.    Make a Christmas card with a robin on it.

Robin Run The Hedge (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

This is a very common hedgerow plant and one that children like very much when they become aware of it. It is an annual plant and grows anew from seeds shed the previous year. It springs up in April and thrives in shady places because it is able to climb up to the light. It can grow up to 2 metres high in the right conditions. It is able to do this because it is covered with minute hooks all over its stem and leaves and these allow it to stick to anything close by and climb up using it as support.

The stems carry the leaves in whorls of six to eight at regular intervals all along the stem. In June, the flowers appear. These occur in tiny white clusters both at the top of the stem and at the leafy whorls along the stem. The seeds are carried in pairs of rounded green balls which occur where the flowers were. These little balls are covered in hook-like bristles that stick to anything that brushes against them. Any passing mouse, fox, bird — not to speak of humans in long trousers — gets thoroughly covered in these sticky balls which are groomed off later, thus spreading the plant. 

This method of seed dispersal is particularly effective in wooded areas where there would be very little wind to disperse them. Close examination of the seeds or indeed the leaves with a magnifying glass is well worthwhile as the hooks can be seen. A Swiss naturalist — George de Mestral — did exactly that in 1948 when he noticed that these were all stuck to his clothes after a walk. He noticed the sharp hooks and decided that a fastener to rival a zip could be invented from this. After much trial and error, he manufactured the hooks on a nylon strip and they connected to a soft fabric — and so Velcro was invented. 

The fastener was patented in 1955 — the name is a cross between crochet and velour. The plant has many common names, goosegrass because it was fed to geese long ago, cleavers because it stuck — from the old verb to cleave — robin-run-the-hedge from the English magician Robin Goodfellow, sticky backs etc. All these folk names show how well known it was. The seeds were roasted to make “coffee” in the eighteenth century and the whole plant could be eaten — well boiled — as a form of spinach in early spring when fresh greens were scarce.

Things to do
1.    Bring the class out to look for robin-run- the-hedge in the hedge or in rough neglected areas. It should be there from April till the end of September. Show how it can stick to its surroundings and indeed to the pupils’ clothes. Gather the seeds when they form and plant in yoghurt pots in the window of the class and watch how quickly they grow as compared to flowers that are desired. Weeds always grow faster to get a competitive edge and this plant can be a scourge in cultivated gardens.

Primroses (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Primroses are a real harbinger of spring. They grow in hedges, ditches, on banks and along the edges of woodlands. Their pale yellow flowers are very familiar and they have a very cool fragrant perfume. They appear in south-facing banks to begin with (as early as March). The leaves emerge first — a rosette of green crinkly leaves which taper towards the base and are whitish on their undersides. The flowers then begin to appear, each on its own separate stalk. There are five pale petals, each one heart-shaped.

The flowers contain the male parts — five stamens which are small stalks topped with anthers containing pollen — and the female part which is the ovary topped by a single stalk called a style. Pollen from another flower must reach this style to fertilise the ovary and this pollen is carried by insects. To avoid the possibility of self-fertilisation, the stamens and the style are of different lengths. This is of course the case with most species of flowers and indeed the female style is generally longer than the stamens.

However, if you examine the flowers of primroses you will discover something unusual. In about half of the flowers the female style is longer than the stamens as is normal for flowers and you can see it when you look at the circular area at the centre of the petals. This is called a “pin” flower. In the other half, however, the stamens are longer than the style and when you look in you will see the tops of the five stamens rather than the single style. This is called a “thrum” flower.

Primroses were very important long ago to people who kept cows. Butter making from the cream of the milk began in May and on May eve they would rub the flowers of the primroses on the udders of the cattle to make sure that they had enough milk for the butter making. In other areas primroses were thrown on the roof of the house before dawn on May Day to protect the butter from the fairies.

Things to do
1.    Go out looking for primroses early in the year and note the date when the first primrose is seen. With climate change, primroses are flowering earlier each year so keeping a record of the first primrose is a way of monitoring this for your area.
2.    Pupils could count the number of petals and draw the flower and leaves in their workbooks on return from the trip. They could look for pin and thrum flowers.

Nettles (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Latin name: Urtica dioica
Irish name: Neantóg

The nettle is a familiar plant to everyone - sometimes alas from the experience of getting stung by it! However, it is a plant that has been highly valued in this country for hundreds of years. It first appears in early spring when the fresh green shoots are seen to emerge in ditches, hedges and waste places. It grows where the soil is rich in phosphate as it needs lots of this nutrient for growth.

It can grow up to 100cm high and can occur in dense clumps. The leaves are opposite each other on a square stem and are covered with stinging hairs. The flowers are small and green and they hang down from the leaf axils in long spikes from June to September. There are separate male and female flowers and they are borne on different plants.

There are no petals to attract insects nor indeed is there nectar to lure them in. The plant is pollinated by the wind which shakes the flowers and blows the pollen to other flowers. Seeds are formed singly and are shaken from the plants to germinate nearby, thus making the clump larger. They are unpopular among the unwary because of their sting. This happens when they are touched lightly. The tip of the hair breaks off leaving a sharp spike that penetrates the skin and injects an irritating mixture of histamine and formic acid. It is widely believed that a dock leaf will cure the sting. Dock leaves usually grow nearby as they like soil rich in phosphate too but the relief they offer is because a large cool leaf is being applied to the stung area - a large damp tissue would give the same ease.

If you grasp a nettle firmly however the hair is completely flattened and cannot sting. However, it was believed that nettle stings were good for rheumatism and inflamed joints. They are edible early in the year and were traditionally gathered (while wearing gloves!) to make a soup full of vitamins at a time of year when native vegetables were scarce. The stings disappear entirely in the cooking.

The stalks contain strong fibre which used to be gathered, extracted and woven into cloth in Ireland since Bronze Age times. In the Hans Anderson fairy tale 'The Wild Swans', the princess had to weave shirts from nettle fibre to restore her brothers from swans to humans. They are wonderful food for insects as well. The caterpillars of small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies love them as do lots of types of aphids.

Things To do with Third Class
1.    Read them the fairy tale 'The Wild Swans’.
2.    Make Nettle Soup! Collect nettles and make nettle soup early in May. It is made exactly as spinach soup except well-washed, finely chopped, young nettles are used instead.
3.    Go out and look for nettles in June or September. Sweep a net on a long pole through them to sweep off whatever creatures are feeding on them. In June, there should be lots of caterpillars, in September hordes of greenflies.

Pigeons (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Pigeons are familiar to everyone whether they live in cities and towns or in rural areas. There are two species that occur most commonly — the feral pigeon and the wood pigeon. The feral pigeon occurs mainly in towns and cities. It lives in flocks and is the species that comes to be fed when bread is scattered in the park or square. These pigeons are the descendants of wild rock doves that lived on cliffs in rocky areas. These were domesticated for food and reared in dovecotes and the populations found today in cities are the descendants of those who escaped and settled in the wild.

Pigeons nest on ledges in derelict buildings and warehouses. Their nests are made of twigs and any other plant material they can find. Two white eggs are laid and are incubated by both parents for nineteen days. As pigeons are strictly vegetarian birds they feed their young with a type of “milk” that they produce in their crop — a storage area for food at the base of their throat. When the birds fledge 33 days later they are taught by their parents to find food such as seeds, berries and buds and of course bread put out for them by humans. They can rear between three and five broods per year. Their behaviour is very characteristic — the male preens and puffs up his feathers and walks purposefully after the nearest female. She walks away just too fast for him to catch up but she doesn’t fly away either and he obviously catches up enough times to ensure the five broods.

Wood pigeons are larger birds with a distinctive call — “coo-coooo-coo coo-coo” — described as sounding like “take two John, take two”. They build solitary, large, untidy nests of sticks in trees, especially in trees along the street or in hedgerow trees in rural areas. They also lay two eggs per clutch, which hatch out to a male and a female. Woodpigeons are also strictly vegetarian and feed their young on nutritious milk produced in their crops. The adults are particularly fond of green crops and many’s the garden of cabbage has been ravaged by hungry pigeons in the early morning when no one is around to deter them. They can attack farmers’ crops in winter when their numbers in rural areas are augmented by migrants in from Britain and mainland Europe.

They can cause serious damage to crops of kale and turnips. They are also particularly fond of elderberries and their droppings in autumn can destroy the roof of any car parked by an unwary owner under a roosting woodpigeon. Racing pigeons are exactly the same species as theferal pigeon and if they are blown off course will often join a group of wild city pigeons. They are able to navigate by using starlight and the earth’s navigation force but they do the last bit home by memory. They were very useful during wartime to carry messages in small tubes attached to their leg.

Things to do
1.    Pigeons are very easily seen — even by a large group of children. So this is a good opportunity to get the pupils to observe the flock and note similarities and differences between individual pigeons.

Lords and Ladies (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Lords and Ladies is one of the many names given to the arum lily — a most unusual lily-like flower that appears in our hedgerows and woodlands in April and May. Plants need light in order to grow and in woodlands the canopy of the trees captures most of the available light. So, many woodland plants flower early, before the canopy closes and Lords and Ladies is one of these.

The arrow-shaped large green leaves appear first and then these unroll to reveal a most peculiar-looking flower. It consists of a yellow hood called a spathe with a pointed fleshy swollen brown or purple stalk called a spadix inside. This spadix is the top of the complicated flower arrangement that this lily has. When ripe, the fleshy spadix, gives off a smell like rotten meat. This attracts flies which come along expecting food.

They buzz around and try to find the food which seems to them to be hidden in the depths of the spathe. Down they go into an opening that is guarded by a defence of hairs that only bend one way — downwards. Once the flies enter, they are trapped in a chamber where the top layer is of stamens containing pollen while below in the bottom of the same chamber are the female parts. These are ripe and are waiting to be fertilised — not by the pollen of their own flower, but by that of another. Eventually a fly arrives covered with pollen from a different lily. This fertilizes the waiting cells. Following this the male parts produce their pollen, the guard hair cells collapse and the flies can escape — all now thoroughly dusted on the way out by the pollen of the flower in which they have been trapped.

And indeed some of them enter another lily, fertilise the female cells there and so contrive the escape of the foolish flies there. The whole spathe and spadix then collapse, their purpose having been served and the fertilised female cells swell and ripen into red berries. Indeed the stalk with a cap of red berries is a familiar sight in autumn, the berries poisonous to us humans but not to the wild creatures that eat them and spread the seeds by way of their droppings. The pointed spadix reminded people of earthier things in earlier times as the names cuckoo pint or the Irish Bod Gadhair, reveal.

Things to do
1.   Bring them out to the school hedge to look for these plants in late April. Check how many can smell the spadix as it is an inherited ability and not everyone can. Open the spathe to observe the hairs and the trapped flies. Look for the stalk with the red berries in autumn but do not pull it or touch it — just observe.

Ladybirds (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Ladybirds are very common and recognisable insects. They belong to the beetle group and have the smooth curved shiny back that is typical of beetles. This curved back is made of two hardened wing covers which open to reveal two transparent wings with which the ladybird can fly.

There are eighteen different species of ladybird in Ireland. Some of them are red with black spots such as the seven spot and the much smaller two spot. But we also have yellow ladybirds with black spots, red ladybirds with cream spots and even a pink ladybird with black and yellow-ringed spots.

They are all brightly coloured and all are poisonous — to birds that is. All ladybirds are brightly coloured to warn birds not to eat them. They contain formic acid so that if an inexperienced bird were to eat one its tongue would be burnt and it would never eat another one. So the bright colour acts as a warning. In fact, if you catch one and let it walk on your hand it might secrete some of this orange-coloured liquid which — if you were a bird — would burn your tongue and you would spit it out. This is another defence stratagem. Ladybirds themselves are carnivores and they eat greenflies.

They visit gardens where there are roses, in order to feast on the greenflies that are sucking the juices out of the tender rose leaves. In the winter, when there are no greenfly to eat, ladybirds will hibernate. You could make a “hotel” for them in the school garden by tying together a bundle of hollow bamboo sticks and leaving them on their side on a shelf or something above the ground. The ladybirds could climb in here and have a safe place over winter.

Things to do
1.   You could make a “hotel” for them in the school garden by tying together a bundle of hollow bamboo sticks and leaving them on their side on a shelf or something above the ground. The ladybirds could climb in here and have a safe place over winter.
2.   Learn the rhyme:
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home
Your house is on fire, your children are gone
All except one and that’s little Anne
And she crept under the frying pan.
3.   Bring the children out to look for ladybirds at the end of May, in June and in September. Places such as rose beds, hedges, low shrubs are all good places to look. You could also shake the branches of a tree into an upturned umbrella and see if any fall down into it.

Kestrels (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The kestrel is our most common and abundant bird of prey. It flies by day and is very easy to see and identify. It hovers in the air with fast-beating wings surveying the ground below for prey. It has really good vision and when it spots a large insect or a mouse, a pygmy shrew or indeed — in Counties Tipperary and Limerick — a white-toothed shrew — it drops like a stone on the unsuspecting prey. It hovers quite a lot looking for prey so it is easy to see high up in the air. No other Irish bird of prey behaves like this.

Modern road development has actually resulted in an increase in kestrels. This is because the roadside verges and roundabouts are habitat for the rodents and the shrews that it feeds on. These areas are not disturbed by humans, and are mowed infrequently and the kestrels of course are not at all disturbed by traffic. Thus, any journey along a motorway will yield at least one sighting of a kestrel.

They do not build a nest of their own but the female will lay three to five eggs on a cliff ledge, a high building or indeed an abandoned nest of a hooded crow. The nestlings are fed by both parents and fledge 30 days after hatching. Males and females are different in colour — males have a grey head and a grey tail, whereas females have a streaked brown head and dark stripes on a brown tail. Birds of prey gobble their food whole and later (usually at the roost site), cough up undigested bits in the form of a pellet. By collecting these pellets and analysing them, scientists can work out what food the bird has been eating.

Recent work on kestrel pellets in Co. Tipperary revealed that the birds had been eating white-toothed shrews — a species not known until then to occur in Ireland. The nearest record until then of these shrews had been Alderney in the Channel Islands. Kestrels were often kept near dovecotes in medieval times as it was known they kept away sparrowhawks but would not attack the doves themselves.

Things to do
1.    A project on the Irish birds of prey — kestrel, sparrowhawk, merlin, peregrine falcon, buzzard, hen harrier and marsh harrier — and the re-introduced golden eagle, red kite and sea eagle. Their importance at the top of the food chain should be emphasised. If their prey is poisoned then the poisons spread right up the food chain, harming those at the top. So a healthy population of kestrels means that the whole biodiversity of its food chain is in place.

Horse Chestnuts (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Horse Chestnut trees are very common in Ireland and are easily identified at any time of year. They are not native to Ireland, they originate in the Balkan regions, but were introduced in the 1600s — probably as great dignified trees to enhance estates formed during the plantations of that century.

Probably as a result of originating in such a warm part of Europe, they are the very first large tree species to get their leaves in spring. The large brown sticky buds open in March. The leaves are compound — which means that seven leaflets radiate out from one stalk that joins to the twig. By May the tree is covered in large white clumps of flowers that remind people of candles and are beloved of bees, who make very fine honey from the nectar. This work by the bees also results in the flowers being pollinated and the formation of fruits and seeds.

By mid-summer it is easy to see the green prickly fruits which contain the seeds or conkers. These ripen quickly and by late September begin to fall and burst open revealing the brown shiny chestnuts inside. They are the first trees to get leaves in spring and indeed the first to lose them as well. The leaves look decidedly withered and yellow in September and are easily blown away by the winds of late September and early October.

The trees are then set to overwinter in this dormant state and we have to wait until spring for the sap to rise and the cycle to begin all over again. But why are they called “horse” chestnuts? It could be because the word “horse” in biological terms means big and coarse and the nuts are bigger and coarser than those of the edible sweet chestnut. Or it could be because the Turks used to feed conkers to horses to cure them of coughs. But it probably is because of the little horseshoe marks (complete with nails) on each twig, as if a little horse had walked there leaving its footprints behind. In herb medicine, they contain cures for varicose veins.

Things to do
1.    Examine twigs in spring to see sticky buds and horseshoe marks.
2.    Note when the buds open and encourage the pupils to keep a record each year as they move up through school.
3.    Collect conkers in autumn and thread them on strings to play at “conkers” hitting them one off another in turn to see whose breaks first — a traditional game.
4.    Collect some — keep in a paper bag over the winter and plant in pots in early spring. They are really easy to grow and can be planted out in their second year.

Holly (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

Latin name: Ilex aquifolium
Irish name: Cuileann

You’ll find worksheets, illustrations and outdoor activity ideas all about Holly below!

The Irish name for Holly is often found in Irish place names such as Moycullen – the plain of the holly, Glencullen – the glen of the holly, Kilcullen – the church of the holly. Holly is a native evergreen tree. It has broad leaves unlike coniferous evergreen trees such as pine trees. It grows naturally as an under layer in an oak woodland. Its dark green leaves can tolerate the lower light levels here. When the oak canopy trees have lost their leaves from the end of October to the end of April, there is plenty of light in the woodland for the holly to grow.

Holly is unusual among Irish trees in that there are male trees and female trees. The female trees have berries and the male trees produce pollen on special male-only flowers. The pollen is blown by the wind to the female trees whose flowers only contain female parts. When these are fertilised by the pollen, berries are then formed which turn red in the autumn. These berries contain a hard stone which is the seed.

Thrushes, in particular, are very fond of holly berries and will guard 'their' tree against all invaders. They swallow the berries whole and excrete the hard stones in their droppings, from which new holly trees grow. Holly has prickly leaves on its lower branches only. If you look higher up in the tree you will notice that the leaves have fewer and then no prickles on the leaves. The prickles are a defence against being eaten by browsing animals such as deer and when the branches are high enough to be out of the reach of foraging deer there is no longer any need for prickles.

In early Irish law the most valuable tree species were called 'the nobles of the wood' and there were severe fines for cutting them down or destroying them. There were seven noble trees - holly was one of them because its young, soft leaves were used as fodder for animals and its hard timber was used for spears and chariot poles. The word holly in English comes from holy, as the red berries were thought to symbolise drops of Christ’s blood.

However, the tradition of bringing holly into the house at Christmas goes back much earlier than Christian times. They were the only trees in leaf in winter in the deciduous forests of old in Ireland and therefore symbolised life and the sun. So, just after midwinter on December 22nd when the sun began to move back up in the sky, holly was brought into the house to celebrate and to keep away evil spirits.

Outdoor Activity Idea for Senior Infants
Plant a Holly Tree:
Bring the class out to look at a holly tree - particularly in autumn when there may be berries on it. Collect berries to grow into holly trees. Collect the berries when they are red in October. Remove the flesh and wash the stones. Mix them with 3 or 4 times their volume of 50/50 sand and peat and put into a flower pot with drainage holes. These are left outside for 18 months or two winters - before they germinate. They can then be planted in separate pots until they are big enough to go into the ground.

Herons (All About)

Environmental awareness and care (Geography/Science), Living things (Science) / Science

The heron is Ireland’s tallest bird. Standing up to 98 cm tall, it waits patiently all day in areas of fresh water, waiting for a fish to pass so that it can pounce on it for a meal. It has a long, yellow bill; long, narrow legs and a grey and white body with black wing tips. In flight, it is unmistakeable as it flies with its head drawn back and its long legs trailing behind.

Remarkably, for a bird that stands all day by shallow water, it builds its nest at the top of a tall tree in a colony called a heronry. There are usually less than fifty nests per colony, made from sticks or reeds by the female and three to five light blue eggs are laid. After 25 days incubation, the young are fed by both parents with fish, beetles, frogs and rats. One parent always stays on guard while the other is away feeding and catching food for the young. They are not able to swim so they must stand patiently until an unwary fish swims over their feet. If the fish is small they can swallow it whole, taking care of course to swallow it head first so that the scales do not get stuck in its throat. If the fish is too large for this, they will kill it with repeated stabs of the beak and then bring it to the bank to pick off the flesh.

They are one of very few creatures to eat frogs, as most creatures find them distasteful. Even the heron doesn’t like the ovaries of the female frog and will cough these up on the bank where they swell most amazingly in the rain and present a mystery to nature watchers who find them and are not in the know. Herons were very familiar in Ireland long ago as was a larger wading bird — the Crane — which is now extinct here because of habitat destruction. So our grey heron is sometimes called the crane as it resembles this earlier bird. The wealth of names in Irish that exist for it show how well known it was (place names such as Corlough mean the lake of the heron). It was thought that a heron flying south is a sign of good weather.

Things to do
1.    Make out a food chain — or indeed a meal menu for a heron. As there are up to 10,000 breeding pairs in Ireland an expedition to a river/lake/wetland/town park with pond should bring a sighting.
2.    Use the internet to look up the delightful poem — “The herons on Bo Island” — which could then be learned as part of a poetry anthology.