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:

Living things (Science)

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.

Herb Robert (All About)

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

Herb Robert is a pinkish flower that grows in well-established hedges or at the edges of a deciduous woodland. It has five pinkish-purple petals which emerge in May and the plant continues to flower right through to the end of September. The flowers are borne in pairs and the whole plant has a pungent smell not unlike that of a fox. It is a member of the Geranium or Cranesbill family. It is so called because its seeds reminded viewers of the sharp pointed bill of a crane. Held upright it actually resembles a birthday candle in a holder that might be about to be inserted into a birthday cake. The leaves are three-lobed on long straggling stems and they turn bright red in autumn.

Where does the name “Herb Robert” come from? Who was Robert? Tradition has it that the name was brought to Ireland by the Normans (although the plant was always a native here, established in woody places ever since the woods developed after the Ice Age). The Normans would have been familiar with stories of a powerful wizard in English folklore called Robin Goodfellow and as the name Robin is a diminutive of Robert, this plant was obviously one used by the said magician for his spells. In Ireland, the plant was widely used to staunch bleeding, especially in the east of the country.

The leaves were applied to the wound and it was believed that held there the bleeding would stop. It was also used as a cure for a disease of cattle called “red water fever”. Obviously, it was believed that there was a connection between the fiery red leaves of the plant in autumn and blood.

This plant is part of the plant community that grows in hedges and woodland edges. It is able to tolerate the lower intensities of light that occur here because of shading when the canopy of deciduous trees gets its leaves. It should be easily found on any field trip to a hedge or woodland area in June or September.

Things to do
1.    Bring the class on a fieldtrip to a local hedge or woodland to look for all the plants that they have learned during their eight years in school. Herb Robert will be an easily recognised member of the flora seen.

Hedgehogs (All About)

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

Hedgehogs were introduced to Ireland by the Danes as a source of food. The country suited them and they quickly became established in hedges, gardens and woodlands. They are carnivorous animals and feed on snails, slugs, beetles, caterpillars, earwigs and earthworms. They visit gardens at night and are often tempted by the contents of the dog’s bowl — much to the annoyance of the resident dog. When they feel under threat they roll into a prickly ball which deters all enemies except badgers who are able to attack and eat them.

Hedgehogs breed in May and the young, three or four, are born in June, which gives them a good long summer to grow and put on that vital pound of fat, which they need for hibernation. They go into hibernation at the end of October and stay asleep until April. They do this — not because it is too cold — but because there is no food for them, as snails and other minibeasts are not around in winter and as carnivores, hedgehogs must eat meat.

Lately however, it seems that hedgehogs are producing a second litter in September. Apparently, climate change is making our summer nights warmer than they used to be and hedgehogs are coming into season for a second time in midsummer. These poor little late babies are on a hiding to nothing as they can’t put on enough fat in time to survive hibernation.

Surviving hibernation is no small feat in itself. If we were to go to sleep in October and stay asleep continuously until April, we’d wake up dead! We’d have died of hunger and thirst. So how do the hedgehogs manage? They must have a body weight of over 450 grams before going into hibernation or they won’t have enough fat resources to survive. They also must slow down their metabolic rate. Normally in summer months, hedgehogs maintain a temperature of 34°C and a heartbeat of 190 beats per minute. In order for the pound of fat reserves to last for six months the hedgehog in hibernation drops its heartbeat to 20 a minute and its body temperature can go as low as 5°C.

Things to do
1.    Learn the song “Harry the Hedgehog:”
I’m Harry the hedgehog as everybody knows
And I can feel the frosty wind nip my little nose
So I think it would be best if I found a little nest
Where I could lie and rest until the springtime.
2.   Make a model of a hedgehog using plasticine for the body and lollipop sticks for the spikes.

Hazel (All About)

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

The hazel tree is the tree of wisdom. It is a native Irish tree and grows particularly in limestone soils. It is a low tree with a trunk consisting of many stems. Very early in the year, in February and March, before the leaves come on the tree, the catkins appear on the twigs. These are the flowers of the tree and they are wind-pollinated. There are two sorts of catkins. The male ones are long and pendulous and contain lots of pollen. The pollen is blown by the wind to the female catkins which have no stalks and are very small and budlike.

The leaves burst open in April and are particularly soft and downy. In August, the hazel nuts are formed and they are ripe by early September. They are a great source of food for a variety of animals and birds such as squirrels, mice, jays and rooks. Squirrels hide them away to eat later on in winter, but if any are dropped they will germinate into new hazel trees.

Tradition has it that the hazel is the tree of wisdom and that the Salmon of Knowledge got his wisdom from eating the nuts that fell into the water from the hazel trees that grew on the banks of the River Boyne. Certainly, the hazel tree was one of the most useful trees for householders long ago. Apart from eating the nuts as food, they used small forked branches — known as scoilbs — to hold down the thatch on a roof.

These would have to be repaired from time to time hence the seanfhocail “ní hé lá na gaoithe lá na scoilbe”. Larger forked branches are used to this day to divine water. The straight poles formed by the many stemmed trunks were very valuable for building walls, they were woven together and plastered with clay plaster — clay and wattle walls. To be sure of a continual supply of such hazel rods, the trees were coppiced — which means cut across the stems so that new poles would grow. In such a way, the life of a hazel wood could be prolonged indefinitely.

Things to do
1.    Find a hazel tree in the vicinity of the school which can be studied throughout the year — catkins, leaves, nuts, buds, bark etc. If there are no hazel trees, one should be acquired for the school grounds and planted and cared for.

Hawthorn (All About)

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

The hawthorn is also known as the whitethorn or the May bush. It is a native Irish tree and is found commonly in hedges all over Ireland. Leaves come on the hawthorn tree in the month of April. This is followed by bunches of creamy white, musky smelling flowers in May — the May blossom. These lovely flowers attract copious numbers of insects. The bees gather pollen and nectar from them and in doing so fertilise the flowers. By late summer the berries are beginning to form.

The berries are called haws and are bright red when ripe. Each berry contains a hard stone which is the seed. Hawthorns rely on birds to eat their berries in order that new hawthorn trees can grow. Birds, who have no teeth, must swallow the berries whole. They can digest the soft berry food surrounding the stone but the stone itself is too hard to be digested. They excrete the stone in their droppings and it then can germinate and a new hawthorn tree can grow. Hawthorns are small trees, which rarely grow taller than 15 metres high. Because they have thorny branches and adapt well to being trimmed and lopped, they are very frequently planted as hedge boundaries along the edges of fields. When kept trimmed and bushy they are good stock boundaries so many of our Irish fields are bounded with hawthorn hedges, and May blossom is a glorious sight at that time of year.

Hawthorn will also grow as lone trees too and there is a great deal of superstition attached to such trees. It is said that such trees were beloved of the fairies and that very bad luck would befall anyone who chopped one down. People believe this to this very day and are very reluctant to remove lone hawthorns. This bad luck also attaches itself to the flowers — it is believed that death will follow if they are brought indoors.

The smell of the blossoms indoors is associated with the smell of dead tissue because actually the same chemical is present in both cases — so maybe the old wives’ tale had something going for it! Hawthorn trees are also associated with holy wells. Offerings are often left on the trees and the water in the well taken for cures. Such customs go right back to pagan times two millennia ago. Being native trees, hawthorns contain a great variety of insect life. In particular, the hawthorn shield bug is a common inhabitant and can easily be dislodged by shaking the tree into an upturned umbrella.

Things to do
1.    Read the book Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna.
2.    Bring in the class out to find hawthorn trees in the local hedge. Study the tree throughout the year — noting when the leaves open, when the blossoms are out and what the haws are like. Gather haws and plant the stones to germinate new trees.

Frogs (All About)

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

Frogs belong to the animal group amphibians. These are cold-blooded creatures that cannot control their own body temperature but are affected by environmental temperatures. Another distinguishing characteristic is that they are able to take in oxygen in two separate ways. They have lungs, which they fill with air which they inhale from the atmosphere. However, when they are hibernating at the bottom of ponds in winter, they are able to absorb enough oxygen from the water through their skins to keep them going.

In February frogs wake from hibernation. Males hibernate at the bottom of ponds and females hibernate in separate quarters at the bottom of wet ditches around fields. These female frogs, upon wakening, hurry to the ponds where the males are encouraging their arrival with loud croaking. The females and males both enter the water where mating takes place. The male climbs on to the back of the female and holds her with his nuptial pad — a very well developed thumb. When she produces her eggs in a cloud into the water, he immediately squirts sperm all over them and fertilisation takes place in the water.

The fertilised eggs swell up and float in a jelly-like mass called frogspawn. The couple then disengages and they go their separate ways. Frogs spend the rest of the year in wet fields and meadows and in gardens feeding on flies which they catch with their long sticky tongues. They never go back to the pond until hibernation time in October when the males return. The eggs are left to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile back in the pond, the black eggs in the transparent jelly become larger until they finally hatch out into tadpoles. These are completely aquatic creatures, with gills on their long tails and they get all their oxygen requirements from the water through these gills. They are carnivorous creatures and indeed if they are short of food will even eat each other as many the owner of a tank of frogspawn will testify. Frogs are protected under European legislation because they are scarce in Europe in general.

However, they are not endangered in Ireland so a general licence has been issued to all Centres of Education in Ireland to collect and study frogspawn in class in tanks, etc., without individually having to apply for a licence to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Tadpoles slowly develop into small frogs, growing first their legs and then finally losing their tails. If they are kept in a tank the water must be changed regularly as a build-up of enzymes from the tadpoles prevents them from developing into frogs. They can be fed with fish food — daphnia — which is sold for goldfish. When they have all four legs and lose their tails, they will leave their watery environment and hop around grassy meadows catching food for themselves. In turn, they are food for birds such as herons.

Things to do
1.    Note the date when first frogspawn is seen, to build up a series of records over the years.
2.    Bring in frogspawn to class (or into the school pond) and observe the stages of growth. Release the frogs back to the wild when fully grown.

Foxes (All About)

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

The fox is one of our most common and familiar mammals. It is a native Irish species, and probably returned to Ireland after the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago by crossing a land bridge from Europe. It occurs in every county and estimates reckon that there are up to 200,000 foxes in the country. They can live in farmland, woodland, sand dunes, uplands and most successfully of all in built-up urban areas. They excavate underground dens or earths, where breeding foxes have their cubs. These are easily detected because the entrance will be strewn with food debris, as foxes are very untidy creatures. There will also be a very strong smell of fox.

The breeding season occurs from late December to early February. At this time foxes communicate with each other by sound — the male with a series of barks and the female vixen with bloodcurdling screams. The cubs are born between late February and the end of April. There are normally four or five cubs and it takes up to seven months before they are fully grown. Many young foxes die in their first year as they are unable to establish territory and can die of hunger or are killed on the roads. If they do succeed they can live up to ten years. Foxes are omnivores, which means they can eat food of animal and of vegetable origin. They are opportunists and will eat a great variety of food such as rabbits, young hares, brown rats and mice as well as small birds, eggs and nestlings, beetles and earthworms, and coastal foxes eat crabs and fish They like blackberries and apples too but of course they have a bad reputation because they kill chickens and eat dead lambs, and are not above killing the odd baby lamb or two as well.

In cities people are quite fond of foxes and they often feed the foxes that visit their garden looking for scraps from the dustbin. Fox cubs are often left alone all day while their parents are looking for food and they can come out of the earth and play in the garden in good weather — a sight which pleases homeowners in urban areas.

Things to do
1.    Read Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox and Run with the Wind by Tom McCaughren.
2.    There are several fox songs such as “Maidrín rua” and “Little fox” which are great fun to sing. Download the words and tunes from the internet.

Elder (All About)

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

The elder is a very common native tree. It grows naturally in hedges and in neglected city gardens. It is a small tree, not exceeding 15 metres in stature. A deciduous tree, it gets its new leaves early in the year, usually at the start of April. These are compound leaves. Each leaf has between five and nine oval leaflets in opposite pairs with one terminal one. The lovely creamy bunches of elderflowers open in June and attract myriads of insects. In their efforts to collect nectar these insects pollinate the flowers.

The bunches of purple elderberries are formed in September. These are feasted upon by many species of birds — in particular, the woodpigeon. They void the hard seeds in their droppings and these quickly germinate into new fast-growing elder trees again. The timber of the elder tree is very soft — the centre of the twigs and branches is composed of pith, so that it does not have much value as timber. Because of its hollow twigs it is called the boo-tree or boretree in the Ulster Scots dialect and the word is used commonly in Co. Monaghan for elder trees.

There is a huge amount of superstition associated with this tree. It was considered to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself and so has been cursed by God. This is why the leaves smell so horribly rank (try them) and the timber lacks strength (so no one would ever hang themselves from this tree again). It would be exceedingly unlucky to use the timber when making a cradle or a boat as very bad luck would befall the occupants. It was also believed that if a child was struck with an elder stick, they wouldn’t grow any more. This bad luck did not extend to the blossoms from which beautiful sparkling white wine can be made, or to the berries which can be made into red wine. The tree itself is full of insect life all summer long and these can be easily dislodged and examined.

Things to do
1.    Bring them out to find an elder tree and study it with them through the four seasons — leaf burst, leaf smell, leaf shape, blossoms, berries, bark rubbings, examination of foliage for insect life.
2.    Look for associated fungi at the base of elder trees — a jelly-like rubbery one known as Jew’s Ear is quite common.

Earthworms (All About)

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

The earthworm is one of our most valuable creepy-crawlies. They live in the soil and feed on dead plant material. They recycle this dead plant material by digesting it and returning the nutrients contained back into the soil in a form that can be absorbed by growing plants. As they tunnel through the soil, they form small tunnels which aerate and drain the soil and add to its fertility.

Farming and gardening would be next to impossible without earthworms. The common earthworm is 30 cm long and is pink in colour. Its body is composed of segments — up to 150 of them and it has stiff hairs called chaetae on the underside of its body which help it to move. They have no eyes so they cannot see, which doesn’t matter as they live surrounded by soil which contains their food. They swallow soil through their mouth and as it passes through their body they digest any organic material in it. The undigested soil itself passes through their body and is deposited as a worm cast.

On warm nights, worms will come up to the surface of the soil and pull down dead leaves into their burrows for digestion. They will also often use the opportunity to find another worm with which to mate. As worms are very abundant in Irish soils this does not present too much of a difficulty although each worm makes sure to keep its tail in its own burrow so that it can conduct a speedy retreat if danger threatens. Like snails and slugs, worms are hermaphrodites — each has male and female organs — but they must mate and exchange sperm before each can lay eggs.

During cold winter months, worms burrow deeply into the ground and become dormant. They are food for many creatures higher up the food chain. Birds such as thrushes and blackbirds love them, they form up to 40% of the diet of badgers, and rooks and jackdaws are expert at finding them in grassy fields. It is not true that if you cut a worm in half you will have two worms. Worms have a head with a rudimentary nervous system and seven hearts at one end and just a tail at the other. If you cut one in half you have a live, foreshortened worm and a wriggling tail that soon stops wriggling as the nerve endings die. So this cruel practice should not be carried out. Earthworms work in compost bins, but another species, the tiger worm (brandling worm) is even more effective.

Things to do
1.    Set up a wormery. Get a large transparent jar such as a large sweet jar. Make layers in it of soil, leaves, soil, sand, leaves, soil, sand, a white chalk layer perhaps, right up to the top. Put a final layer of leaves on top. Dampen the whole. Put in some earthworms and close the jar. Cover with black plastic to exclude light and leave for a week. When uncovered the tunnels of the earthworms may be seen. Do not leave uncovered however, as earthworms will move into the centre away from the light. Keep dampened and uncover every few days or so, to see how the layers get mixed up as the worms move about.

Deer (All About)

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

Deer are even-hoofed mammals that are entirely herbivorous. They live in woodland, grassland and open mountain and moorland. They eat grass, leaves of trees such as oak, holly and ivy while some of them do harm to trees by eating shoots and stripping bark.

There are three species that occur in the wild in Ireland. The Red Deer is our largest wild herbivore and the only native species of deer. Stags carry branching antlers which are shed each year in March and April and grow again to full splendour by August. Antlers generally increase in size and weight each year and a fully mature stag will have a very impressive set of antlers. Their breeding cycle is controlled by day length, so as the days begin to shorten by the end of September the breeding season known as the rut begins. The stags, who have been living apart all summer, join the groups of females (known as hinds). They emit deep roars to assert their supremacy and fight with other stags by locking antlers and pushing. Whichever one is pushed backwards loses.

Successful stags gather harems containing many hinds and father all the calves that are born to the mothers by the end of the following May. Competition among stags is fierce — they are five years old before they are mature and although stags can live for twelve years, the older ones are not so successful in their fights for hinds. Native Irish Red Deer now only occur in and around the Killarney National park region of Co. Kerry and on Inishvickillane of the Blasket Islands. Another similar smaller species — the Sika Deer — was introduced to Ireland from Japan in 1860 by Lord Powerscourt initially to his estate in Wicklow. These interbred with the Red Deer that were at the time common in Wicklow and Donegal, so that the deer seen in these areas today are all hybrids between Red and Sika.

There is a herd of pure Sika Deer in the Killarney area as well as the herd of Red, but no hybridisation has occurred here and the two species are distinct. Fallow deer were introduced to Ireland by the Normans in 1244. They were kept in deer parks from which some escaped and they too have become established in the wild. They occur in most tracts of woodland in lowland areas. Male Fallow Deer — known as bucks — have broad, flattened antlers. Females — called does — have just one fawn each in June. There are well known herds in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, in Doneraile Park in Cork and in Lough Fea estate in Co. Monaghan. They are also commonly farmed.

Things to do
1.    Debate with the class how deer should be managed to be sustainable in the environment. Include such ideas as culling, (which should be culled and how), removal of fawns after birth, hunting as a tourist attraction, visiting and watching them as a tourist attraction, accidents on roads caused by deer, etc.