With Spring upon us, the balm that nature provides has been a boost for all of us as we deal with the challenges - mental and physical - of the pandemic.
Nature in bloom during Covid
With this in mind, the parks department at Sligo County Council have been working hard to get our parks and open spaces looking extra special. As anyone who has walked at Cleveragh, Doorly Park, Mitchell Curley Park, and elsewhere will attest to, the daffodils, crocuses and narcissi have rarely offered a more colourful canopy to walkers, and for Lucy Brennan and her team, the main reward for this work is the public’s positive response to the work of her staff.
"People are so appreciative of the park," says Lucy, who is parks manager for Sligo County Council, and who is part of a team of 4. "For the past year really, how many people I meet here walking and doing their exercise, just enjoying it and saying that it's been their sanctuary (during Covid)."
Lockdown has been challenging for us all in different ways, and for some, they may have been unable even to leave their homes for a short visit to their local park. But as we look forward to a good spell of weather this Easter weekend, more and more of us will head out of doors to enjoy the sunshine. And while for some, it may be the first time they have left their homes in a long time, overall we are very fortunate to have these wonderful facilities on our doorstep.
Speaking to us at Cleveragh Regional Park, Lucy says the park can be busy at peak times, so to choose your time carefully before heading out. "There are regulars who come at six (in the morning), and these are people who like to walk or to run or whatever when it's quiet. During the day it can be very busy, like lunchtime and the evening." She adds that there is plenty of room and that people as a general rule are respectful of the social distancing measures that are in place on signage around the park.
With the pandemic having caused so much despondency, Lucy thinks that one of the few positive aspects of the past year has been the way that people have become more interested in the Great Outdoors, and are using their time in the park not just for exercise, but to take in their surroundings, something which is so important to improve our mood.
"I think that people are more aware of their environment and what's around them, and the importance of looking after what we have" she says. "For example, trees, and the importance of planting trees, and having them for the future." The park staff have begun to plant native Irish trees around the park, a measure which has been very well received by the public.
This interest in nature has spread to our own gardens, and as Lucy describes, this is the perfect time to do some work on our gardens and we will reap the rewards in the Summer and into Autumn. However, it’s not always about the perfect lawn or beds.
"We've gotten used to everything being edged, square, formal gardens, grass perfect, beds, borders, whatever," she says, when asked to provide some advice to gardeners. "But to start with, I would ask people to just leave even a section of their garden, let it grow naturally and create a natural wildflower meadow. That is so good for nature, bees particularly, and birds."
As Lucy and her team continue their work, public interest in gardening has surged during the pandemic. Just last week, the team were asked to distribute free tree saplings to the public on behalf of the Tree Council of Ireland and as part of National Tree Week. Evidence of this increasing interest was such that they were inundated with requests, a great sign that people are engaging more than ever with nature.
"It was incredible, the demand for trees. We've been doing this for a number of years, but this year surpassed all. There were just queues of people in cars waiting to collect their trees."
That suggests that not only are people working on their gardens for the aesthetic pleasure it gives us, but that a broader awareness of the importance of promoting our natural environment is growing. And at a time of great challenges relating to climate change, let's hope that this will be one of the real and lasting lessons we can take from living through these strange and challenging times.
The Keep Well initiative is being delivered by Sligo County Council through the Healthy Sligo, Keep Well and Community Resilience Fund. Please visit our website www.sligococo.ie/keepwell for resources and information, as well as staying up to date on all of the new video releases.