The Inspiring History of TidyTowns and Biodiversity
Category : Kieran Cowhig
TidyTowns and Biodiversity– How communities are doing their part to help protect Ireland’s Biodiversity
Today the TidyTowns competition is one of the most recognised and celebrated community environmental initiatives in Ireland. Few are aware that the history of Ireland’s national TidyTowns initiative dates back to 1958 when it was launched by Fáilte Ireland, who back then went by the name of Bord Fáilte. At this time Ireland had a nationwide festival known as Tostal, the focus of which was to celebrate all things Irish. TidyTowns was introduced as a part of this festival. The TidyTowns initiative was the natural evolution of the National Spring Clean Campaign which ran throughout the early to mid 50’s. With just 52 towns entering the competition in its inaugural year, the competition quickly grew in popularity and today an average of 700 entrants are recorded each year.
From its beginning, what was the aim of this initiative? The goal was simple; to encourage communities to look after and improve their local environment and to make their own space a better place to live in. TidyTowns wanted to increase participation nationally while also raising the standards of all participating communities. The competition side of the initiative was instrumental in helping them to achieve this. It helped to create friendly rivalries between communities and raised the bar as groups would learn from one another’s entries and try to implement the projects in their own areas. It’s sort of like the saying; A rising tide lifts all boats. While the foundation of TidyTowns is the national competition, the heart of TidyTowns is the spirit it instils in its participants. An ethos of work ethic, community and fostering a love for one’s place.
Since its inception, hundreds of thousands of people have been involved with TidyTowns all across the country in some way, shape or form. In the absence of volunteers, Tidytowns would have never become what it is today, without the generosity of the ordinary people who spend countless hours of their time to enrich the space around them. Community involvement, engagement and cooperation and having a strategic and systematic approach to activities are key to doing well in the TidyTowns competition. TidyTowns is not just restricted to towns however, areas of all sizes can take part under different classes. Since the very first winners, Glenties, Co Donegal, the focus of TidyTowns has always been participation over competition and this has led to the long and successful history of the initiative.
From its name, you might imagine that TidyTowns is all about cleaning up your surrounding area. When you think of TidyTowns, images of neatly cut lawns, freshly painted buildings and well weeded ornamental flower beds and hanging baskets may spring to mind. At its core however, TidyTowns is about doing things properly. This means well planned out projects, proper maintenance of buildings and amenities spaces, natural and man-made. A respect for natural space and biodiversity is foremost to this.
In 2007 the running of the competition was taken over by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. With this change came a drastic shift in the structure and focus of the competition. The scoring system received an overhaul, increasing the total count from 300 to 400 points. Within this, one of the biggest changes was the emphasis on the ‘Wildlife and Natural Amenities’ category which saw its scoring increase by 67%, from 30 to 50 points.
TidyTowns has evolved over the years to reflect best practices when it comes to issues relating to the environment and today you can see project being rolled out across the country such as wildflower meadows, butterfly patches, native and wildlife friendly planting, wildlife signage, putting up specially designed boxes for bat, bird and insects, and keeping ivy on stone walls. This means TidyTowns and biodiversity are a match made in heaven.
Today, TidyTowns is organised by the Department Rural and Community Development, who are responsible for the initiative with the help of the national sponsor SuperValu as well as a number of other organisations who sponsor the special awards. For the main competition, communities are judged through 8 categories with a possible total score of 470 points. The categories are:
- Community – Your planning & involvement
- Streetscape & Public Places
- Green Spaces and landscaping
- Nature & Biodiversity in your Locality
- Sustainability – Doing more with less
- Tidiness & Litter control
- Residential Streets & Housing Areas
- Approach Roads, Streets & Lanes
Between 2000 and 2015 the United Nations developed a framework to guide global development. Known as the Millennium Development Goals, the framework set out 8 key targets. Some of these included reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and eradicating world hunger. Following on from the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were adopted by 193 UN member states with a series of ambitious targets which fall within 17 overarching goals. Many of these goals have been aligned by TidyTowns to their 8 categories. For more detailed information on the SDGs you can check out this website here: https://sdgs.un.org/goals
TidyTowns and Biodiversity
Today, the category of Nature & Biodiversity in your Locality is worth a total of 55 points. This alone emphasises the importance of considering TidyTowns and biodiversity when planning out your projects as 55 points could make or break your campaign in the main competition. On top of this, while each of the 8 categories are judged independently it is wise to study each one as many of them can overlap and can contribute to another category. For example, attaching rainwater planters to downpipes throughout your community can score in Sustainability for reducing water usage, it can score in biodiversity as it can reduce runoff into nearby waterbodies. Benefits of this include reducing the quantity of pollutants reaching waterbodies from surface runoff, reducing the probability of flash flooding, all while the planters provide a habitat for native wetland plants. You can also score within the Greenspace and Landscaping category by selecting appropriate native species within the planter so it can support a variety of wildlife including pollinators and add colour and texture to otherwise uniform built areas.
There are over 200 prizes given out each year with a total prize fund of €250,000 up for grabs. From the pot, €200,000 is reserved for the main competition which has several categories. There are also a number of special awards available outside of this main competition. These special awards are provided and judged by a variety of sponsors across a broad range of topics. These awards are outside the main competition so if your group is particularly strong in a particular category but weaker in the other categories, these special awards could be a nice way to be rewarded for your hard efforts.
This year there are a tonne of great special awards available for biodiversity and environmental related projects:
- The Bat Conservation Ireland Award
- Tree Project Award
- Climate Action Award
- Air Quality Award
- SDG Award
- Agent Brite Litter Awareness Award
- Water and Communities Award
- Leave no Trace Award
- All Ireland Pollinator Plan Award
- EPA – Circular Economy Award
- Save the Bees School Award
For more details on each of these awards – see link: https://www.tidytowns.ie/competition/2022-special-award-entry-forms/
It is important to be mindful that when undertaking work on natural environments, always seek assistance from the relevant authorities, especially when working in sensitive habitats. Engage with your local NPWS (National Parks and Wildlife Services) wildlife ranger for guidance on protected species and habitats in your area and IFI (Inland Fisheries Ireland) Fisheries Environmental Officer for instream works and timing of such work. These authorities can provide guidance on the efficacy of your planned project so that they don’t negatively impact biodiversity. They may also be able to point you to experts who can help you best design your project.
If you are engaging in water related projects, through the Local Authorities Water Programme (LAWPRO) you can also seek guidance from your community water officer. All of these professionals are very approachable and are more than happy to help guide communities to help their local wildlife. For more details on who your community water officer is check the link here: https://lawaters.ie/team/communities-team/#filter=*
In 2021, out of 847 entries, Ennis was announced as the winner of Ireland’s Tidiest Town. Ennis TidyTowns was very strong in the Nature and Biodiversity category. With many projects running including herbicide free weed control and multiple efforts to encourage pollinators. They also had a wall ecology project exhibiting the importance of old stone walls as habitats, an event where 100 trees were planted off the Kilrush road and a Tree Trail was completed in Tim Symthe Park.
Today biodiversity is under threat from many angles. The introduction of Invasive Alien Species (IAS) is the second biggest threat to biodiversity just after habitat loss. Here in Ireland, the management of IAS costs the economy around €200 million each year. Water quality is also under significant pressure from many human activities. Despite many improvements in recent years most Irish water bodies are still not of satisfactory status. The decline in all insect populations including pollinators is also a very concerning trend.
Strong communities like those formed through TidyTowns will be crucial in helping to ensure biodiversity has a place in our communities in the years to come. Without the hard-working efforts of communities through initiatives like TidyTowns, the picture does not look good. While we still face an uphill battle to conserve what biodiversity we still have left, it is encouraging to see the many creative ways that TidyTowns groups come up with each year to help do their part, using what they have to protect their local nature.
Trying to grow your group? Today there are many great ways to keep in touch with your group and organise your events and projects. Having an active group page on social media can help you increase your reach so you can increase your volunteer network and maybe even encourage more young people to get involved with your projects. The link between TidyTowns and biodiversity could be highlighted in that space. With many of these social media platforms, the more engagement within the group the more the platform will promote your group to users of the social media platform. In practice, this means regular posting, uploading of videos and photos, commenting and running polls can increase the number of people who see your group page which can lead to new members joining your group on social media and potentially act as a funnel to get them helping on the ground. Another benefit of this is that it also ticks the box of raising awareness about your projects and their impacts, which is one of the judging criteria in the Nature and Biodiversity in your Locality and Sustainability – Doing more with less categories.
The closing date for applications for Tidy Towns 2022 was the 20th of May. While it is too late to get involved in this year’s competition it won’t be long before we are gearing up for TidyTowns 2023. Have you lots of ideas for brilliant community projects but not sure how to fund them? Check out our blog on funding for lots of great tips on how to get started- What Biodiversity Funding is Available for your Projects?. Here at Veri Connect we also offer courses which help participants understand the natural world around them. We offer guidance geared towards communities, on many of the issues biodiversity faces today and show real world examples of projects that can have massive benefits to biodiversity and water quality which could be applied to your local area.