There is no set path in life: Meet Caroline Sullivan

Dr Caroline Sullivan is a High Nature Value farmland researcher. She currently works as the Assistant Manager and Project Scientist on the Hen Harrier Project in Ireland. She enjoys communicating the importance of High Nature Value farmland and the need to support it to policy makers, local communities and anyone else with an interest. For fun she volunteers with the Galway Bat Group, monitoring bats and participating in bat walks for the local community, and identifies plants on Botanical Society for Britain and Ireland fieldtrips as well as holidaying in High Nature Value farmland areas in Ireland and across Europe. You can catch Caroline on her soapbox at the Glaway event on 15th July 2017 giving a talk called: “The Wild Atlantic Way; why it’s so beautiful and how farmers helped create it” 


by Caroline Sullivan


From plant ecology to the Wild Atlantic Way; an agroecologists journey

My career to date has seen many interesting and varied posts as I am always open to new opportunities. I always enjoyed biology and English in school but after careful consideration and consultation I chose to do a general science degree in NUI Galway. I’ve never liked the idea of being tied down to one thing (in any area of life) so the option of getting a feel for all the sciences really appealed to me. It was a field trip to the Burren at the very end of second year of my undergraduate course that really opened my eyes to botany (the study of plants). Latin names rolled off my tongue and the rainy conditions and long evenings with plant ID keys didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and by the end of my fourth year I had an honours degree in botany and a love of plant ecology (the effects of the environment on plants) in particular.
After my degree, I did a PhD on the Identification of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland in east Galway. This turned me into an enthusiastic agroecologist, thanks to the support of my supervisors Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, Mike Gormally and John Finn. High Nature Value (HNV) farmland is extensively managed farmland that has high biodiversity. This farmland is important for the conservation of semi-natural habitats and the plants and animals linked with them.











Clockwise from top left, some of the biodiversity supported by HNV farmland; The Kerry Slug feeding on moss, a bumblebee feeding on a Foxsglove, a hare feeding on some acid grassland and a fox hunting on HNV bogland.
Supporting this type of farmland will ensure high levels of farmland biodiversity, high water, air and soil quality, flood and climate change resilience and vibrant rural communities among other things. These farms occur most frequently in areas that are mountainous, or areas where natural constraints prevent intensification. There is lots more information on











Clockwise from top left: Upland HNV farmland in the Beara Peninsula, Co. Cork, coastal HNV farmland in Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, wet grassland mosaic HNV landscapes of Co. Leitrim and upland HNV farmland in the Inishowen Peninsula, Co, Donegal.
I have been very lucky to work on the same topic as my PhD since I completed it in 2010. I have worked with farmers, admiring their work ethic, the landscapes that they manage despite challenging conditions and enjoying the biodiversity that these landscapes can support. In fact, the landscapes in Ireland that I most enjoy being in are High Nature Value farmland landscapes. In Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way is a very successful tourist route that runs from Donegal to Cork. It brings tourists through many beautiful High Nature Value farmland areas perhaps without realising the farmers contribution to this tourism marketing tour de force.
I’m looking forward to the Soapbox Science event for a couple of reasons, firstly, it is often assumed that High Nature Value farmland exists with no effort but that isn’t the case and I feel that that Soapbox Science platform and location is ideal for addressing that. Secondly, it is a wonderful opportunity to show young children out there that there is no set path in life. If you have an interest in science, it is a very fulfilling and worthy career option that can lead you on a fun, adventurous and rewarding journey. The people I have worked with and for in the last seven years have been hugely supportive and inspirational and I hope to one day have the opportunity to be that type of mentor for other future ecologists.

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