Fionnán: an Autumn Walk

All across West Cork, at higher elevations, autumn heralds the emergence of vast carpets of amber grass. Shading from yellow to red and everything in between, it is the distinctive colour of the uplands. We call it Fionnán (pronounced fyuh-nawn).

Fionnán is a particularly apt name because the root, fionn, means blonde, but fionnadh can mean shaggy animal hair. In English, this is the far less romantic and puzzling Purple Moor Grass. Actually, when it’s young, the first spikes can have a purplish hue, but that colour certainly does not spring to mind in the autumn. In Latin, it’s Molinia caeruleaMolinea after the man who named it, a Chilean naturalist, and caerulea meaning blue. Right – that’s more than you wanted to know about the name.

A Fionnán and Rush pasture is a recognised and important habitat, and should be rich in wildflowers, sedges, and other grasses. But it’s a delicate balance that can be upset by a number of factors – too much or too little drainage, under- or over-grazing, grazing by the wrong animals, and too-frequent burning.

Burning and over-grazing by sheep have affected many of our Fionnán pastures in West Cork. Repeat burning (often done in the belief that it improves grazing and gets rid of gorse) in particular allows the Fionnán and bracken to take over at the expense of other species and in the end degrades the soil.

Birdwatch Ireland says that the answer is sustainable grazing levels to keep certain bog grasses in check, such as Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea). Too little grazing and the grasses can become rank, smothering the important bog mosses, heathers and sedges. This reduces the species diversity and the ability to be an active, peat-forming bog.

On our walk this week it was difficult to assess the health of this particular pasture, since nothing much is still blooming. However, I have walked it before and am happy to report that I have noted many of the species that are indicators of a healthy moor-grass pasture – Meadow Thistle, Heath spotted-orchid,  Lousewort, and Cross-leaved Heath. 

To walk in a Fionnán pasture is a deeply pleasurable experience. There is something about being surrounded by waving expanses of golden grasses – perhaps Sting’s Fields of Gold was influenced by such an experience. The weather has been very variable but we did manage to catch some sun, and evade the inevitable downpour by getting back to the car in the nick of time.

As I said, not a lot was still in bloom – except the gorse because, you know, when gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion. But there is still lots to see and sense. Chamomile grows abundantly along the track and its heady scent drifts upwards as you tramp over it. 

Old fence posts still hang on, with their rusted barbed wire still attached, along with lichens. I was especially delighted to see Devil’s Matchstick lichen on one of the old posts.

This track leads upwards to an intriguing cairn (another of the anomalous structures that I wrote about last week). There’s a memorial bench to a man who used to come here to commune with nature – and you can see why he would. Last time we were there, the bench needed repair but it’s now perfect again – thank you, anonymous fixer!

There are fabulous vistas from the top – on this occasion it afforded us a magnificent view of the squall that was heading our direction, over Mounts Corrin and Gabriel. It was our cue to dash back down again. 

The Politics of Peat

It’s a poignant juxtaposition, perhaps: the old turf road that leads into the peat cuttings at Letterlickey, here in West Cork, with – beyond – our newest energy technology lining the distant hills. On October 31st this year, the sale of turf, smoky coal, and wet wood in shops or online was banned in Ireland as part of the drive to improve our climate.

The move marks the loss of an ancient tradition in Ireland. ‘Turf’ – or peat – has been harvested from our bogs for countless generations. But it’s a resource that can’t be readily renewed. It’s also relatively inefficient: the gruelling labour required to cut, dry, store and transport turf on a domestic scale is hardly justified by the output of heat which it provides. However, such work has been deeply ingrained in family life for centuries by those who have always accessed the bogs. The word ‘bog’ derives from the Irish bógach, or “soft place,” and 17 percent of Ireland’s 27,000-square-mile national territory was originally covered in peatland. Commercial extraction, however, has significantly diminished this resource. What has been realised – in comparatively recent times – is that peatlands, including bogs, store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests – if left intact.

The turf workings at Letterlickey: the significant and ancient bog there has been in use in very recent times – perhaps it still is active. The new ban doesn’t prevent families who have always had turf-cutting rights from continuing to gather it for their own use. But all commercial peat extraction has now ended. It’s a sobering thought that electricity was generated by peat-fired power stations in Ireland for many years: ‘peat power’ peaked in the 1960s, providing 40% of Ireland’s electricity. But burning peat for electricity emits more carbon dioxide than coal, and nearly twice as much as natural gas. In 2016, peat generated nearly 8% of Ireland’s electricity, but was responsible for 20% of that sector’s carbon emissions. Today all of the peat-fired powers stations here have been closed. The West Offaly power station at Shannonbridge (below) was the largest in Ireland: it shut down in December 2020.

We are witnessing the end of an era here in Ireland. At the same time we are embracing the search for new technologies: we are harnessing the wind – that will never stop blowing! PV cells are now commonplace, and we know that it’s likely we will mostly be driving electric cars as the decade advances. Other ways forward are still waiting in the wings. We were interested to see – when we were walking the Letterlickey turf road yesterday – that the trackway has been deliberately blocked by large boulders:

These blockages have been put in place since we last visited – and, probably, fairly recently. There could be local access issues: we don’t know. It could be to do with neighbours or trespassing, but it’s also possible that current political preoccupations are being practically addressed. It’s certainly interesting that significant moves are under way since the importance of peat bog preservation as carbon sinks has been fully understood. ‘Bringing home the turf’ will soon become a solely historical concept. The image below is by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh:

“. . . Ireland has more than half the European Union’s remaining area of a type of peatland known as raised bog, one of the world’s rarest habitats and, scientists say, the most effective land form on earth for sequestering carbon . . .”

New York Times 04/10/2022

Ten Years!

Why have we chosen this photograph to head up our ten year anniversary blogpost? That’s simple: the pic was taken on 15 October 2012. We had moved into Ard Glas – just outside Ballydehob – for a six-month rental to see how we liked West Cork!

But – what about the giant sparrow?

Wait a minute. We very obviously ended up liking West Cork so much that we bought a house in Cappaghglass (the townland next door to Ard Glas), and have stayed there ever since. As you can see, we have been thoroughly enjoying ourselves over the last decade:

Yes, but, that very large sparrow…?

Be patient! Believe it or not, we have kept the blog posts going, with hardly any interruption, ever since. This is Roaringwater Journal post number 968. In the last decade, our Journal has been viewed over 1.5 million times and we have acquired over 5,700 followers between our various platforms.

Our posts are all still there in the archives – and you can still read them. Search by using the three-bar icon on the home page and select All Pages-Navigation, or one of the other menus. Alternately, press the cog button under the Roaringwater Journal title at the top of the page, then scroll down to Archives. Roll down through all the months. Or enter a search term into the magnifying glass symbol next to the cog. That will show whether we have mentioned your chosen subject in any of our blogs. We warn you that some posts (especially the very early ones) haven’t survived the test of time perfectly: but we leave them in there because it’s all a bit of history.

Sparrow?

Hang on! Of course, things change a bit as the years go by (although we don’t*). We have varied the layout of the blog, and the header etc. We had thought of refreshing it all again to celebrate this milestone but… ah, well – perhaps for the twentieth anniversary.

Sp……..?

Another pic from 2012 (above) showing mixed weather conditions over Roaringwater Bay. It hasn’t always been sunshine here (have a look at this) but it always feels sunny to us – or just about to be sunny. One of our newest posts -here – shows us doing what we like the most, and always have: exploring remote and often forgotten West Cork byways.

Our regular readers will know that, over ten years, we have developed our interests to take in history, archaeology, rock art, stained glass, architecture, topography, folklore, wildflowers, art and culture, landscape and language… and very much more. We share our adventures often with Amanda and Peter Clarke, our fellow bloggers and friends – see Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry and Hikelines.

What of the next ten years? Well, we are trying to be innovative. This week we have introduced a ‘guest post’ for the first time: this one, by our friend Brian O’Riordan, explores the exploits of an intrepid 79-year old woman who sailed solo across the Atlantic to Ireland in 1994 , which falls right into our own interests, and – hopefully – yours too.

S…………..?

Ok – we have got the message! About the sparrow, that is. The original giant sparrow is one of two (a male and a female) which were created for the Olympic Park in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010 by the sculptor Myfanwy MacLeod. One was transported by our own photo magic to Ard Glas! Perhaps they are not relevant to West Cork, but they are meaningful to Finola and Robert, as we saw them together in Canada ten years ago – pic below. We have just recently returned from a visit to Canada, enjoying a long-awaited catch-up with Finola’s family there. We made sure to record our presence there with another photo-op (below the below).

* Hopefully this demonstrates how youthful we remain, imbibing as we do the stimulating West Cork air. Here’s to the next ten….!

The Caol Stream Then and Now

Five years ago I wrote a piece about the incredible biodiversity that flourished along the Caol Stream, right in the middle of Skibbereen. At the time, the flood relief project was underway, and it wasn’t totally clear how much clearance of the vegetation would take place. I was optimistic, given the resilience of nature, that once things settled down, the wildflowers would once again creep in to populate the banks of the stream.

I am no longer optimistic that this will happen anytime soon, if at all. The photo above shows you what the same area is like now. So this post is an elegy for the missed opportunity that this project represented – the opportunity to balance the needs of the people of Skibbereen not to be flooded repeatedly, with the need to conserve our biodiversity.

Please click on this link to see the riches we have lost:

Down By The Old Caol Stream

Wildflowers of West Cork

I have a new venture this year – an experimental foray into the world of Instagram. I’ve set up an Instagram page on the Wildflowers of West Cork. I’m using video, instead of photographs like the one above of St Patrick’s Cabbage.

I’ve been uploading short (less than 60 seconds) videos about the wildflowers I see around me here in West Cork. The video format is helpful, as it allows people to see better the size of the flowers. This is important, as photographs don’t always convey the relative size of what you should be training your eye to find.

I have chosen four of the videos to feature in this post. The flowers I include on the Instagram posts are mostly native, but I have also included non-native as well, such as garden escapes and invasive aliens that have the potential to be damaging to our native flowers by taking over their habitat.

I know many of you aren’t on Instagram, but if you are, take a look and follow the page if you like. I have tried to set up an automatic redirect also from Instagram to my Wildflowers of West Cork Facebook Page, but I have found it to be hit and miss – the videos don’t always show up on that page. I’ve done 70 videos this year and I am going to take a break now and start again next spring.