Fierce Mild

“Fierce mild” my neighbour said when commenting about the weather. While this is an Irish-ism that simply means very mild, it struck me as particularly apt, in that this mildness, while very welcome to us humans in the autumn, can have a fierce effect on our native flora and fauna.

The Spindle Tree comes into its own in October

It’s true that up now we have had a wonderful long, mild autumn. Warm sunny days, perfect for long walks looking for wildflowers, have lured us outdoors and convinced us that this will last forever.

From the top: Corn Spurrey, generally finishes blooming in September; Red Campion – by now we expect to see the empty seed pods, but along with them there are a few flower heads still blooming

And the wildflowers are certainly hanging in. I’ve seen lots that would normally be over by now, but who find a sheltered spot and bloom merrily away for our enjoyment. It’s been lovely, and I can’t help wishing it would last well into November. But the truth is that an unusually mild winter is not good for our plants.

Rose hips – seasonally correct; but look at the branches, are they starting to bud?

The factors that cause winters to be milder than usual are many and complex. Forecasters appear to be conflicted as to whether Ireland can look forward to winters in the coming decades that are shorter and milder than average or longer and colder. Both scenarios pose problems for plants and insects and therefore for those of us who depend on the health of our pollinators. And that, actually, is all of us.

Found on the same south-facing slope; Top: Musk Stork’s-bill – it should have finished flowering in July, but it’s found a sunny spot and is still blooming; Bottom: Red Dead-nettle can bloom well into November 

While it’s impossible to extrapolate from recent weather experiences to talk about long-term trends, a mild autumn can show us what can happen when temperatures vary from the norm. We already know that our springs have come sooner than they used to fifty years ago (two to three weeks earlier!) but we have also seen an increase in average temperatures in the autumn, which can lead to prolonged spells of mild and sunny days, such as we are experiencing at the moment.

Ragged Robin is a spring/summer flower and it’s a little worrying to see it blooming this late

Mild temperatures in the autumn can trick flowers into thinking that it’s spring, and time to wake up and grow. Trouble is, there’s bound to be a cold snap sooner or later and the fragile bloom will freeze and it won’t bloom again when true spring arrives.

This Long-headed Poppy and Common Ramping-fumitory are blooming late, especially the Poppy

Our native and naturalised plants have adapted to our ecosystem, including our climate, and any disruption to that has to be, in turn, adapted to. But this takes time – centuries, millennia even – for many organisms: the rate at which our planet is warming may not give them the time they need to make that adaptation.

Sweet Alison, rare in West Cork, on the same sunny slope as the Musk Stork’s-bill and the Red Dead-nettle

That’s all a bit doomsday, and I’m never inclined to embrace the most alarmist predictions, but whether related to global warming or not, a mild autumn can a problem for wildflowers. Flowers that appear in late summer and normally bloom into September and early October are still nodding away in the fields and hedges this year, and that’s lovely to see.

Common Chickweed – this one blooms all year round!

What’s not so great is that I have seen a few spring/early summer flowers too, long after they should be asleep. I can only conclude that they have sensed that it’s time to produce their one and only set of buds and that the first deep frost will probably kill them.

A lovely lilac-coloured variety of Sea Rocket, still in full flower at Barley Cove

A longer growing season also provides opportunities for insects and fungus that would be kept in check by colder weather to predate on plants. Plants that arrive from warmer climates, whether by accident (hitching a ride on a long-distance freight truck, or hidden in nursery stock) or design (imported for garden use) can start to reproduce once our climate catches up to the conditions they have been bred for. A good example of this is the snowy white egret – it only arrived here 20 years ago!

Little Egret; Russian Vine at Rossbrin Cove, an unwelcome invasive species

A fierce mild autumn is lovely, and we are certainly enjoying getting out and about on our favourite walks and our various explorations. But it’s time to cool down now – for our flowers’ and insects’ sake and ultimately for our own.

I love the colour that the bracken turns at this time of year

The good news is that a north wind arrived yesterday and suddenly it’s chilly. Good news for the wildflowers, that is. Not so great for us – we will miss those sunny walks!

Beautiful West Cork in October

Mizen Magic 12: Autumn Colour

It’s not the trees that lend autumnal hues to the Mizen, as they do elsewhere. It’s the whole landscape – that combination of rock, heather, bracken, moor grass, brambles, filtered through the light and shade of our notoriously changeable climate – that creates the special colour palette we associate with autumn. It’s my favourite time of year.

Today, early, we drove up Mount Gabriel and looked over the whole of the Mizen, back to Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd, and across to the Sheep’s Head, the Beara, and away to the mountains of Kerry.

Upper: looking down to Dunmanus Bay from Mount Gabriel; Lower: looking across to Mount Corrin

But every day brings changes. What trees we have are not yet bare. The thorns, blackthorn and whitethorn are loaded with berries. The heather is hanging on here and there, providing a wonderful contrast to the yellow gorse.

Haws, Sloes, Heather and Gorse

The bog asphodel is fading now, but earlier in the month it had reached its peak orange state and looked spectacular consorting with the other bog and mountain flowers that were still blooming.

Upper: Bog Asphodel, Gorse, Scabious; Lower: Cappaghglass Bog

When you get a clear day, like today, there is nothing on earth like a walk on the West Cork hills, drinking in the colours and trying to store them in the memory. Or perhaps, in a blog!

Upper: Toormore; Lower: Derryconnell 

Upper: North Side of the Mizen; Lower: Crough Bay and Long Island

Scarecrow in an abandoned garden – quintessential autumn image!

Rock Island

Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

One Acre – One Year On

Last year I introduced to you the wildflowers that arrive unbidden every year to our one acre plot in West Cork. This year I will continue that tradition (if it’s more than once, it’s a tradition – agreed?), starting in March and ending in September and trying to choose different flowers from last year. It was a very different year!

Top image – Blackthorn, the first of the trees to blossom in April (flowers before the leaves come). Above is Blog Pimpernel which grows on what had been quite a wet section of the lawn last year

We had a late start to spring after a long and exceptionally cold winter. Everything seemed about two to three weeks later than last year, so that by March, all I really had to report was the good old lawn daisy.

But finally in April the chill abated and tiny flowers started to appear in the grass. Nothing too showy yet – some of them needed a magnifying glass to find. The mosses were having a field day, though, and our Blackthorn bushes put on quite a fireworks show.

From the top: Keel-fruited Cornsalad (edible and more of a light blue than white); Hairy Bittercress; Common Dog-violet: Ground-ivy; two kinds of mosses

May started to warm up nicely and now the grasses started to grow in earnest, and my uncut portion – my wildflower meadow – took off with a profusion of grasses, sorrel, and clover.

From the top: Grasses, Red Clover, Ribwort Plantain; Common Milkwort; Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill; Trailing St John’s-wort; English Stonecrop; Whitethorn (flowers after the leaves come)

And then, boy did it warm up – Flaming June, they call it, and it lived up to its reputation this year with everything suddenly verdant and pulsing with life and colour. Day after day of sunshine – we just aren’t used to that around here and as the month wore on the word drought was introduced to our vocabulary. Imagine – in Ireland!

From the top: Grasses and Foxglove; Silverweed; Red Campion; Scarlet Pimpernel; Bog Pimpernel; White Stonecrop

July arrived and still no rain. As the month wore on things started to wilt and shrivel. The Bog Pimpernel, which had spread nicely from last year, gave up the fight and turned into dust. There were compensations, though – the long grasses turned the most delicious golden colour and the Knapweed, undeterred by lack of water, sprang up to populate the meadow.

Grasses and Common Knapweed

The rain started in August – not as much as we needed, although it was welcome. But it was too late for most of the flowers to recover and flourish. But one wildflower more than held its own – Chamomile! Most of the chamomile that grows in Ireland (over 90%) occurs in West Cork and South Kerry and I am lucky to have extensive coverage here. Walking over it on a warm day releases that well-known sweet scent – it’s lovely to have!

From the top: Chamomile; Yarrow

And now it’s the end of September. The heather is flowering and the gorse is on its second or third blossoming of the year. I have discovered that somehow the invasive shrub Himalayan Honeysuckle has found its way to a hard-to-access section of my garden and I am not quite sure what to do about that but I’ll definitely keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t spread too much.

From the top: Bell Heather; Himalayan Honeysuckle

The glory of the property right now is the colour of the vine (I don’t know what it is) that covers the house. It’s not a wild flower, but it is irresistible and I think that’s a good way to end this post.

 

 

Tralong Bay, Co Cork – A Prehistoric Drowned Landscape

In West Cork it is possible to examine the remains of trees which were growing several thousand years ago – perhaps in the time of our earliest ancestors. Around the coasts of Ireland and Britain are sites of post-glacial forests which flourished close to an ancient shoreline until inundated by rising sea levels in the Neolithic period. Cycles of change in weather, tides and geology over millennia saw these remains flooded by encroaching seas, then resurfacing, only to be buried under sediment and sand as tides abated. We are living in an age of extremes and recent abnormal climate activity has in places exposed some of these remains which are as old as human activity in Ireland: this is Organic Archaeology!

Header – Tralong Beach, between Glandore and Rosscarbery, where the remains of very ancient woodland can be seen. Upper map – the c1850 6″ OS map showing the shape of the coastline at Tralong Bay, and Lower map – a closer aerial view of the beach in modern times: the darker mass shows the partly submerged peat beds

Little has been written about the Tralong site, but another comparable drowned landscape has been revealed in Northumberland UK where archaeologist Clive Waddington, of the company Archaeology Research Services, has found the remains of an ancient forest on the coast of Low Hauxley. He reports:

. . . In 5,000 BC, the sea level rose rapidly and swallowed the earth. The sand dunes were pushed inland, burying the forest, and then the sea receded somewhat. Now, the sea level increases again: it cuts out the sand dunes and exposes the forest . . . During the course of the investigation, the archaeologists found evidence of human presence in the area: traces of adults and children , the analysis of which revealed that they were wearing leather footwear. With human footprints the scientists also found footprints of wild boar and brown bears . . .

Part of the beach at Tralong Bay, Co Cork: the surface of the peat mass, which could be up to 4 metres thick, is interspersed with numerous tree boles, roots and scattered branch and twig debris. At one place I found a perfect complete pine cone, which could have been part of that debris.

The surface of the beach is dotted with these remnants of ancient forest, over a wide area. It seems remarkable that there are also extensive blankets of loose material retained in the bay which must also originate from the forest.

Upper picture – one of the huge blankets of organic material – mainly wood based – which has been washed up to the north end of the bay at Tralong since the extreme storms of 2014. Lower pictures – closer views of the debris showing recognisable material including twigs and branches.

In November 2015 Michael Viney wrote a piece in the Irish Times on drowned forests in Galway Bay:

. . . All summer the quiet tides returned the sand that last winter’s storms had dragged offshore, heaping it even deeper over the old oaken wreck on the strand . . . Perhaps, though I hope not, this winter’s great mill wheels of waves will grind that deeply again. Storms two years ago tore away whole layers of sand and stone west of Spiddal in Galway Bay, uncovering stumps of ancient oak, pine and birch from a 7,000-year-old forest drowned as the sea rose after the end of the Ice Age. The same exceptional seas, on the north coast of Connemara, exposed remnants of human occupation a metre thick in the sand-cliff shore of Omey Island. There were medieval burials among them, and bog at least 6,000 years old . . . Elsewhere along the west coast yet more of the kitchen shell middens of early settlers, back to the late Mesolithic, were stripped away. So the sea reveals the past and then takes it away . . . Glimpses of Ireland’s lost shores and drowned forests are not new. Pinewoods submerged off the Bray coast were described by Robert Lloyd Praeger at the end of the 19th century when construction of Bray harbour changed sediment flows and piles of collapsed trees appeared above the sand . . .

Ancient forests reappeared again in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 2001, and more were revealed recently – in 2017. The Irish Times reported earlier this year on a project to discover “the lost landscapes” of the Irish Sea

Tralong Beach will change again, as the weather patterns vary, and it may not always be possible to experience the drowned landscape here. It’s an unmissable journey into deep history.

With many thanks to Robin Lewando for introducing us to this site, and to Anthony Beese for providing additional material

A Hare’s Tale

A country for hares . . . The idyllic landscape that surrounds us is a haven for Nature in all her moods and varieties, including the human intervention of agriculture (above). Regular non-human visitors to our garden at Nead an Iolair which is, after all, just a slightly tamed piece of the natural landscape, provide a constant source of interest and entertainment, as we have demonstrated in previous posts, including this one.

This summer of 2018 has been exceptionally dry – our usually green sward, and the view beyond (above), turned the colour of straw instead of verdant green. When the rains started a couple of weeks ago it didn’t take long for things to get back to normal (below), and the fresh green shoots of grass attracted an unusual, but most welcome, visitor.

Here he is: Berehert the Hare. He’s young, probably about half adult size, but completely independent. Leverets are born fully developed – furred with open eyes, and lead a mainly solitary life. Hares can run faster than any other European land mammal – an amazing 37 body lengths a second. For comparison, Cheetahs can only manage 23 body lengths per second. It’s their speed that can keep them safe: they can easily outrun a single greyhound but, unfortunately, humankind makes the odds most unfair by setting two or more dogs against them in hunting and coursing which, unbelievably, are legal in Ireland, even though the conservation prospects of the Irish Hare are considered ‘very poor’ under the Berne Convention and EU Directive 92/43 Annex V see page 104. There have been attempts to change this bizarre situation – so far unsuccessful: you might like to tackle your own TD next time there’s an election coming up.

Berehert (have a look here to see where his name comes from) stayed around our garden for three days, and this provided an unprecedented opportunity (for me, anyway) to closely observe the animal’s characteristics and behaviour. In the picture above, where he’s looking a little glum on our terrace in the rain, you can see his wonderful russet colouring and his very long legs, particularly the hind ones. These enable him to take great leaps – fully grown he can jump four and a half metres from a standing start in any direction. This is another protection mechanism: if a hare is approached or surrounded by predators – usually dogs – he’ll wait until they close in on him and then jump that distance and run off. The dogs, which rely on scent more than sight, are completely confused and by the time they sort out where he’s gone, he has (hopefully) vanished.

Fortunately, Nead an Iolair’s resident greyhounds (which came with the house) wouldn’t be much use in the chase: they certainly didn’t seem to deter our visiting hare. Young Berehert did everything which was expected of him while I was watching. He allowed me to get quite close to him – and was perfectly aware that I was there, then suddenly he leapt up and was away, a gangly confusion of legs and ears. But he only went as far as the next patch of new green shoots. Here he is, nibbling away . . .

Hares are restless animals: they don’t stay in one place for very long, and it’s quite normal for them to range over 2km at a time when foraging. Berehert is still out there somewhere, and I’m hoping that he will revisit us occasionally. I’d rather not dwell on the fairly short average life span of hares in the wild (four to nine years) and the fact that only one in five leverets survives their first year. For our continuing education in the natural world of wild West Cork we will have to rely on our more regular and stable visitors: Finnbarr the Pheasant’s family and the myriad of small birds who populate our feeders, not to mention the wide variety of insect life and, in these shortening evenings, the colony of Common Pipistrelle Bats who are busily out hunting: if you think you don’t like bats, just bear in mind that each one can eat around 3,500 small insects, such as midges, in one night.

Thank you, Finola, for all those excellent photographs of Berehert: not the easiest of animals to capture on film!