Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear

Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners

 Yesterday we did our favourite walk, along the Cahergal section of the Sheep’s Head Way. We had a goal – the remnants of the Gortavallig Mining Company which operated here briefly in the 1840s. Robert was researching this as part of all the West Cork/Cornwall connections related to the West Meets West Art Exhibition, which opens at Uillinn in Skibbereen next Friday (June 2).

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, by Amanda Clarke, is our go-to book for everything on the Sheep’s Head. It’s an excellent resource and most of the information in this post comes from it. The stretch of the walk we did is described in two sections (as it’s part of the Way and also part of a loop walk), on pages 27 to 31, and pages 98-99 (Second Edition).

It was a fabulous day, sunny but not too hot – perfect for walking. The wildflowers were out in abundance – a serious hindrance to brisk walking as I cannot resist the temptation to photograph. At one point Robert thought he had lost me, but found me stretched out on the ground trying to get a close up of the tiny, exquisite, Heath Milkwort.

Later on, this hillside with be awash with pink Heather, but now the Foxgloves are everywhere, in all their purple glory, while Tormentil and Lousewort peep out from the among the grasses and heather.

Tormentil, above and Lousewort, below

This was once a populated part of the world and there’s a tiny abandoned settlement known as Crimea. This may be a reference to an ongoing feud between families, or a corruption of an Irish place name. There’s no denying the dramatic scenery, but life must have been very hard indeed. A cluster of houses like this was known as a clachán (kla-hawn) – the land was held in common by the inhabitants, with each family having a potato patch and the rest being for grazing and whatever crops would grow.

The Crimea: Tade Carthy’s cottage in the foreground

One of the houses has been recently partially restored. According to Amanda:

It was done partly to show people what living conditions were like not so long ago, and in part to honour the last surviving occupant of the Crimea, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Jerh (Jack Owen) Daly grew up in one of these cabins which were family homes until the late 1940s.

This old house belonged to Tade Carthy’s family and has been sensitively restored, the original flagstones and well discovered whilst working on it, Inside there is no fireplace but an open hearth built against the wall with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Doors positioned east and west allowed a through draught to also deal with the smoke. Little oil lamps fitted into niches provided additional lighting and a bed platform gave extra space for sleeping.

The recently re-discovered well

It was from this clachán, and from all over the Sheep’s Head, that local people trekked, during the height of the famine, to the mine. They also built the road, for which they were paid in food, rather than money.

Approaching the 1840s mine – the reservoir is in the foreground and the Cornish Miners cottages on the far side of the cliff

Amanda quotes from the Report of the Gurtvallig Mine, by William Thomas, June 1847:

A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which for the past age has been the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and the Wild Sea Birds, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving reproductive employment, food and a comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peaceable inhabitants of one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom. For you can hear now, on our well secured dressing floor (mingled with the roar of the Atlantic) the busy voices of men, women, boys and girls, all engaged in breaking, dressing and preparing the ore for market.

Ten or eleven small houses stood here to house the specialist miners recruited from Cornwall

The mine was an actually an outpost of Cornwall in Ireland. The two Mine Captains, William Thomas and James Bennett, were Cornish, and the miners – 24 of them – had been recruited in Cornwall. A row of houses was built to house them, while the Captains had more comfortable quarters in nearby Cove (a story for another day).

A retaining wall was build to hold the reservoir

It was a busy place during its short life (it close in 1848 after only a year of full operation), with a forge, a carpenters shop, a reservoir, and below, a dressing floor and a quay to transport the ore.

Now the reservoir is home to floating water-lilies, a native plant that was in full bloom yesterday and looking indescribably exotic. The tiny quay has disappeared, but its location can be glimpsed from the rope walk. This part of the hike is not for the faint of heart or vertigo-sufferers: the path is narrow, there’s a rope to hang on to one one side and on the other a yawning cliff falls dramatically away to the wild and roaring Atlantic described by William Thomas.

The rope walk and signage. The lowest photograph shows the location of the quay, reached by means of a steep path but no longer accessible

Our walk back, with the sun behind us, was splendid. To the north was Bantry Bay and beyond it is the remote and beautiful Beara Peninsula. I think I can safely say that this will remain our favourite walk – at least until we discover one even more remote, scenic, historic and thrilling. But then, that’s not difficult in West Cork.

A Wildflower Trail for West Cork

Wildflowers are a spectacular part of our environmental heritage in West Cork. Many of us are aware of them in the background, although we couldn’t name more than half a dozen. It’s only when visitors come along and swoon over the abundance of colour in the hedges that we realise what an incredible natural resource we have on our doorstep. We have a little patch of bog beside us, for example, and a few days ago Bog Cotton and Bog Bean (above) were merrily blooming side by side there. I had never realised how attractive they were until I lingered for close observation. 

St Patrick’s Cabbage is part of the Lusitanian Flora we wrote about in our post Into the Woods. It grows abundantly on the North Side of the Mizen.

We at Roaringwater Journal are exceptionally pleased to have been involved with developing West Cork’s first ever Wildflower Trail System – it launches this Tuesday, but it’s been a while in the planning. The Trail System and its associated brochure is an educative tool that helps us appreciate and learn more about the wildflowers that surround us.

These little beauties are called Mexican Fleabane, but also known as Wall Daisies. The opposite of lawn daisies, they go pink as they age, rather than when they emerge. They’re an introduced species but have naturalised widely. These ones are on the wall of the stream that runs through Drimoleague.

We are particularly happy to welcome Zoë Devlin to do the honours of launching the trails. When I first got interested in wildflowers our friend Amanda (yes, she of Holy Wells of Cork fame) gave me a copy of Zoë’s book, The Wildflowers of Ireland, and it instantly became my bible. It’s laid out by colour, you see, and then by form (four petals, five petals, round clusters, etc) so it’s easy to navigate and to find what you’re after. The illustrations are clear and there’s lots of information about each plant to help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Better still, there’s Zoë’s website. Because it’s constantly updated, it has even more flower species in it, and more information on each one – including herbal uses, folklore references, and details on whether it is native or alien. And finally, there’s her Facebook page where she posts news, recent finds or currently blooming flowers, using her own superb images.

This is Yarrow. I didn’t recognise it at first because I thought Yarrow was always white, but apparently it can be this colour too. In addition, it’s supposed to like dry ground, but this one was overhanging a stream

The Wildflower Trail builds on the fact that there is already a system of waymarked trails around Ballydehob and the Mizen. Robert wrote about the Fastnet Trails in our post Closer Encounters – Fastnet Trails, and I followed up with a two-part post on the Rossbrin Loop Trail, here and here.

Sea Campion, a native plant adapted to a coastal habitat. It often occurs in drifts.

Using the specially-designed brochure, walkers can identify wildflowers along their chosen trail, then return to the Tourist Office and add their finds to the Master List on the wall. The Tourist Centres at Ballydehob and Schull will have resources available to help them identify any other flowers they have found. If you can’t pick up a brochure, you can find a link to it here.

May belongs to the May Tree – AKA the Hawthorn or Whitethorn. Online forums this year reveal it has been an exceptional year for Hawthorn right across the country

To support the Trails we have started a new Facebook Page – Wildflowers of West Cork – where we will post updates and images of what’s in bloom and what to look out for. If you’re a Facebook user, head over and give us a Like and a Share.

Water Cress, seen on the Colla Road just beyond Schull. Wild Water Cress is edible but you have to be very careful where you gather it as it can be infected with parasites

Everyone is welcome to the Launch – 5PM at the Rossbrin Boatslip on Tuesday the 23rd – and to join Zoë afterwards on a Wildflower Walk. If you can’t make the launch, we hope you’ll go for a stroll along one of the trails soon, brochure in hand, and try your luck at identifying a few wildflowers. Our trails are spectacular right now and will only get better as the summer advances.

Herb Robert – I love those red stems and leaves as much as the little pink flower. Hard to believe there’s enough soil between those rocks to nourish a plant

But you don’t even need to walk a trail – in West Cork the wildflowers are everywhere. Here’s a photo taken right by Fields of Skibbereen – just look over the fence at the stream.

Red Valerian and yellow Monkeyflower. Both are introduced species but obviously right at home on the walls of the Caol Stream in Skibbereen

All the other images were taken in May, all in West Cork, and many of them in unpromising places such as waste ground, urban streams, old walls and rocky shores. Every day, we walk right by a wealth of beauty without really stopping to look.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed and Ivey-leaved Toadflax on the wall containing a stream in Drimoleague. Below in the water is Stream Water-crowfoot

Happy wildflowering! (Start by seeing how many kinds of flowers you can see in the image below – photo taken at Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head.)

We Welcome the Hope That They Bring

Sea Campion

The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,

Breathe promise of merry sunshine —

As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,

We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,

Of a summer of roses and wine,

Of a summer of roses and wine.

And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.*

We’re officially in spring now. Throughout April (an unusually dry one) our West Cork fields and boreens have been greening and sprouting. Every day on our walks we welcome old friends to the hedgebanks, or discover new ones.

The photographs in this post were all taken in April. Above is Bitter Vetch, and below is a fern unfolding – a particularly fascinating process, almost mathematical.

The quintessential flower that we all look forward to at this time of year is, of course, the bluebell. How it cheers the spirits when you spot the first one, and then begin to see them carpet the floor in shady places or old graveyards, or even climbing up along the hedgebanks, so that you are walking between blue walls.

They mix so beautifully too, with the bright yellows of first the celandine, and then later the buttercup, the white of the wild garlic, or the intense bright green of spurge.

About that wild garlic – in the post for March wildflowers I wrote that what we mostly have around here is the non-native three-cornered garlic. I have been on the hunt for our native species, called Ramsons and I finally spotted a huge patch, growing right along the main road between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, at the gates of New Court (I wrote about New Court in my post about belvederes). Robert pulled over, at great jeopardy to life and limb as it’s a busy corner, and out I leapt with my camera.

But what was this? Every leaf was covered in bird droppings – every single one! I realised that there is a rookery in the trees above: perhaps it is this that provides the fertiliser for the garlic. I certainly didn’t linger to explore further, as I could hear the gregarious cawing overhead. I’m still on the hunt for a clean patch!

It seems to be a very good year for Cuckooflower, also known as Lady’s Smock. Interestingly, the colour of the petals vary from almost white to a delicate purple, depending on the composition of the soil and other aspects of the habitat. Up to this year I had seen isolated examples of Cuckooflower (so called because their arrival coincided with that of the cuckoo) but this year there were Cuckooflower “blooms” in many fields. At first, you’d think they were just daisies, but once your eye was attuned to their shape, they seemed to be everywhere. This is great, as it’s an important larval food source for the Orange-Tip Butterfly – it lays its eggs on the underneath of the petals.

If March belongs to the Blackthorn, in April the Hawthorn (sometimes called Whitethorn around here, and May Tree elsewhere) gradually moves in and takes over. Suddenly the hedges are full of green trees loaded with showy white blossoms (the opposite of the Blackthorn, in which the blossoms come first and are over by the time the trees green up).

I found my first Thrift, or Sea Pinks, last month, but it’s in April that they become commonplace around the coast. I was delighted to find a patch down by the Ilen River at the very beginning of their blooming, and could see the stages they go through on their journey to the delightful pink flowers we all love.

At the very beginning of the month I was fortunate to participate in a walk with Éanna Ní Lámhna, well-known naturalist and a frequent speaker on topics related to wildlife on Irish radio and television. It was a great experience, as she spoke mostly about trees, about which I know little.

In the course of our marvellous walk I also observed several spurges, including this very rare example of a wood spurge. You just never know what you’ll find – this one was right outside a kindergarten!

There’s an exciting announcement about West Cork wildflowers coming soon! Stay tuned to this blog and all shall be revealed… Meanwhile, a few more flowers of April…

I featured Scarlet Pimpernel last month – this is his cousin, Yellow Pimpernel. On the right is Bilberry
Wavy Bittercress, found along the shore, consorting with thrift. On the right is Common Milkwort :it has a tiny white flower emerging from a deep blue one

Stream Water-crowfoot: at first I thought this was a weed choking a stream, but closer inspection revealed these lovely flowers

We’re not the only ones enjoying the bluebells

*OK, I know it dates me. It’s from The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan

Wild Atlantic Light – the West Cork Winter Edition

We are a maritime county and that affects our weather. It means that clouds are plentiful at all times of the year and that the weather can be highly variable and unpredictable. But the ocean, and the Gulf Stream it carries all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, also means that we have a slightly milder climate than the rest of Ireland. Beside the sea, the air is full of negative ions. That’s a good thing. Negative ions stimulate our senses and lead to a heightened sense of wellbeing.

Sure, we can have rainy days and bitter winds in the winter, but there are lots of sunny days too. When the sun shines in the winter, it is filtered through those drifting clouds to produce those marvellous effects of light and shade that lend such drama to the landscape.

In winter too, the colours are highly contrasting – the green of the fields change abruptly to the blondes and golds of the higher mountains. The bracken turns the colour of amber and the fionán grasses provide an expansive sea of rippling heath on higher ground. Snow caps the highest ridges, although it rarely descends to us mortals in the valleys.

Under a blue sky the sea in West Cork turns the colour of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. They tell me that has to do with having a sandy bottom and I am sure there are other scientific explanations, but really, you have to see it yourself to believe it.

Our underlying geology provides the ruggedness, the exposed sandstone ridges, and the deep coastal indentations that characterise the landscape.

The end result of it all – the sunshine, the clouds, the mountains, the sea, the contours and colours of the land – is the kind of light that artists dream of. The sheer clarity of it is startling – you can see from one end of the peninsula to the other in a way that city dwellers have forgotten it’s possible to do. That clarity brings out every hue and allows all the colours to sparkle against each other.

The photographs in this post were all taken in the first three months of 2017 – from the depths of winter to the first glimmerings of spring. We think you’ll agree that our Wild Atlantic Light is pretty special.

Even in the evening…

And especially when there’s a chunk of archaeology from our deep past in the landscape.