Miniature World

A bog seems at first like an unpromising site for photography but all it takes is getting close. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since bogs are wet places, but having arrived home sodden but exhilarated I’ve decided it’s definitely worth getting wet. My role model in this type of close observation is Tina Claffey, whose book, Tapestry of Light, and whose Facebook Page are constant sources of inspiration. Tina – thank you! We must be twin souls because like you I return again and again to the same patch of bog. Time loses meaning as I simply lie and let my eye tune in.

My little patch is quite close to my house and I described it in my post last year “The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks. It’s taken a while this spring for the Cappaghglass soak to wake up but it’s well and truly alive now so here’s what’s there already.

On the rocks

First of all, the soak is surrounded by heather and rock. Lying on the rock, with my face a few centimetres from the surface, I have become aware of the rich lichen growth all around me. I don’t know a lot about lichens but I have been studying this one (above and below) – Devil’s Matchstick.

It’s obvious how it got that name, and it’s sometimes also known as Nail Lichen too. It’s only about a centimetre high, about the length of my little fingernail. The Latin name is Cladonia floerkeana. In Ireland we get this bright red form of it, whereas in North America the tips are black.  The site I go to to learn about Lichens is http://www.irishlichens.ie. Here’s what they say about lichens on their home page:

Lichens are dual organisms; a fungus and one or more algae in a stable, mutually beneficial (symbiotic) partnership. The fungus provides structural form and protects the algae from extremes of light and temperature. Algae are capable of photosynthesis and some of the sugars produced provide the fungus with energy for growth and reproduction. Some lichens can live for many hundreds of years and being sensitive to pollution levels they are important environmental indicators.

There are several red-tipped lichens in the Cladonia group so I must look out for others. The trunk is described as squamulose which simply means scaly, at the bottom and becoming fruticose (or shrubby) as it grows. The stems are called podetia, and they are topped by the bright red apothecia. Yikes! Don’t think I’ll become a lichen expert in this lifetime.

And look at this one, that looks like a goblet – it’s another Cladonia but I don’t know which one. And lots of white lichen to boot. It’s a whole world down there on the rock, under our feet. 

Let’s move over to the the bog soak now and look at two things in particular. The first is the Sundew. At first I thought it wasn’t up yet, but as I got closer I realised that it was just emerging from the surrounding Sphagnum moss (the second thing).

Besides looking weirdly otherworldly, the Sundew is a clever little critter, well adapted to this habitat. It’s developed a special mechanism to ensure it gets the nutrition it needs, since there isn’t much in the bog. It traps insects on its little sticky hairs, then the leaf rolls rolls over and digests them.

You might not want to watch this video if you have a weak stomach

The sundew does have a little white flower, but it’s the leaves that are the centre of all the action on this plant. Our bog soak has the Round-leaved Sundew, which is more common in Ireland than the Oblong-leaved Sundew that you saw in the video.

A hapless ant is this Sundew’s meal

Finally, as I was nosing around (er, literally) among the Sphagnum, I saw that some of them had these little brown caps and I wondered what they were. It turns out that mosses propagate by means of spores, and the caps are little exploding spore capsules. When they blow, they fire the spores great distances.

Take a look at the spores exploding in slow motion – it’s quite a sight.

Some of the capsules in my little patch had exploded already – you can see the empty cup-like capsules in the photograph below – at the bottom of the picture..

Sphagnum itself is an amazing moss – we wouldn’t have bogs without it, as it’s what holds all the moisture. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council has an excellent information page on Sphagnum. It includes this:

A huge number of tiny microscopic plants and animals live with Sphagnum mosses. A few drops of water squeezed from wet Sphagnum contains hundreds of microscopic species such as desmids, diatoms, algae, cyanobacteria, amoebae, rhizopods, flagellates, ciliates, rotifers (wheel organisms), worms, nematodes (round worms), flat worms and heliozoans (sun animals). One scientist counted over 32,000 microscopic animals from a Sphagnum moss growing in a bog pool!

Now that’s a bit too miniature for my lens. I’m happy at the magnification I can achieve with my Lumix. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.

 

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

“The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks

Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and naturalist, might be called the patron saint of swamps. He was in love with them. I know how he feels. Hope and the future for me he said, are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swampsthe wildest and richest gardens that we have.

Top photo and above: Derreennatra Natural Heritage Area

Thoreau was talking about American swamps, but he could just as easily have been talking about an Irish bog, marsh, or wetland. I have two within easy walking distance of my home in West Cork and I am drawn to them like a magnet. One is tiny – a pond in the middle of a boggy area at the highest point in Foilnamuck townland. The other is more extensive – Derreennatra Bog, between Ballydehob and Schull.

Foilnamuck Bog Soak

A bog is a highly acid environment, and some plants, such as heathers, are specially adapted to deal with this habitat. The mineral-rich pools that form in the bog – technically known as bog soaks – are fed by groundwater and rain. Nutrients are more available in these patches of open water, they provide a less acidic environment and support a variety of plant life different from that of the surrounding bog.

Rare Slender Cottongrass on Derreennatra Bog – one of the reasons for its designation and protected status

Derreennatra Bog has been recognised as a very special habitat of the lowland bog type. It has been designated as a Natural Heritage Area and is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there are several reasons for its special status, the main one is that it is home to Slender Cottongrass, an extremely rare form of Bog Cotton that only grows in a few places in Ireland and Britain.

Marsh St John’s-wort, above and below, in its watery habitat

Derreennatra Bog has other uncommon species, but they are hard to photograph without a really good long lens. The one I did manage to get close to was Marsh St John’s-wort. I had to go back several times and wait until the flower opened before I could figure out what it was. It was worth the wait – a very beautiful native wildflower.

Another reason to hang out at Derreennatra Bog is that the lovely, native, White Water-lily flourishes here. It’s an exotic beauty that been here, apparently, since soon after the last ice-age.

The soak in the bog at Foilnamuck is far less extensive – just a tiny wet patch – but it’s reliably present all the time, probably because it’s bounded by a natural amphitheatre of slightly elevated rocky ground. Here is where I was able to photograph Bog Bean for the first time, although not without getting my feet wet. It’s a fascinating plant – it sits in the water and holds the flower head well above the surface. The flower heads are pink before they open but inside the petals are pure white and fringed with long hairs.

The “regular” Bog Cotton, more correctly called Common Cottongrass surrounds the little soak and mingles with the Bog Bean.

The other plant that loves the environment of this little soak is the Round-leaved Sundew. Sundews are carnivorous – the sticky liquid on its hairy round leaves trap unwary insects, which are then digested by the plant. It’s a marvellous adaptation to the lack of soil nutrients in its habitat.

The spikes carry the flowers, not yet open in this shot, but it’s the leaves that do all the work in this plant

The other flowers of the bog – the heathers and asphodels, the mosses and mints – are equally beautiful and interesting, but I will leave them for another day.

Trish Punch – remember the workshop day I spent with her? She’s gone from teacher to friend and she’s into the wildflowers, just like I am! 

Now so, why don’t you wander on over to your local bog/swamp/fen/marsh soak and see what you can see! Just don’t fall in!

 

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Tracking the Past

Guiding the oxen

Bogs are mysterious and dangerous places now, and they were even more so for our ancestors. The raised bogs of the midlands were laid down after the ice age and covered vast areas of land, creating difficulties and opportunities for prehistoric peoples.

Construction

The top photo and this one are of the imaginatively assembled diorama showing how the trackway was built

Turf cutters find things in bogs all the time – last year we wrote about the extensive field systems under the blanket bogs of the Ceide Fields of Mayo. Bog bodies are the most fascinating finds no doubt, but all kinds of organic materials can be preserved in the acidic and anaerobic environment of the bog.

Section and Pegs 2

A long section of trackway has been conserved and is on view in a climate-controlled room

In  Corlea, County Longford, what was found turned out to be the longest and largest Iron Age trackway ever discovered. It was excavated by Dr Barry Raftery in the late 80s/early 90s and a whole section of it is conserved and on display in an attractive visitor’s centre in Corlea, which is located exactly where the trackway was found. Noel Carbery was our guide on a recent visit and we couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic and knowledgeable person to answer our questions and show us around. 

Visitor Centre

Building the road was a massive undertaking and must have taken hundreds of people working together. Using dendrochronology to date the oak, archaeologists determined that the trackway was constructed in 148BC, placing it in the Iron Age. It is speculated that it provided a routeway from the Shannon to the royal inauguration site of Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon, allowing wheeled vehicles to cross the bog. We can picture warriors in their chariots and full regalia following a ceremonial way to some great feast at Cruachain.

The trackway was held in place by means of wooden stakes

Ironically, its very magnitude proved its undoing – it was so heavy it sank into the bog within ten years of being built. Oak planks were laid on runners, occasionally supported by additional brushwood, and fixed in place with stakes which served to peg the boards to the underlying peat and keep them from moving around. A layer of peat on top may have helped to even out the surface.

Infill

Gaps are filled in with branches and saplings of oak, ash or birch

The builders showed considerable skill in splitting the logs to form planks and in whittling the stakes and boring the sockets, using metal axes and adzes. Gaps were filled in with round saplings  and brushwood.

Woodworm?

Top left – 2000 year old silver birch bark, beautifully preserved. Top right – some shrinkage of the interior wood is visible. Below – is this woodworm?

The excavation and conservation was as large an effort as building the road. Once the planks were revealed they had to be kept dry, then immersed in special substances and freeze dried. Finally, they were returned to Corlea, to the new visitor centre where they are kept in climate-controlled conditions. Nevertheless, some deterioration is inevitable and on our visit we observed shrinkage of one runner away from its bark, and some signs of what looked like woodworm in one of the planks, indicating the difficult task of conserving two thousand year old timbers.

Chopping

There is lots of fascinating information at the Visitor Centre about other trackways (including some from much earlier) and about building methods. I particularly loved the little diorama that an artist had made showing the trackway under construction. We also learned a lot about the bog itself, which surrounds the Visitor Centre on all sides.

Modern Bog Trackway

Top – a modern bog trackway, in the form of narrow-gauge railway tracks. Below left – this bog is being ‘milled’ to provide fuel for a power station. Below right – a more traditional cutting to provide domestic fuel

The Corlea Trackway deserves to be much better known than it is. I highly recommend a visit if you’re anywhere close by – it’s not everyday you get to walk beside a 2000 year old royal road!

Home sweet home

Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.