Lichens and Little Things in the Woods

The wonderful Ellen Hutchins Festival for 2019 has just finished – now in its fifth year and going from strength to strength in celebrating all the aspects of botany that Ellen practised. You can read about Ellen in my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. We participated again in 2016 and I wrote about our fascinating walk Into the Woods with Pádraig Whelan and Howard Fox.

This year there was the same wide variety of botany-related activities, including an impressive array of events for children. We attended (above) a talk by Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s GGG-Niece) about her life, with an emphasis on her letters and a talk on letter writing of the period by Carrie O’Flynn and then, last weekend, a Lichen Walk in beautiful Glengarriff Woods (first photograph, top).  Been there yet? If not, you’re missing a real treat.

The focus of the walk was lichen of course (apparently it is acceptable to say lyken or litchen so take your pick) with Paul Whelan (above). Paul has a website at Lichens of Ireland which seems to be down for maintenance, but there’s another one, Irish Lichens, run by Jenny Seawright, which I’ve been using and finding easy to follow, especially for a neophyte like me. But even though the subject was lichens, once you enter the woods it’s easy to get distracted by other things, so for me the day was as much about the insects and flowers that we saw (sorry, Paul) on our short, but incredibly rich, walk.

What are these people doing? This is how close you have to get, with a hand lens, to see the tiny patches of lichen on the rocks of the bridge

So what is a lichen? It’s a fungus, but one that works with another organism (usually green algae but sometimes a cyanobacteria) to produce something neither can do on their own. Since lichens can’t photosynthesise, they depend on the other organism to do that. The fungus contributes by consuming dead matter and this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship is called symbiotic.

And this is what we were seeing

The lichen body is called a thallus, and it produces spores (which is how it reproduces) through an apothecium (which looks like a tiny cup) or a perithecium (which looks like a tiny volcano). We saw mostly lichen with perithecia on our walk, some of which were just tiny black dots.

We also saw some foliose lichens – leaf like things such as the one immediately above, although you had to get very close with a hand lens to even see the leafy structures of some of them. Others were bigger and more obvious – these Usnea lichens (below) are like tiny bonsai leafless trees and attach to rocks and trees by a single contact point.

I had already written (in my post Miniature World) about the Cladonia Lichen such as the Devil’s Matchstick, and now that I know a bit more about lichens I’ve been browsing around our own garden and I found some on a rock wall (below) – not only Devil’s Matchsticks but the ones called Pixie Cups as well.

And the ‘other things’ on the walk? Clare Heardman from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who seems to know about the whole gamut of wild organisms, was excited to see a fly land on Robert’s back. No ordinary fly, it turns out, but a Dark Giant Horse Fly (Tabanus sudeticus) – the largest and heaviest fly in Europe! We know it’s a female by the space between her eyes (males have no space) and it’s the female that bites and sucks your blood. One source I consulted says: Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, horse flies have mandibles like tiny serrated scimitars, which they use to rip and slice flesh apart. Charming, but fortunately she flew away before inflicting that on Robert.

Nearby, another fly was feeding on some Ling Heather, this time a hoverfly. Trying to identify hoverflies is a head wreck, there are so many different types, but I think this one is called parasyrphus lineola, one of the little forest hoverflies that like a conifer environment. Hoverflies are next to bees in importance as pollinators – it’s not that they carry as much pollen, but they are so busy and make so many visits to flowers that they do a sterling job. They also keep aphid populations under control.

You can see the dusting of pollen on this hoverfly

When we arrived at the pond Paul showed us the Usnea lichens – one tree over the water was entirely decorated with them, although they also like to grow on rocks as well. They belong to the Fruticose Lichens and on his website he describes them thus: Fruticose lichen appear tufted and shrubby and are usually erect or pendant and attached to the substrate at a single point. Filamentous lichen are soft and hair-like and some form felt-like mats comprised of very fine filaments.

The pond itself was alive with water striders, amazing little creatures that walk on water. A little Googling led me to this short video about how exactly they accomplish this, and what they live on (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).

As I was watching them, my eye was caught by a flash of brilliant blue and down came a damselfly to rest on one of the long reeds overhanging the pond. It was the aptly named Beautiful Demoiselle and a male, which has the striking metallic blue colour. This reed was its perch, from which it guarded its territory and kept an eye on passing edible insects, leaving it to chase them and then return. (There’s a good Wikipedia page on them.)

It was a great walk, all in all, and we can’t now go anywhere without checking out our surroundings for lichen. On a walk on Long Island yesterday I was attracted to the patches of bright orange and white lichen on the rocks. Here’s what I saw, at a distance and close up:

I was also delighted to see heather and lichen growing on one rock surface, and very attractive it looked together. The lichen might be one of the Cladonias, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

My previous feelings for lichen were all negative, since they obscure rock art and headstones, but now – have we caught the lichen bug? I hope not, since it already takes me an hour to walk around the block, stopping to look at flowers. What do you think, Dear Reader – is there any hope for us?

 

Mizening

What do you do when a fine day dawns and you want something totally relaxing? You go Mizening, of course! OK, it’s not a real word, but it should be – for the act of wandering at will around our wonderful peninsula.

We’ve been tied up a lot lately with the West Cork History Festival – it was a great success, by the way, with a wide variety of speakers and topics. We really enjoyed leading two of the field trips, including one that involved much dodging rain showers. But now it’s time to get back to our true avocation – meandering lazily around our own patch of heaven.

So what follows is a record of a blissful day on the Mizen, doing not much of anything, drinking coffee, visiting new friends, observing the wildlife, popping into the Blue House Gallery – well, you get the picture.

Those new friends? Judi and Pete Whitton, both artists, with a home and Gallery near Schull. Judi and I felt we knew each other already although we had never met in person, just through the wonders of the internet. She has a gorgeous show, Easel in the Ditch, running at the moment (follow the signs from Lowertown) – we were bowled over by her beautiful watercolours.

Above – Newcourt Bridge – Judi had seen my post on this ‘hidden wonder’ of West Cork and had to paint it

Then it was off for a walk in the countryside. You think you’ve been down all the little roads before, but there are always surprises.

Cobwebs in an abandoned church

It’s August now and many of the flowers have finished blooming, but others have come along to take over and the boreens are still a delight.

We’ve had an invasion of Painted Lady butterflies. Normally, this is a phenomenon that happens once a decade, but it’s starting to happen more often now, and scientists feel it may be down to general climate warming. The butterflies are especially attracted to the Knapweed, which is abundant, although they have to compete with the bees for it.

We were seeing lots of dragonflies too, although they wouldn’t stay still enough to allow a photograph – I finally snuck up on this one (above, both images), which it turns out is a Ruddy Darter. Well named!

After more obligatory wildflower photography (example above, Eyebright), we dropped into Schull to see the latest Exhibition at the Blue House Gallery. Titled cleverly Blau Haus/Bauhaus, the downstairs show is based on the Bauhaus, the German arts, crafts and design school, founded a hundred years ago, that dragged us all into the twentieth century, .

A tiny taster of the Bauhaus-inspired pieces above – a detail from a tall fused glass and bronze collaboration by Angela Brady and Holger Lönze, and a teapot by David Seeger

Upstairs was an entirely different show – The Drawn Line, curated by Catherine Weld. I was particularly taken with this line drawing by Christina Todesco-Kelly, titled simply Satchel.

A lovely day! I did mention coffee, so I will end with a detail from Judi Whitton’s portrayal of our favourite local, place to get coffee (or lunch or dinner!) – Budd’s of Ballydehob. It captures so well what Mizening is all about and it’s the first thing we see as we approach Ballydehob from Nead an Iolair.

 

Heir Island – a Modern Paradise

You know that term, Island Paradise? Well, this week I went there. It’s called Heir Island, and it’s one of the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. It was the first of many visits, I hope, and it was taken in the good company of Trish Punch and two Islanders, Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews.

This is the view of Heir Island from our own home – the grouping of houses behind the sandy beach is called Paris!

Heir (sometimes rendered as Hare) is Inis Ui’Drisceoil in Irish, and indeed it was very much part of the O’Driscoll territory up to the 1600s. The population has dwindled, along with that of all the islands, until now there are only about 20 permanent residents. But it’s a popular destination in the summer, with an active sailing school, a renowned restaurant (the Island Cottage) and of course the Bread-Making School that Robert and I attended and enjoyed enormously.

It’s got wonderful peaceful boreens, picturesque cottages, panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and to the other islands, golden beaches – all this and it’s only a four minute ferry ride to the mainland. But shush – don’t tell anyone else or they’ll all want to come.

Trish is doing a long-term photographic project focusing on the islands of the Wild Atlantic Way and was keen to get back to Heir to capture the views. I had been following a Facebook Page called Heir Island Wildlife Project and had contacted Christine and Sarah, two of the admins on that page, to see if they would meet us when we came and tell us a little about their project. They did better than that, walking the length of the Island with us, and answering all our questions. (Not to mention the coffee and those Portuguese buns!)

I had boned up a little on the island plants, with the help of The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork by John Akeroyd et al, a publication of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that we had visited way back. The book outlines the habitats and growing conditions of the islands, and enumerates the “astonishing” richness of plant species that are to be found on them. Heir is second only to Sherkin in the number of Flowers and ferns to be found, several of which are nationally rare.

The islands ‘specialise’ in heathland species, due to the dominance of open ground, the lack of trees and the broken rocky nature of the terrain. As Akeroyd explains, Thin soils dry out during the summer, thus preventing encroachment by more vigorous species and allowing the plants themselves to die down and the seeds to ripen. Most of this group of plants are annuals more characteristic of southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. . . 

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And indeed what I found was an astonishing variety of wildflowers. When I got home I counted that I had taken photographs of 45 different plants! But that was only part of the wildflowers we saw, since I didn’t photograph everything we came across. Several were new to me, including the Amphibious Bistort and the Pond Water-crowfoot that had arrived unbidden in Sarah’s newly-dug pond.

Butterflies, hover flies and bumble bees seemed to be everywhere we looked. The orange-tip butterfly (the one that loves the Cuckooflower) wouldn’t stay still enough for a snap, but a Common Blue Butterfly with its iridescent wings, and a Cinnabar moth with bold stripes both cooperated.

At the West end of the Island rugged cliffs provide a perfect breeding ground for European Shags. These birds have been amber-listed in Ireland because breeding populations are very localised. Therefore, it’s important that they have found a suitable nesting site on Heir and it’s wonderful to see that this small colony seems to be successfully hatching their young. Looking quite like a cormorant and similar in size, up close they have a striking green gloss to their feathers.

The headland from which we observed the shags provided a carpet of spring heath on which to loll about and admire the views across the Cape Clear and the Mainland. My eyes were immediately drawn down, however, to the ground beneath me. Orchids, Wild Thyme, Thrift, Lousewort, and a beautiful rose-coloured Kidney Vetch provided swaths of pink and purple, while Milkwort and Dog-violet yielded hint of blue and Scurvygrass (Common, I think) rounded it all out with a mat of white flowers.

I didn’t find (or didn’t recognise) some of the very rare plants that grow on these islands, like Wormwood, Deptford Pinks and Spotted Rockrose. Obviously another expedition is called for!

I worry all the time about habitat loss in West Cork. The sound of the rock breaker is a constant in our lives, carving out new fields where there was heath and hedge, and thereby reducing food and shelter for our pollinators and small mammals. I feel despair when I arrive at my favourite place to see a certain set of wildflowers, only to find that someone has been in there with Roundup and it’s now a brown wasteland. Places like Heir Island have a unique opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to stay as pristine as possible, to remain an Island Paradise as long as possible for all our sakes. Fortunately, lots of the local residents think so too and that make me hopeful.

A glimpse into Christine’s studio – her exhibitions are always eagerly anticipated locally

Thank you, Sarah and Christine for a wonderful day, and Trish for your excellent company. Let’s do it again soon!

Ballyfin Bliss

If the house at Ballyfin is beyond superb (see Robert’s post this week), the grounds are equally so. Originally based on the design philosophies of Capability Brown, the emphasis is on natural and sweeping vistas, pleasure gardens, mixtures of open lawn and woodlands, tea-houses and follies artfully dotted around, an expansive lake with an island and with lawns leading down to the edge, and of course a long winding driveway that eventually reveals the best view of the house.

Somehow all these landscape features have survived intact at Ballyfin, although some of them needed to be rediscovered or uncovered. What has been added is a masterpiece of both enhancement and restraint, and the genius behind that is Jim Reynolds, the Managing Director of the enterprise that is Ballyfin Demesne. Jim and I share a past in Boyne Valley Archaeology, although we were in different camps (that’s another story) and I visited his famous garden, The Butterstream in Meath, with my mother in the early 90s. That was the last time I saw him until this week. Genial and self-effacing, he gives credit to his marvellous team, while they, to a person, talk about his eye, his vision, his expansive knowledge and his drive.

We spent two days walking, riding (in a horse and carriage) and driving (in a golf cart) around the estate, and we still haven’t seen all of its 640 acres. Entrancing is the word that keeps coming to me. It’s spring still (late this year) and the woods are awash in bluebells, mixed with Ramsons, Herb Robert and Greater Celandine.

The extensive trail system takes you around the lake and into the old-growth woods, where chestnuts and oak trees shelter vast swathes of colourful undergrowth.

The path meanders past the Grotto (every house should have one) which is not your typical Irish Lourdes shrine, but a rustic construction created to convey a sense of ancient ‘druidic’ mystery. Impressing and amusing your guests was important and grottos, temples and such like were a vital element of 18th century pleasure gardens.

When it comes to follies, the jewel in the crown at Ballyfin is the Round Tower. It looks old because it was built that way, as a ruin. They say that from the top you can see 16 counties. It’s a pleasant thing, as a couple of our fellow-guests did, to take a book up to the little room at the top and while away an hour or two before wandering back down to the house for coffee and a scone, mid-morning.

Jim and his team’s commitment to wild flowers and to pollinators is everywhere in evidence. The meadows are only cut once a year and as a result they are alive with the hum of bees and the flash of butterflies. Even the formal and kitchen gardens have areas set aside to attract pollinators.

As seems inevitable in Ireland nowadays, we also saw Japanese Knotweed on the demesne. Robert Pywell, the head gardener, told us that the rock garden was originally hidden under an acre of Knotweed. Only constant spraying/injection can address a Knotweed problem, and the program is ongoing for this invasive and persistent species.

He told us about another pest too – Ireland has a mink problem. Originally imported from North America for the purpose of fur farming, several hundred mink were “liberated” by animal rights activists in a nearby county years ago. Others have escaped, or been released by fur farmers over the years. They have no predators in Ireland and they are ferocious killers of ducks, swans, fish, rabbits and small mammals. They have decimated the waterfowl population at Ballyfin. Trapping them is difficult, but it has to be done. Lady Coote would approve – she loved her peacocks and built an aviary for them (above) that was, as our driver said, better than some of the houses round about.

Back to that rock garden (above) – once it was salvaged it turned out to be a glorious addition to the demesne. Built around an old millstream and pond, it hosts some delightful plants. A new one for me was Saxifraga Cymbalaria (sometimes called Celandine Saxifrage), which is not native and only known in a few places in Ireland. It obviously loves the rockery as it is flourishing and providing an attractive yellow ground cover.

Beautiful as this designed landscape was, once fully restored, something was missing and Jim Reynold’s unerring eye for detail knew exactly what was needed. What he did was to build a cascade down the back lawn, from an ornamental temple at the top to a Neptune pond at the bottom. It is the perfect finishing touch and has quickly become an iconic aspect of Ballyfin’s landscaping.

We loved our break at Ballyfin. Special treats such as this don’t come around often in the normal course of life, so we are grateful that we can enjoy the odd sortie such as this now and then. It was such a privilege to be able to appreciate the incredible work that has gone into restoring this house to its former glory and the wonderful staff that looks after it (and looked after us!) so proudly.

Thank you, Ballyfin!

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

The Wild Side

Tortoiseshell

Up here in Nead an Iolair, in the townland of Cappaghglass, we luxuriate in the nature all around us. Our house was built in the 1980s on a piece of land which had belonged to the successors of the mining company – the copper mines were active for a few generations in the 19th century both here and on Horse Island, just across the water. The post-industrial landscape which surrounds us is alive: small, stone-enclosed fields are grazed by cattle, ponies and a few goats while in equal measure are large tracts of gorse, heather and rock. Here and there are the remains of the mine workings – a stump of a chimney, fenced-off and walled shafts, quarries, ruined workshops and cottages: the architecture of abandonment.

horse on horizon

Nick's Goat

nead birds

It seems to me that our house interrupts nature, with our lawns, our haggard, stone terrace, hedges and fences, but nature is well able to adapt and cope. Of course, we encourage this: we enthusiastically nurture all the little birds that visit our feeders – and the big ones: rooks, pheasants, magpies: they all get their share. And there are those that don’t come to the feeders but nevertheless forage the land – choughs (which perch on our roof and shout out their names – cheough – cheough… before flying off to give us an endless and entertaining display of dizzying acrobatics), starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and – always on a Sunday – Spiro the sparrowhawk who unsuccessfully dive-bombs the feeder, scattering – but never catching – the small birds. After the effort he rests on one leg on the low terrace wall and stares thoughtfully out to the Cove.

Can YOU see it?

Chough on the post

Spiro

From The Galleries

Michael, whose family has farmed the fields around us for generations, tells us that the land above us is known as The Galleries – possibly because there is such a spectacular view to be had from these fields to Rossbrin below us and to the islands of Roaringwater Bay beyond. The Cove itself is a paradise for the waders, especially at low tide, and for crustaceous life in the rock pools.

Muddy shanks

Curved beak

All around are the hedgerows that, in the spring, summer and autumn, support a wealth of wildflowers. In turn these are the haunt of nectar-seeking insects, especially bees and butterflies.

We are visited by four-legged mammals in all shapes and sizes: I’m pleased to see some of the decimated rabbit population returning after a recurrence of myxomatosis these past couple of years. We don’t get hares in the immediate neighbourhood: they seldom mix with the smaller Leporidae, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of them from the road that goes down to the village. Rats, mice and shrews are never far away, but are kept under control by our larger visitors – feral cats and foxes. Our own Ferdia has gone from us during this past year – he was an ancient fox who had made a pact with the human world: I’ll sit picturesquely on your terrace and entertain you provided you keep the food scraps coming – we did, of course. His descendants make fleeting visits, passing through but, as yet, never pausing to make our acquaintance.

Ferdia's Eyes

Bunny eyes a daisy

When it comes to observation of the natural world there’s never a dull moment here. We are fortunate that some globally threatened species seem to thrive around us – curlews can always be seen by the water, for example. The small birds crowd in, especially when I refill the feeders: sometimes we have to fight our way through the melee when we want to go out. It’s a great way to live, and a great place to live in. Thank you, Mother Nature.

RH and friend

Photographs (from the top down): Tortoiseshell butterfly; Cappaghglass field; Nick’s goat; Nead an Iolair with starlings; greenfinches; chough on our gatepost; Spiro the sparrowhawk; view across Roaringwater Bay from The Galleries; muddy shanks; curlew in the Cove; 2 x bees; Ferdia the fox; rabbit; Nead bird feeder with goldfinches, greenfinch, bluetits and great tit – and pheasant; Robert and friends; heron hairdo. Grateful thanks to Finola for many of these pics

Heron Mullet