Five years ago I wrote a piece about the incredible biodiversity that flourished along the Caol Stream, right in the middle of Skibbereen. At the time, the flood relief project was underway, and it wasn’t totally clear how much clearance of the vegetation would take place. I was optimistic, given the resilience of nature, that once things settled down, the wildflowers would once again creep in to populate the banks of the stream.
I am no longer optimistic that this will happen anytime soon, if at all. The photo above shows you what the same area is like now. So this post is an elegy for the missed opportunity that this project represented – the opportunity to balance the needs of the people of Skibbereen not to be flooded repeatedly, with the need to conserve our biodiversity.
Please click on this link to see the riches we have lost:
I have a new venture this year – an experimental foray into the world of Instagram. I’ve set up an Instagram page on the Wildflowers of West Cork. I’m using video, instead of photographs like the one above of St Patrick’s Cabbage.
I’ve been uploading short (less than 60 seconds) videos about the wildflowers I see around me here in West Cork. The video format is helpful, as it allows people to see better the size of the flowers. This is important, as photographs don’t always convey the relative size of what you should be training your eye to find.
I have chosen four of the videos to feature in this post. The flowers I include on the Instagram posts are mostly native, but I have also included non-native as well, such as garden escapes and invasive aliens that have the potential to be damaging to our native flowers by taking over their habitat.
I know many of you aren’t on Instagram, but if you are, take a look and follow the page if you like. I have tried to set up an automatic redirect also from Instagram to my Wildflowers of West Cork Facebook Page, but I have found it to be hit and miss – the videos don’t always show up on that page. I’ve done 70 videos this year and I am going to take a break now and start again next spring.
It’s been a very busy week! The best part about it was that my sister, Aoibhinn (pronounced Eeving), is visiting and she and I were able to do lots of things together. That’s her in the coral jacket, above. You see, she has ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and she was really nervous about her ability to participate in the activities I had booked or planned, or stay the course once on them.
Aoibhinn does really well at managing her condition, but she has to be very careful or she can end up in a major crash. She struggles with tiredness and pain all the time (sore joints, headaches) but finds that sea swimming helps her cope mentally, so she was up for one of the things we planned to do together, our Dawn Swim and Pilgrimage with Gormú. We met Conor and Celine, and two other participants at Castlehaven and started off by walking the short way up to the Holy Well, where we heard of St Barrahane. Readers may remember Conor from the Placenames post.
Next came the swim. While Aoibhinn opted for a short immersion, I surprised myself by swimming all the way to Faill Dic, with encouragement from Conor, and the lovely safety valve of a float if I needed it. Breakfast was so welcome – porridge, fruit and hot tea made by Celine and Conor (below) – while we listened to more stories, all set around the cove we were in. It was a fantastic experience – I highly recommend it!
The Ellen Hutchins Festival andHeritage Week are both in full swing this week, so there are any god’s amount of things to choose from. We concentrated on botany and butterflies during the week and ended with stained glass and history yesterday.
Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington and Nick Scott led us through the Glengarriff Woods. While this walk involves an uphill section, the pace is easy because it involves lots of stopping to talk about the plants we encounter along the way. We loved Nick’s descriptions of the forest environment, and all the layers that make up the plant life from the canopy down. And we were riveted by Micheline’s focus on the Arbutus (AKA the Strawberry Tree), a rare tree that occurs only here and in the Iberian Peninsula.
Micheline is investigating her theory that it may have come with the Bronze Age miners who came to exploit the rich copper resources of West Cork and Kerry. Her recent article in Archaeology Ireland sparked my interest and I was thrilled to be able to go along on this walk with her.
The photograph above illustrates the challenges in tracking Arbutus trees – they grow on cliffs and in inaccessible places.
Once again, although this walk involved picking our way through long grasses and scrambling over rocks, the pace was slow, with frequent stops to ooh and aah over butterflies and hear Damaris talk about their habitats and plant requirements. Some of the plants were so tiny that we had to see them through a hand lens to really appreciate them.
We had a rest day on Thursday, and on Friday it was time for Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2. This was the second production masterminded by Karen Minihan, based on the correspondence between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner. See Robert’s post from last year for an account of Seaweed and Sealing Wax 1. This year, we were joined by the poet, Laura McKenna and the botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. That’s Shevaun surrounded by audience members in the top photo of this post, while Laura is in the photo below.
While Karen and I led the audience through the letters, Laura read a selection of poems that responded to Ellen’s life and work, and Shevaun worked away on painting a piece of seaweed, explaining her process to the audience at one point.
At the end, Madeline Hutchins, Ellen’s great, great, grandniece, showed us some of Ellen’s books and letters. As with last year, we were under a tent in the grounds of Sea View House Hotel, right next door to where Ellen herself had lived in the opening years of the nineteenth century.
We finished the week with a trip to Timoleague, where I was booked to give two stained glass talks at the Church of the Ascension Open House. This is part of a huge community effort to save and safeguard the fabulous mosaics in this church and I am always thrilled to be a part of it. Take a look at this video by the Rev Kingsley Sutton, Touching Heritage, to get an excellent overview of the whole project.
The church is truly one of West Corks hidden gems, and the fund-raising effort needs all the help it can get. In between the talks, we were whisked off to lunch at a fabulous private house right on the sea. Nice work if you can get it!
So – it’s been an incredibly busy week of flowers, talks, and butterfly hunting (above) and I am feeling it now. But all of our activities were accessible to Aoibhinn, with time to rest in between, or go for a lovely dip locally. So – if there’s anybody out there who wonders if you would be able for a botany walk or a dawn swim and ‘pilgrimage’ – no need to be intimidated by a title or a description when the pace is leisurely and, as Aoibhinn found, there’s always a handy rock to sit down on for a while.
I had the great pleasure recently of spending a day in a bog – and because the bog had dried out completely it was indeed a rattlin’ bog, complete with the twig on the branch and the branch on the log…
It was an amazing place – there were several different habitats – waste ground, heath, meadow, woodland, marsh and finally a bog – except there had been so little rain that the whole bog had dried up and we were able to walk all over it. I had volunteered to help out our friends Robin and Sue Lewando with a small plant study of a defined area, while Robin collected samples from the lake for his own research. Afterwards, we spent a happy hour wandering through the dried-up bog, exclaiming over plants you can’t normally get close to and taking photos. Several were new to me – I had never seen Bur-reed or Yellow-cress before, or Star Sedge.
The slideshow is an amalgam of shots from the whole day. Here is the complete plant list, in the order in which you see them in the slideshow:
First three sides - waste ground with Foxglove, Sheep’s Bit, Cat’s-ear, Clover The Lake Slides 6 to 10 Marsh Cinquefoil (10 is Sue photgraphing the Marsh Cinquefoil 11 Compact Rush (?) 12 Soft Rush 13 to 15 Common Valerian (with Grypocoris stysi/Mirid Bug - thanks to Margaret Manning for the ID) 16 and 17 Heath Spotted-orchid 18 and 19 Marsh Bedstraw 20 - 22 Marsh Yellow-cress 23-25 Water-plantain 26 Water Forget-me-not 27 and 28 Water Forget-me-not and Spike-rush 29 and 30 Branched Bur-reed 31 and 32 Beaked Sedge 33 and 34 Marsh Speedwell 35 Bogbean 36 Robin 37 Star Sedge 38 Labyrinth Spider 39 Marsh Thistle, 7-Spot Ladybird and Bumble Bee
A weed is a wildflower whose name we haven’t learned yet, in the same way that a stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet. Like the hogweed above – a plant, by the way, that is in the top ten percent of the most nectar-rich and valuable-for-pollinator wild plants, a plant that is also edible by humans and animals – ‘weeds’ are plants we mostly love to hate.
Ah yes – weeds! Those wreckers of manicured lawns and tidy driveways. Those nasty undesirables that must be dug up or, as with the seldom-used holiday home above, Rounded-Up.
But wait – what’s this? All over Ireland people are letting the ‘weeds’ take over! Just look at this fabulous example at the Heron Gallery on the Sheep’s Head (above). It’s like we’ve had a mad rush of blood to the head and are changing life-long attitudes. What has caused this? Was it the pandemic, like we account for so many other changes in our lives?
Pollinators are in decline, with one-third of our 98 wild bee species threatened with extinction from the island of Ireland. The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.
Working together for Biodiversity: Tales from the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020
Each of us with any little patch of ground can do our bit too. All you have to do is set aside whatever portion of your garden you’re comfortable with (10%? 50%?) and turn it into a perennial wildflower patch. I’ve been doing this in my garden (above) now since 2017, so this is my 6th year. in 2018 I introduced Yellow Rattle from seeds bought from Sandro Cafolla at The National Wildflower Seed Collection. Called the meadow maker, Yellow Rattle (below) parasitises on grass roots, thinning them out and providing space for other wild seeds to take root. Apart from that, I have had to keep an eye on incursions of bracken and nettles.
The results have been all that I hoped for. Every day I am tempted out to my little mini-meadow with my camera. The rest of the lawn I try to leave as long as possible between cuts and it’s amazing what comes up there too. Take a look at my video, Lying in the Grass, for a sense of the sheer wonder and variety of what has appeared all over my One Acre.
The driveway and all around the house is gravelled and I have resisted the temptation to tidy it up in any way. In return, a huge variety of wildflowers have appeared – Groundsel and Pineapple-weed, Scarlet and Yellow Pimpernel, Silverweed, Cat’s-ear and Autumn Hawkbit, Germander and Thyme-leaved Speedwells, Herb-Robert and Keel-fruited Cornsalad, Dove’s-foot and Cut-leaved Crane’s-bills, Common and Bush Vetch, Sowthistles (Prickly and Smooth), Sheep’s-bit, Sorrels and Chamomile.
I even discovered a rare little plant popping up in my driveway – the gorgeous and curious Sharp-leaved Fluellen. According to the distribution maps it’s been slowly making its way west from Wexford over the years – but how on earth did it land in my driveway? It’s a mystery like that, that keeps me fascinated with wildflowers.
See what I did there? I named the ‘weeds’ – and naming something gives it presence and personality. Once you know the name, there’s a natural curiosity to know more about the plant itself and to keep an eye on it. Thus, they turn into old friends and your heart lifts as you watch a Painted Lady Butterfly feeding on the humble Knapweed, or a Bumble Bee hover over the vetch, choosing which blossom to settle on.
We need to adjust our notions of what’s beautiful if we are to avoid a biodiversity catastrophe. Each one of us can do something to help. If you want to grow your own perennial wildflower patch, there are simple steps you can take – see my posts on my One Acre (then, One Year on, Three Years on, and Four Years On) for what I have done, or follow the Guidance of the Pollinator Plan.
Here’s what NOT to do – don’t buy ‘Bee Bombs’ or packets of ‘wildflower mix’ seeds. As this excellent paper puts it: Wildflower seed mixtures do not help address biodiversity loss. Rather, they cause further disruption to what remains of the natural environment. Follow best practice – mow once a year and remove the cuttings, try to keep down nettles, dock and bracken (and Ragwort if it’s threatening to take over) – and then let it be. Every now and then, go lie down in the grass beside it and listen for buzzing.
For a wildflower enthusiast there is nothing better than a day spent with like-minded folk looking for interesting plants under the leadership of a true expert.
At this time of year the buttercups all over the dunes are actually Bulbous Buttercups – if you look under the flower head you will see that the sepals turn down away from the petals
I had the immense privilege of being included in a Rare Plant Monitoring Workshop on Friday the 13th – which also happened to be the day that Biodiversity Week kicked off in Ireland. As you probably all know by now, Nature is in crisis all across the world, and although we may be surrounded by lush hills and boreens in West Cork, there are ominous signs that all is not well with our natural world here as elsewhere. Fewer than ten percent of our native species in Ireland have been assessed for their conservations status – but of those that have been, one fifth (yes – one-fifth!) are at risk of extinction.
Sand Pansy – gorgeous little violas found on the dunes
That’s why counting plants is important – each one is part of the complex web of biodiversity that contribute to the health of our environment and the loss of even one can have knock-on effects on a whole cascade of others. I already monitor two rare plants for the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Vervaine and Calamint, so I have an insight into the kinds of threats rare plants can face, from mowing to herbicides to change of land use – all of those have happened to the small populations I monitor.
The location for this workshop was Barley Cove and Mizen Head. Having rendezvoused with Botanist Paul Green and NBDC Scientist Úna FitzPatrick (above, at Mizen Head) we set out across the dunes. I had met Paul before and so I knew that he is unfailingly generous about sharing his immense knowledge. Throughout the day we stopped frequently to exclaim over a plant that one or another of us spotted (like the Bulbous Buttercup) on the dunes or the rocks, and Paul always took the time to stop and educate us about each one.
Thus, along the way, I was introduced to several plants that were entirely new to me. Despite the fact that I have been to Barley Cove on numerous occasions, many of them spent lying in the grass on the dunes (see this post and the wildflower slideshow within it, for example), I had never seen Common Cornsalad (above) nor Early Forget-me-not (below) before Friday.
As our first rare plant, we were in search of Early Sand-grass, the kind of undistinguished little plant that you would walk over unthinkingly, but which is so rare that it only occurs here and in the Bull Island Nature Reserve in Dublin. That’s the distribution map below, courtesy of the BSBI.
Paul found it and we collectively traced its extent across the dunes. This is an area with much rabbit activity and Paul speculated that the bare patches of sand created by the busy bunnies was what had encourage or allowed the Sand-grass to colonise this area. It’s a complex issue – those Barley Cove Bunnies can be destructive to the dunes in some ways, but here we have an instance where their presence has been beneficial – one of those complex interactions that are so hard to predict.
Our next target was an orchid – the Green-winged Orchid. But, on the way, we found another Orchid – the Irish Marsh Orchid (below). It was beautiful and bold and instantly visible in the short grass on the dunes.
In contrast, we almost tripped over the Green-winged Orchid, which upon first glance looked spindly and unremarkable. This is one you have to get close to – can you see them in the grass, below?
Here’s what Zoe Devlin has to say about this flower:
Surely the most exquisite wild orchid in Ireland. . . Green-winged Orchid is a small, erect plant which grows to about 30cm tall in grassland and meadows where grazing occurs. It bears flowers, well separated, in short spikes and these flowers appear in several colours – from snow-white through pink and magenta to deep purple. The three sepals are purple-veined with strong, green lines and these sepals form a hood over a broad, downward folded lower lip which is three-lobed and heavily spotted at its white centre. There is also a stout, slightly-curved spur. These incredible flowers bloom from mid-April to mid-June. The leaves are shiny green, unspotted with the upper leaves sheathing the stem and the lower leaves forming a rosette.
Can you see all that in these photos? I’m not sure you can, which is one of the things that makes wildflower identification interesting – especially with a family like the orchids where there are quite a few that look similar until you really examine them.
There were more plants on the dunes – I was amazed to find Field Madder (above), which I always assumed was a plant of arable ground. One of the things we had to get used to was how tiny many of the plants on the dunes were compared to those that grow in less challenging environments – like miniature versions of themselves.
Then there was one of our target species, the Sea Stork’s-bill (above) – really, a flower that only its mother could love, but very rare in Ireland and therefore one of the plants that enable us to chart the conservation of its habitat.
We drove from Barley Cove around to the Holiday Park but were unable to do a count of the Slender Thistle. The land was being grazed by sheep and every access was blocked (above). So we contented ourselves with noting that currently it appears to be abundant, if very localised. I managed a distant shot of this fine head (below) showing the pink flowers but also how spiny it is.
Our final stop was Mizen Head, one of the very few places in Ireland (see map below and the Broom below that) where you can find Prostrate Broom (try saying that fast). This was another exercise in a different kind of counting, since the plant is on sea cliffs and behind fences at the Visitor Centre, so it has to be identified at a distance and the count is an educated estimate. Add in the fact that there are two other yellow flowers gaily blooming around it (Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil) and you get an idea of the challenge involved.
I have taken on the task of the Early Sea-Grass count. It may bloom as early as February or March, so I’ve made a calendar note to head out to the Dunes next year at that time. Another one of the participants, Damaris, and I will work together on our counts – it’s always more fun if you have a companion and probably more accurate too.
Thank you, Úna and Paul, for such a profoundly educational experience, that also managed to be great fun.
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