A Wildflower Year

2019 was a good year for the wildflower watcher. This January pine cone looks otherworldly, having lost the seeds along its length.

February – Alder Catkins

I run a Facebook Page called Wildflowers of West Cork. It’s on its winter break right now, but take a look at the photographs and you’ll see the amazing variety of flowers I have seen this year. For this post, I have chosen one photograph for each month that represents something for me about that month, or that brings back a memory of my year of wildflower observation. It’s a personal selection, a bit quirky perhaps.

January (first photo) and February (above) are all about the waiting, with hints of what’s to come peeping out every now and then.

March – Colt’s-foot

I was pleased to find these Colt’s-foot flowers in March, but not in West Cork. Although distribution maps show it as occurring here, I’ve actually not seen it here at all yet. Must look harder!

April – Early Dog-violet

I found this one in Kerry. You have to look closely to see the difference with the Common Dog-violet (which we have in abundance). Don’t worry – I didn’t pick it, I’m just holding it steady for the camera.

May – Yellow Rattle

I planted these myself from seeds ordered from Sandro Caffola at Design by Nature and I was thrilled to see them coming up, especially after a crowd of pigeons showed up to feast on the newly-sewn seeds. Yellow Rattle parasitises on grass, loosening the soil and creating bare patches. I’m trying to cultivate a wildflower meadow in one part of my garden and this is one of the recommended strategies for encouraging wild flowers to drift in and take root.

June – Bee Orchid

This is a spectacular and relatively rare native Orchid. Altar Church at Toormore on the Mizen was practising a Don’t Mow, Let it Grow philosophy in the spring and early summer, and all kinds of flowers were flourishing there, including this beauty.

July – Figwort

This is such an easy-to-overlook plant – the red flower is tiny and unobtrusive and it’s only when you see it silhouetted against the sky like this that you realise how exotic it is. The tallest one I’ve seen towered over me.

August – Yellow-horned Poppy

I had a wonderful day on Long Island in August with my friend Damaris Lysaght, helping her do the annual count of this Poppy population. It grows on shingle beaches, but only in occasional locations around the coast, so it was a real privilege to be involved in monitoring such an important species. I had failed to find the Poppy in May when I took a reconnaissance trip to Long Island so I was thrilled to be with Damaris, the expert, on this occasion.

September – Wild Clary

Watching Damaris, I realised I had a lot to learn about counting wildflowers so I signed up for a day long monitoring workshop conducted by the botanist Paul Green for the Biodiversity Data Centre. It took place near Youghal and this was one of the flowers we counted. I really enjoyed the day – observing wildflowers is normally a very solitary activity for me so it was wonderful to hang out with simpatico folks and talk wildflowers all day.

October – Flax

Once widely grown in Ireland for the linen industry, Flax now crops up here and there, often as a result of birds distributing seeds from feed mixes. We had walked cross-country to find a stone circle that day – I wasn’t expecting to see so much Flax in the final field, and wonder if it was sewn as part of a green manure mix.

November – Pixie-Cup Lichens

This was the year we discovered Lichens and Little Things in the Woods and ever since I’ve been keeping an eye out for them. I’ve discovered the rock faces in my own garden hosts quite a variety, including these tiny Cladonia that look like they’re ready for a fairy party.

December – Winter Heliotrope

Introduced into Ireland by Victorian beekeepers to provide winter nectar for bees, Winter Heliotrope has become invasive, covering the ground in large kidney-shaped leaves and leaving no room for native species. Nevertheless, they do introduce a welcome note of colour and scent in the depths of winter.

I leave you with another image from the Altar Graveyard – an Early Marsh Orchid (see comments below – I had mis-identified this as a Common Spotted Orchid – thanks, Paddy for, er, ‘spotting’ my error) growing in a sea of Bog Pimpernel. Here’s to another great year of Wildflower Watching!

Barley Cove: A Special Area of Conservation

Did you know that Barley Cove to Ballyrisode is a European Special Area of Conservation (SAC)? SACs are areas designated as particularly interesting or sensitive on account of their flora or fauna. There’s a complex assessment process carried out that looks at the species present in the area, how important or endangered they are, or how representative of a particular habitat. It’s all done by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the report on the Barley Cove area is online.

Barley Cove not only has an established dune system, but also a tidal wetland behind it. Because of the mild climate here, it has both Atlantic and Mediterranean Salt Meadows – that is, communities of plants that thrive in a salty environment on the edge of tidal shores. Some of those plants are quite rare and others are valued because they are diagnostic of a particular environment.

But it’s not isolated or unused – in fact during the summer it is one of the most popular swimming, dog-walking, picnicking, surfing and sea-gazing sites in West Cork. In the off-season, you can often have all this magnificence to yourself!

The fact that it’s so well used presents some challenges in conserving the habitat. Once, for example, there was quite an industrial level of sand removal at the Dunes, but that was stopped when it was realised how much damage it was doing. By and large, it’s encouraging that people do seem to respect the dunes – there is little evidence of litter.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges to the dunes is the enormous rabbit population. Rabbits burrow into the sand, creating extensive warrens which undermine the stability of the dunes. The evidence of the rabbits is everywhere – warren entrances and pellets – but the rabbits themselves are only glimpsed at night. Perhaps the dog walkers have encouraged them in their strictly nocturnal habits. But we do like the idea that the rabbits have a home here too.

Coastal heath surrounds Barley Cove. Characteristic of West Cork, it supports a wide variety of plant life, dominated by heathers and gorse, and lends our peninsula its background and ever-changing colours. There’s an artificial lake, Lissagriffin Lake, which is classed as a ‘brackish lagoon’ and which hosts a large expanse of rushes.

The whole thing is beautiful as well as special. Walking on the dunes is one of our favourite past-times, always with the camera in hand. The sheer variety of what grows here is a wonder, changing with the seasons. On a warm day you can just lie in one of the tiny dune amphitheatres and let your eye tune in to the multitude of flowers around you. Here’s a slideshow of some of what I have seen there.

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If you like music with your slideshows, start the audio below. It’s the Wild Rose of the Mountain and The Gentle Maiden by Eugene O’Donnell & James MacCafferty.

Next time you go to Barley Cove wander in from the beach and take a stroll through the dunes. Better still, sit for a while and see if you can see some of the flowers in the slideshow. Let us know how you did.

 

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.

 

Art in the Landscape

I’ve always thought of myself as someone without an artistic bone in her body – although when you say things like that people always rush in to assure you that everyone has the potential to tap into an artistic streak if they just let themselves be free enough. Harumph, I say. But today they proved me wrong.

The idea for a workshop grew from the Ballydehob Arts Museum planning group. Robert has written a lot about BAM and so our readers know that it is a celebration of the iconic era when artists of all kinds settled in Ballydehob and turned it into a thriving centre of creativity. What animated those early artists? By their own accounts, it was the landscape around them, the light, the natural world they found here in West Cork. So why not try something based on that idea – and so the Art in the Landscape Workshop idea was born and to everyone’s astonishment it filled up right away, with a waiting list.

The day (today) started with an introduction to the artists of BAM by Brian Lalor (above), writer and artist and BAM Curator, who talked about the motivations and inspirations of the original group of artists and showed us some of their work, their use of earth tones and natural images.

Then it was out into the landscape itself – and we didn’t have to go far! Ballydehob is really fortunate to have, right in the village, leafy little roads with walls and hedgebanks loaded with wild plants. The leaders for this part were myself and Toma McCullim, artist and educator. (I’ve written about Toma before and her wonderful project 110 Skibbereen Girls.) Turns out, Toma is a bit of a herbalist – she knew culinary or healthful uses for much of what we looked at, while I filled in the rest with wildflower identifications and background. We walked, we talked and we gathered.

We almost dodged the forecasted rain and when it came Marie resorted to a tried and tested bit of protection

After lunch came the printmaking. Toma had assured us all that even if we had never done anything like this before, by the end of the day we would all go home with something we were delighted with. And it was true! She walked us through a seemingly simple, but actually quite sophisticated printmaking technique and then set us to work.

It was really fun to see the creative juices flowing, as well as the laughter and the chat. Before long everyone was covered in colourful (and thankfully water-soluble) paint and prints were starting to appear.

Louise and her botanical print

Some people took a long time considering compositions and produced two or three: others got into the swing of the process and produced many. And Toma was right – we were all delighted with our finished products.

Upper, Bobbins and her positive print and lower, Elizabeth and her negative one. Below, Annie with her china blue 

Everybody chose one print to leave behind. Those prints will go on exhibition during Heritage Week, including the one I made. OK, it’s not actually a Work of Art, but it felt great to be able to produce something that I’m proud of by working with material I love. Thank you, Toma, Brian and all the workshoppers for a great experience!

Moments on Heir

You will often find us visiting the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. They are, after all, in full view of the panorama we see from our perch up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest), and easily accessible by regular ferry services. We like them because – who doesn’t enjoy a boat trip? Also, that little step from the mainland removes you to another world: places where life is lived a little differently, where you can feel slightly remote from the the most pressing issues of life, a little bit ‘on the edge’. Cape Clear, Sherkin, Long island – we have written about them all. And, today’s subject, Hare, or Heir: we have been there before but last week Finola was leading a wildflower walk on the island, and I went along for the ride, and a further exploration.

Colour on Heir: upper – Heir hedgerow, where wildflowers and garden escapees mix happily together; lower – Finola’s band of wildflower enthusiasts get caught up on the minutiae of the beach flora

It was a mixed, breezy day on the island, but dry for the group – two ferry loads and some furry four-footed minders to keep us all in order. Much time was spent poring over a myriad of plant species, some of which flourish on the West Cork islands more prolifically than on the mainland. I was interested in the land- and sea-scapes which changed quite dramatically with the movements of the tides.

Tides in and out: these two pictures near the wester end of Heir Island were taken within four minutes of each other!

A word about the island’s name: often seen on maps and signposts as ‘Hare Island’ (which of course makes my own long ears prick up!) it is supposed to have nothing to do with the animal. Today, the islanders will tell you that it derives from the past ownership of the lands by the O’Driscoll clan, and should be called Inis Uí Drisceoil (O’Driscoll Island) or Inis an Oidhre (Island of the inheritance – ie, of the O’Driscolls – or heir), hence the more usual modern name.

Yes, you can get pizzas and coffee on the island in the summer!

So is this island really a ‘Paradise’, as Finola called it in her earliest post? Undoubtedly! Away from the busy harbour it’s profoundly peaceful: bees, butterflies and wild birds are abundant. But it’s also haunted – as are the other islands of Roaringwater Bay. The past is always around you: reminders of a time when the population was far greater. The first official Irish census of 1841 showed a population of 358. The famine years caused fluctuations but in 1901 there were still 317 people living permanently on the island. Today this number has reduced to around 30 full-time residents, although there are many holiday homes on the island, and the summer population in present times can approach 150. This helps to support a cafe (above) and a restaurant (Island Cottage).

Island history: upper – Field of the Graveyard commemorates the burial of unbaptised children; lower – the Island School closed in 1976, when the resident population was around 50

Artist Christine Thery has been a full-time resident on the island for many years; her husband Gubby Williams helps with the ferry and has designed and built ‘Heir Island Sloops’. Christine is an active environmentalist and keenly involved in ensuring that Heir is sustainable and responsible in caring for its natural habitats; she was instrumental in organising Finola’s Wildflower Walk. Here is some of her work in her studio:

Heir is only a five minute ferry ride from Cunnamore Pier, yet the mainland seems a distant place once you are imbued with the innate atmosphere of island existence. The views from the north side of the island are dominated by Mount Gabriel, (pictures above). Five minutes – yet it seems such a step away from everyday life: long may beautiful Heir continue to support its fragile but tenacious resident population.

Wildflowers of a West Cork June – a Musical Treat

A few years ago I set out to record as many West Cork wildflowers as I can. This is the kind of project that lasts a lifetime and it seems important as our environment is threatened on so many fronts. But it’s also a complete pleasure to wander our beautiful boreens, camera in hand, capturing what I can. This month I want to share with you a selection of images, all local and all taken in June 2019. So sit back, turn on the music and just enjoy.

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One of our favourites pieces of music to go with the images – just click ‘start.’

Eyebright

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