World Wetlands Day: A West Cork Bog Soak

In honour of World Wetlands Day, which we celebrate on Feb 2 every year, here is a selection of beautiful, weird and wonderful native plants from one small bog soak in West Cork.

Bogs are unique environments, highly acidic and with low nutrients. Nevertheless, some plants have adapted to thrive in them. It’s important we safeguard these diminishing natural habitats.

One Acre – Three Years On

I’ve been documenting all the wildflowers on my acre in West Cork. I started three years ago with the first post, simply called One Acre and then updated it two years ago with One Acre – One Year On.

The only actual gardening I do is to maintain a herb bed. Apart from that, we get the grass cut and the hedges trimmed occasionally, and a great neighbourhood kid comes to do some very select ‘weeding’ where it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t really believe in the whole notion of ‘weeds’ but I reluctantly accept that we have to keep some areas clear.

Growing in the lawn, from the top: Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Self-heal, White Clover; Bog Pimpernel and Self-heal; Heath Speedwell; the spectacular male flowers of Sheep’s Sorrel

Apart from that I have two approaches. The first is driven by my desire to keep the place as non-manicured as possible and Robert’s desire to have it looking reasonably tidy, or at least not abandoned. This approach is to cut the grass as seldom as I can get away with, leaving all the lawn flowers to flourish in between the cuts. I also leave the boreen/right of way above the house uncut all summer, as this is where the Chamomile (below) grows most abundantly and as it’s getting rarer in Ireland I feel privileged to have it.

The second approach is to set aside part of the garden as a perennial wildflower meadow (below). In planning and maintaining this meadow I have followed best practise as laid out by various experts in creating pollinator-friendly spaces and I am delighted with the results.

I started with a grassy slope and simply didn’t cut it for the first summer. In the autumn I had it cut and thoroughly raked. This is an important step – if you leave the cutting in the grass it fertilises or enriches it, and what you want is soil that is as impoverished as possible.

Above, from the top: Oxeye Daisy; Field Wood-rush; Cat’s-ear

The following summer I just let it grow and it seemed to flourish with all sorts of grasses coming up, as well as Knapweed, Oxeye Daisies, thistles, Sheep’s-bit, Ribwort Plantain, White and Red Clover, Cat’s-ear, and lots of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.

Above, from the top: Red Clover; White Clover; Bird’s-foot Trefoil; Sheep’s-bit; A Painted Lady Butterfly and a Bumblebee on Knapweed

That autumn I had it cut and raked again but this time I introduced the only intervention that the meadow has received. Once the grass was cut and raked I broadcast Yellow Rattle seeds (bought from wildflowers.ie which guarantees to only sell native Irish seeds). Yellow Rattle (below) is a magical wildflower. It parasitises on the roots of the grasses, thinning them out and creating more bare patches where wild seeds can land and germinate. Although it does grow in the wild in West Cork it would be hard to find and harvest enough seed for my meadow.

We have lots of birds who visit our garden but I had never seen pigeons there until I sowed the Yellow Rattle. It was like a shout went out, and they descended in flocks, pecking away at all my precious seeds, with me inside banging on the windows or racing out to chase them away. I needn’t have worried too much – they left enough seeds to have a really good showing the following spring. They self-sow readily and I have now had two seasons of Yellow Rattle working away to reduce the tough grass roots.

Above: I still have lots of grass, of course – an amazing variety – and a vast extent of Ribwort Plantain

I said above this was the only intervention I have made in the meadow, but now that I think of it I have also dug out some large dock plants as it does tend to take over. I have since read that this may have been the wrong things to do as its almost impossible to get all the roots.

Above, from the top: Navelwort; Lady’s-mantle; Knapweed about to emerge; Common Ramping-fumitory; Common Milkwort

We have a gravel driveway, rock walls, a stone terrace with steps, and a small patch of trees and ivy and all provide habitat for wildflowers (above) that spring up unbidden from time to time, some welcome (like Corn Spurrey and the Sharp-leaved Fluellen which is an endangered species) and some not so welcome (like the Verbena bonariensis that is fast becoming a ‘possibly invasive’ species).

Above, from the top: Sharp-leaved Fluellen; Verbena bonariensis; Corn Spurrey

You’ve probably seen photographs of annual wildflower meadows (as opposed to my perennial meadow) full of brilliantly coloured poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds. What they don’t tell you about these kinds of meadows is that firstly they are a lot of work and have to be re-done every year and secondly that you have to be really careful where you get the seeds as many companies sell imported mixes (marketed as ‘bee-bombs’, for example) which do not serve our native insects well and which have the potential for introducing invasive species. My friend Jack has done a brilliant job on his annual meadow, sowing only native seeds from Sandro Caffola at Wildflowers.ie and the results are spectacular (below).

It takes a bit of a mindset change to see beauty in a perennial wildflower meadow and an acre of land where wildflowers are prioritised. Accustomed as we are to equating a well-mown lawn with tidiness and good management, it might be difficult to look at an expanse of Daisies, Cat’s-ear and Autumn Hawkbit and Smooth Sowthistle (all of which look more or less like dandelions), Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Self-heal and not see ‘weeds’ and neglect.

Above from the top: English Stonecrop; Self-heal; an uncommon white form of Self-heal

But that shift in our perspective? We all need to make it now, if we want to save our pollinators.

Sheep’s Head Oasis – the Heron Gallery

As West Cork slowly opens up again, we welcomed the news that the Heron Gallery in Ahakista was once again serving food in its wonderful garden setting. The only excuse we needed to head over to the Sheep’s Head!

This garden is one of those on the West Cork Garden Trail and most of them are opening now, late this year, of course. According to Trail President, Jean Perry, Like many of us, garden owners have had lots of time on their hands this year and the outcome is that gardens of the West Cork Garden Trail are to an exceptional standard and have never looked better!

I can vouch for the truth of this as regards the Heron Gallery. There is nothing more delightful than to linger over one of their delicious lunches, or just a latte and cake, seated outside by the pond, and then to wander through the garden.

Annabel and Klaus have been working on this garden for about fifteen years. It was just a field when they took it over – that’s hard to imagine now. For Annabel, it is a haven and an inspiration. Take a look at her website and especially at her blog where she writes about the nature all around her and her latest projects. 

The garden is a paean of praise to both the natural and the cultivated. The traditional herbaceous borders are at their most colourful right now and feature clever little inserts of sculptures and objects of metal, pottery and wood.

Wander through the more formal garden and you come to the wildflower meadow – all native plants, most of which have simply volunteered, although Annabel has also carefully introduced harebells and local orchids. I spent most of my time here, observing the mix of flowers and grasses.

By the time we left the cafe was busy with lunch service. This is a garden that adults and kids both love. The piggies are a universal favourite, but sharp little eyes will discover many hidden delights.

The gallery is devoted to Annabel’s art. She works in a staggering variety of media and sells her paintings and products all over Ireland, as well as in her own galleries, here and in Kenmare. 

Many thanks to Annabel Langrish and her team for creating this spectacular little oasis on the Sheep’s Head. It was just what we needed this week and we look forward to more visits over the summer.

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

Guerrilla Botany in West Cork

It started in France and has spread (like weeds?) across Europe, as a way of illustrating for casual walkers what we have all around us. All you need is chalk and a good wildflower book. I recommend Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland – it’s how my love of wildflowers was sparked. If you have good reception on a phone or tablet, you can use her website Wildflowers of Ireland, but if you’re just starting, the book may be easier to search. Another excellent resource is Wildflowers of Ireland, although this one is wholly online.

This lovely little Field Forget-me-not (chalked in the top photo, close-up above) is a metaphor what what we were trying to do in our West Cork villages

The Botany part is easy: it’s incredibly important to know what we have as we are losing species, many through loss of habitat or the use of herbicides. Urban environments are home to many wildflowers (no such thing as weeds!) all of which do important jobs in supporting the great chain of life by providing vital food, shelter and reproduction spaces to an enormous variety of insects.

Cleavers – you might know it as Stickelback or Goose Grass, and one of the Flying Column grew up calling it Robin-run-the-hedge. It has a very efficient way of getting you or your dog to transport its seeds

The Guerrilla part? Well, there is something subversive in writing and sketching what can be seen as graffiti on a footpath or a wall (but don’t worry – the first rainfall and it will be gone). It may even be slightly illegal, so ideally you deploy some level of stealth. However, the merry band in Schull yesterday, let’s call them Flying Column S, was having far too much fun to be deploying anything except their chalk.

Flying Column S (appropriately distancing) clockwise from top right: Karen, Julia, Úna and Con, Ann and Blathnaid

When you name something you give it an identity. That encourages people to look more closely at it and maybe do a little research into it. We are seeing all kinds of Bird’s-foot Trefoil (below, overlooking Schull Harbour, with Red Clover) at the moment, springing up in our lawns and frankly wherever it gets a chance. But did you know that this gorgeous little yellow flower, a member of the Pea Family, is the larval food plant of the Common Blue Butterfly?

Most of the wildflowers we see around us in our towns and villages are native, but there are a few invasive aliens as well and it’s also important to know where they are and how they are reproducing. Japanese Knotweed is the most feared, for how difficult it is to get rid of, how damaging it can be, and for how it takes over vast areas of habitat, choking out native plants.

Buddleia, better known as Butterfly Bush, is beloved of butterflies for its abundance of nectar. But there is a dark side – it can become very invasive, and while butterflies love the nectar it provides it is not a butterfly host plant – that is, one that butterflies can use to deposit their larva, which will then feed on the leaves. In fact, over time, butterfly populations decline where Buddleia is left unchecked. The Buddleia below has not yet come into flower.

But there are other non-natives that are more benign. Mexican Fleabane (below with Greater Plantain) and Ivy-leaved Toadflax (a close-up – another photo is the last one in this post) both arrived here from elsewhere, but do not pose anything like the same level of threat. In fact they have settled in happily as neighbours.

But while they are certainly decorative and attractive to insects, it remains true that it is our native plants to which our native insects are best adapted.

Native, of course, can also be dangerous – several of our native plants are highly poisonous to humans including the beautiful Foxglove that is blooming everywhere right now and the attractive but deadly Woody Nightshade, below. It’s also known as Bittersweet. Children need to be warned to stay away from the inviting red berries of this plant later in the summer.

At first glance, we seem to see lots of dandelions, but most of the dandelions are gone over by now so what we are seeing are Sow-thistles, Nipplewort and most of all in West Cork, Cat’s-ear.

Cat’s-ear in Ballydehob, all mixed up with buttercups, daisies, White Clover, Club-rushed and grasses – an insect heaven

At the shore, marine species abound – take a look at my post on the Ballydehob Estuary – a haven for native wildflowers of all kinds. In Schull we chalked signs for Thrift (or Sea Pinks) and Kidney Vetch while in Ballydehob we pointed to Sea Radish and Sea Aster, the latter a plant that tolerates getting its feet wet in salt water.

Trees, too, deserve our attention. Con was delighted with the number of elm trees around Schull and he pointed out one of our native Ash trees along the way. The Sycamore which springs up everywhere, on the other hand, is not native to Ireland and can grow to provide a powerful canopy under which other seedlings fail to thrive.

Herb-Robert is a perennial favourite but in Schull we found lots of its first cousin, Shining Crane’s-bill. The flower is very similar, although smaller, but the leaves are quite different, being round and glossy compared to Herb-Robert’s hairy fronds. Both turn an interesting red as they age. Bonus point to Karen for pointing out that this was not, in fact, Herb-Robert.

Some plants are so tiny and background-y that they are easily overlooked. A couple below – Procumbent Pearlwort and the charmingly named Mind-your-own-business. The second photo is a close-up of the Procumbent Pearlwort, showing its minuscule white flowers.

Foragers are the experts on what’s edible by humans – if you are interested in this, I highly recommend Forager Fred’s Facebook Page. One plant we did happen across in Schull was Pignut – I haven’t tried it myself, but apparently in the old days kids on their way to school would follow the stem down to the root with their fingers to find the little edible tubers. Any memories of that among our readers?

We identified lots more plants than I have room for here and we hoped that people would stop and take notice as they walk around the village and estuary of of Ballydehob and the Market car park and harbour road in Schull.

What do you think – is Guerrilla Botany a good idea? Why not get out and do some in your own community!