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?

 

Return to Long Island

The very distinct, treeless landscape of Long Island seen across the water from Colla Pier, from whence a ferry service will take you over: look here for the times. Alternatively, you can contact Helen of Schull Sea Safari and travel there on her large RIB, the Kealtra – we went with her from Schull Pier: my recent post told some of our adventures.

The seven permanent human residents on the island (in 2019) are supplemented by a good few four-legged inhabitants: we met most of the latter. Once there were enough people living here to support a school. That building now stands gaunt and empty right at the centre of a single road serving the two and a half mile long strip of land that lies at the very edge of the Atlantic.

Upper – the eastern end of the road that runs the length of the island is a trackway which served the old copper mine and the navigation beacon; above – the former school still stands, but is unused and decaying

One fascination of Long Island is a sense of fragility: even though it’s only a short sea crossing from the mainland it’s a completely different world. And you inevitably wonder about its future. In 2014 – just a few years ago – Helen Selka made a film about the island. It is well worth finding and watching: at least have a look at this trailer, remembering that there have been changes since then, although much also is unchanging. The film’s title is perfect: Bleak Paradise.

Fragile lives: in the centre picture is Finnbar, one of the permanent residents of Long Island. He appears in the trailer to ‘Bleak Paradise’

The island also has the distinction of being notable in the world of philately! On 24 April 1973 four postage stamps were issued by the ‘Long Island Local Carriage Service Ltd’. This local initiative was set up to improve the postal service then provided to and from the island. It was a private concern, and disapproved of by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs of Ireland, who made it clear that:

The Irish Post Office has not, at any time, approved the establishment of a privately owned and operated carriage service by the Long Island Local Carriage Service Ltd, and that company was not given permission to issue stamps and charge rates for the carriage of mail . . .

A little piece of very local history: Long Island’s attempt to set up its own postal service, dating from 1973. It created waves with the official postal service, and provided some good fodder for collectors of ‘first editions’!

We spent a day exploring this special place, and determined to return. We will choose a different time of the year, to gain a new perspective on this tiny, inhabited landfall on the edge of Roaringwater Bay. We recommend anyone to make a visit and take in the alternative lifestyle that is governed by a minimal population and a hidden and sequestered location.

 

Cape Clear in June

This is an edited version of an account of a trip we took to Cape Clear in June three years ago

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!

Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.Shark basking

Stone Wall 2Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.Green path

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.Robert contemplates

Mizen Magic 15: Long Island

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles— 
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles—

(from Thomas Osborne Davis The Sack of Baltimore 1844)

Up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest) we look out over the Carbery Islands. There are supposed to be a hundred of them, although some are just little rocky outcrops: the tips of underwater mountains at the margins – and the mercy – of the Atlantic.

Horse Island, Castle Island and Long Island lie along the length of the coast below us. Peter Somerville-Large (The Coast of West Cork 1972) quotes a tradition that they all used to be one island:

In the latter end of March, AD 830, Hugh Domdighe being monarch of Ireland, there happened terrible shocks of thunder and lightning . . . At the same time the sea broke through the banks in a most violent manner, The Island, then called Innisfadda, on the west coast of this country was forced asunder and divided into three parts.

Long Island is still known as Inis Fada in the Irish language: the Anglicised name is a direct translation; header – the long road that winds from East to West on Long Island; second picture – the Wester village seen above the Atlantic breakers on the wild and battered far shore

We had a day’s adventure on the island, walking almost the full length of it; Finola was madly busy identifying all the wildflowers. It’s part of the magic of Long Island that we covered a distance of over 10 kilometres in the day, although the length of the island tip to tip is just over 4k. There is a regular ferry to the island from Colla Pier (not every day of the week), but we chose to travel from Schull pier with Helen of Schull Sea Safari (a whale watching trip with Helen will be a future outing for us). Our mode of transport was Helen’s very fine large RIB, the Kealtra – superbly equipped. With a hard south-easterly wind the waters were very choppy and we had to be fully kitted out for the crossing!

Upper – intrepid travellers kitted out for a choppy crossing on the Kealtra! Lower – skipper Donie taking the RIB out of Schull Harbour

After the heady excitement of a blustery crossing, stepping on to the tranquil world of Long Island is a magical experience. You are immediately aware that the place holds memories – and ghosts – but is still a community in the modern world thriving against the odds.

Everywhere there are signs of the past: abandonment, fading history, but also livings still being forged from the environment. The sadness is the obvious population decline. Looking through the available census records, a melancholic picture emerges: 1841 – population 305; 1911 – population 143; 1951 – population 74; 1991 – population 11; today – population 7 (and that’s an increase of 1 from 2 years ago). There was once a school: the decaying building is now a lonely waymark at the centre of the island’s single boreen.

The Island School – long deserted and gently decomposing

Peter Somerville-Large in conversation with the local residents during his visit half a  century ago:

I talked to Mr McCarthy, who had lived here all his life and could remember when the place had been full of fishermen all speaking a mixture of Irish and English. One by one he had watched them leave. A dozen families still remained, comprising perhaps forty people altogether. The school had shrunk year by year, to four pupils, then two – it closed after that. There was neither electricity, nor any shop – nothing to keep the young from making the short crossing over to the mainland. It would take them fifteen minutes, according to wind and weather. There they disappeared for ever. When the old ones like himself died out the place would become empty.

Contrasts at the west end of Long Island

Although there are many houses that are intact and well looked-after (a number are holiday homes), you would think that the odds were ultimately stacked against the survival of this island. Yet those who do live here full-time have tenacity – and there is fresh energy. Helen and Maurice have built their own new house and run businesses which allow them to be island based, while Castaway East is a ‘Place of New Beginnings’, a venture offering B & B or full board and – if you want – retreat packages to recharge your batteries. Peter and Tracy are also experts in garden landscaping as can be seen from the works they have carried out for themselves.

The East end of the Island: you can walk past Peter and Tracy’s ‘Island Retreat’ to the old copper mine and navigation beacon

We were pleased to find that the island’s well has been maintained and presented in excellent order – mainly by Joe, one of the Islanders. It’s a little haven, not to be missed. The day’s adventure gave us so much photogenic material – I will be returning to this magical place in a future post.

Long Island Wildflowers – a Reconnaissance

Robert and I set off on Tuesday for Long Island and enjoyed everything about it. See his post Mizen Magic 15: Long Island for a full account of our day. One of Roaringwater Journal’s New Year Resolutions was to spend more time on the islands and this was an excellent start! I was there mainly to take a look at the wild flowers, with a view to leading a wildflower walk there later in the year. Do let me know if you’d be interested in coming along, in the comments section below.

I’m used to seeing Bird-foot Trefoil in my garden, but here it’s spread to the stony beach and looks wonderful

Wildflowers come and go, so what I saw was a lovely selection of late spring and early summer blooms. I also got a feel for the character of the island and the habitats it hosts.

The maritime habitat was rich with Thrift, Trefoil, Kidney Vetch (also the lower photo) and Sea Campion

It would be lovely to be able to say that the island is pristine and free of invasive species, but alas we did see some Japanese Knotweed along the way. We are left scratching our heads as to how it manages to spread like that.

The uncultivated higher ground was particularly colourful, with Lousewort predominating. In this photograph you can also see the yellow of Tormentil and the pale flowers of Common Milkwort (see below for more on this Milkwort)

I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of Lousewort (below) anywhere else and this is one of the things that gives Long Island a particular colour at this time of year. It’s not a pretty name, for what is, in fact a beautiful little plant, but it was so called because it was believed that sheep got lice from eating it. This has never been proven, but the name stuck. Long Island, with its acres of damp moorland, provides the perfect habitat for Lousewort.

It’s also perfect for Tormentil and Common Milkwort (below). This last flower is tiny – you have to get your face up close to the grass to see it and it’s normally a deep purply-blue. However, on Long Island there were lots of very pale Milkwort, almost white. Although I knew that Milkwort came in pink and white, besides dark blue, I had only seen blue before this year. Now I have to find some pink!

The Yellow Iris (below), which most people call Flags, are in abundance in all the marshy areas, creating a colourful swath here and there. Up close, they are very dramatic. Here, it’s native and welcome, but in North America it has become invasive, choking waterways and displacing native plants.

A couple of unusual flowers to end with, beginning with Musk Stork’s-bill (below). I found this little beauty before in a graveyard in Rosscarbery but this is the first time I have seen it near where I live. It’s described as ‘probably introduced’ which means that it’s not native but has been here a long time.

The flowers of the Stork’s-bill look very like a Crane’s-bill, but the leaves are hairy and they have these funny spiky seed pods, both of which help in identification

Finally – who can resist an orchid? There are several kinds of Marsh Orchid, but I think this one (above and below) is the Irish Marsh Orchid. We saw it before on Cape Clear, so it obviously loves islands! I was glad I had my hand lens with me, as this is best viewed close up.

 

A Watery Tale

Last year I got myself into trouble by saying how much I admired the new corten steel signs marking significant spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. My post – Showing the Way – produced howls of protest from many readers who had taken a dislike to them. I may well ruffle the same feathers again when I say that I’m impressed with the information boards which have now appeared to supplement those markers.

Wild Atlantic Way signage at Colla Pier, opposite Long Island

The example above, which we saw today, has appeared at Colla Pier, on the coast road running from Schull round to Crough Bay. The ferry serving Long Island sails from this pier. The board is mounted on a sturdy corten steel frame which should withstand all the elements. The illustration used on the new board (seen in our header picture) is by Sam Hunter and (to my eye, at least) is colourful and attractive. Overall, the panel manages to convey a significant amount of information in a compact design. There is a little Irish lesson (top picture, right-hand corner) and a local ‘story’ pared to the minimum. I was delighted, because I hadn’t come across this tale before. Here it is…

A more detailed version of this story can be read here

So in this short paragraph we find an unusual angle on a very well-known piece of local history: the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates, which took place 386 years ago, on June 20. Here in West Cork everyone talks about that incident as if it had happened yesterday: it resulted in the decimation of the population of the little fishing village overnight. A hundred and seven people were carried off to slavery in Algeria, and every house was burned.

Upper picture: Long Island Sound, with the white houses of Long Island itself in the middle distance; Cape Clear is beyond. Lower picture: Fineen O’Driscoll’s castle at Baltimore – Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels). The clan chieftain was not at home to give help to the beleagured village when the Barbary pirates arrived because he was rowing across from Long Island with the ill-fated treasure stowed on board!

In one version of the story about Fineen O’Driscoll and his pirate treasure, the horde of gold is buried under a house on Long Island – a house where strange lights are seen at night! Presumably it’s still there – or under the sea out in Roaringwater Bay. It’s probably best left wherever it is!

Baltimore at dawn, seen in Finola’s beautiful picture above, reminds me that I have to tell you about another Irish – Cornish link. The village grew around a small settlement of religious dissenters from the west of England established around 1600 and led by Sir Thomas Crooke, a man with Calvanist and Puritan connections. Most of the settlers came from Cornwall and were seeking a haven where they could practice their religion unhindered. It was these people who were stolen away nearly 400 years ago, and ended their days in North Africa. Are you interested in the many historic links between the two westernmost counties of Britain and Ireland – Cornwall and Cork? You can find out much more at the exhibition coming up shortly: West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July