Fierce Mild

“Fierce mild” my neighbour said when commenting about the weather. While this is an Irish-ism that simply means very mild, it struck me as particularly apt, in that this mildness, while very welcome to us humans in the autumn, can have a fierce effect on our native flora and fauna.

The Spindle Tree comes into its own in October

It’s true that up now we have had a wonderful long, mild autumn. Warm sunny days, perfect for long walks looking for wildflowers, have lured us outdoors and convinced us that this will last forever.

From the top: Corn Spurrey, generally finishes blooming in September; Red Campion – by now we expect to see the empty seed pods, but along with them there are a few flower heads still blooming

And the wildflowers are certainly hanging in. I’ve seen lots that would normally be over by now, but who find a sheltered spot and bloom merrily away for our enjoyment. It’s been lovely, and I can’t help wishing it would last well into November. But the truth is that an unusually mild winter is not good for our plants.

Rose hips – seasonally correct; but look at the branches, are they starting to bud?

The factors that cause winters to be milder than usual are many and complex. Forecasters appear to be conflicted as to whether Ireland can look forward to winters in the coming decades that are shorter and milder than average or longer and colder. Both scenarios pose problems for plants and insects and therefore for those of us who depend on the health of our pollinators. And that, actually, is all of us.

Found on the same south-facing slope; Top: Musk Stork’s-bill – it should have finished flowering in July, but it’s found a sunny spot and is still blooming; Bottom: Red Dead-nettle can bloom well into November 

While it’s impossible to extrapolate from recent weather experiences to talk about long-term trends, a mild autumn can show us what can happen when temperatures vary from the norm. We already know that our springs have come sooner than they used to fifty years ago (two to three weeks earlier!) but we have also seen an increase in average temperatures in the autumn, which can lead to prolonged spells of mild and sunny days, such as we are experiencing at the moment.

Ragged Robin is a spring/summer flower and it’s a little worrying to see it blooming this late

Mild temperatures in the autumn can trick flowers into thinking that it’s spring, and time to wake up and grow. Trouble is, there’s bound to be a cold snap sooner or later and the fragile bloom will freeze and it won’t bloom again when true spring arrives.

This Long-headed Poppy and Common Ramping-fumitory are blooming late, especially the Poppy

Our native and naturalised plants have adapted to our ecosystem, including our climate, and any disruption to that has to be, in turn, adapted to. But this takes time – centuries, millennia even – for many organisms: the rate at which our planet is warming may not give them the time they need to make that adaptation.

Sweet Alison, rare in West Cork, on the same sunny slope as the Musk Stork’s-bill and the Red Dead-nettle

That’s all a bit doomsday, and I’m never inclined to embrace the most alarmist predictions, but whether related to global warming or not, a mild autumn can a problem for wildflowers. Flowers that appear in late summer and normally bloom into September and early October are still nodding away in the fields and hedges this year, and that’s lovely to see.

Common Chickweed – this one blooms all year round!

What’s not so great is that I have seen a few spring/early summer flowers too, long after they should be asleep. I can only conclude that they have sensed that it’s time to produce their one and only set of buds and that the first deep frost will probably kill them.

A lovely lilac-coloured variety of Sea Rocket, still in full flower at Barley Cove

A longer growing season also provides opportunities for insects and fungus that would be kept in check by colder weather to predate on plants. Plants that arrive from warmer climates, whether by accident (hitching a ride on a long-distance freight truck, or hidden in nursery stock) or design (imported for garden use) can start to reproduce once our climate catches up to the conditions they have been bred for. A good example of this is the snowy white egret – it only arrived here 20 years ago!

Little Egret; Russian Vine at Rossbrin Cove, an unwelcome invasive species

A fierce mild autumn is lovely, and we are certainly enjoying getting out and about on our favourite walks and our various explorations. But it’s time to cool down now – for our flowers’ and insects’ sake and ultimately for our own.

I love the colour that the bracken turns at this time of year

The good news is that a north wind arrived yesterday and suddenly it’s chilly. Good news for the wildflowers, that is. Not so great for us – we will miss those sunny walks!

Beautiful West Cork in October

Mizen Magic 12: Autumn Colour

It’s not the trees that lend autumnal hues to the Mizen, as they do elsewhere. It’s the whole landscape – that combination of rock, heather, bracken, moor grass, brambles, filtered through the light and shade of our notoriously changeable climate – that creates the special colour palette we associate with autumn. It’s my favourite time of year.

Today, early, we drove up Mount Gabriel and looked over the whole of the Mizen, back to Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd, and across to the Sheep’s Head, the Beara, and away to the mountains of Kerry.

Upper: looking down to Dunmanus Bay from Mount Gabriel; Lower: looking across to Mount Corrin

But every day brings changes. What trees we have are not yet bare. The thorns, blackthorn and whitethorn are loaded with berries. The heather is hanging on here and there, providing a wonderful contrast to the yellow gorse.

Haws, Sloes, Heather and Gorse

The bog asphodel is fading now, but earlier in the month it had reached its peak orange state and looked spectacular consorting with the other bog and mountain flowers that were still blooming.

Upper: Bog Asphodel, Gorse, Scabious; Lower: Cappaghglass Bog

When you get a clear day, like today, there is nothing on earth like a walk on the West Cork hills, drinking in the colours and trying to store them in the memory. Or perhaps, in a blog!

Upper: Toormore; Lower: Derryconnell 

Upper: North Side of the Mizen; Lower: Crough Bay and Long Island

Scarecrow in an abandoned garden – quintessential autumn image!

Rock Island

The Old Mine Road

to the castle

Exactly two years ago I wrote a piece for this Journal – A Moment in Time – remarking on the very specific changes that we become aware of at the end of the summer: the holiday homes being closed up and shuttered; the boats being taken off their moorings and stored away in the boatyard; the shorebirds returning to their winter quarters. I finished up by pointing out that our own summers never end: we enjoy living in Cappaghglass just as much in the darker, colder days at the turning of the year as we do when the sun is high in the heavens.

cove gray day

high road gray day

Top – starting point: Rossbrin Cove on a gray day. Bottom – The Old Mine Road wearing its raincoat

It is an idyllic life and we are privileged to have the quiet boreens to ourselves in all weathers. We have talked about Rossbrin Cove so often, in its many seasonal variations: for today’s post I’m taking the upward road through the townland, the route that I call The Old Mine Road. This road – or more accurately this series of lanes and byways – will take the traveller from the Cove into the little town of Ballydehob, and will pass through an old copper mining district which, two hundred years ago, saw heavy industry, intermittent employment, smoke, noise, pollution and desperate human working conditions where now ‘peace comes dropping slow’ with only the crying of the Choughs over an undisturbed backdrop of rock, heather and coarse grasses – and the occasional jumble of stones showing where there were once buildings, shafts and crumbling walls marking the old mine complex.

cappaghglass

captain's house sun

Top – the landscape of The Old Mine Road: Mount Gabriel dominates the horizon to the west. Bottom – looking from the road towards Roaringwater Bay: in the foreground is the site of old mine workings, now reclaimed by nature, with one of the two Mine Captain’s Houses in the centre and the stump of an old mine chimney on the right

A walk along The Old Mine Road on a benign late September day will be rewarding because of the good air, the distant views to the Mounts Gabriel and Kidd, and with the bays of Roaringwater and Ballydehob below. You will find medieval history in the form of towerhouse castles, modern economy delineated by distinctive lines of mussel ropes spilling over the water and always alongside you the immediate wildness of a natural, undisturbed landscape. Views change as the way winds and dips – always interesting, always different, however many times you follow these routes.

mussel ropes

waving grass

mine buildings

Top – mussel ropes abundant in the Bay. Middle -waves of grass in the wild landscape to the north of the road. Bottom – ruins of old mine buildings can still be seen from the road

Autumn brings with it a certain melancholy. Time passes, our lives move relentlessly forward. We enjoy the changing of the seasons but we want to know that there will be so many more seasons to see. Each one will bring us unique experiences.

blue in the grass

from the road

Top – wildflowers in abundance on the boreens of Cappaghglass. Bottom – signs of old workings in the fields below the road

As I walk the old road, I can’t help trying to picture the scenes there from other times. I wonder what feelings the hard working miners had – did they take in the changing light and the views? Did they see the way the grasses moved with the wind, creating waves on the landscape? Did they have any time to notice nature’s fine details – the incredible variety, colours and designs of the wild flowers? Or was theirs just a drudging commute from cottage to workplace at dawn and dusk?

ballydehob wharf

The end of the road: Ballydehob Wharf, which would have seen great activity (intermittedly) when the mines were in full swing. Cappagh Mine was operating between 1816 and 1873, with its maximum output of about 400 tons of ore being produced in 1827

The poet Seamus Heaney has much to say about the hardship – and order – of a physical working life; his own father had worked the land and the poet was infected with memories of his younger days. This poem – Postscript – has a different emphasis but strikes me as a similar commentary on encounters with the landscape, although it’s concerned with another geography:

…And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open…
wall and heather