Fionnán: an Autumn Walk

All across West Cork, at higher elevations, autumn heralds the emergence of vast carpets of amber grass. Shading from yellow to red and everything in between, it is the distinctive colour of the uplands. We call it Fionnán (pronounced fyuh-nawn).

Fionnán is a particularly apt name because the root, fionn, means blonde, but fionnadh can mean shaggy animal hair. In English, this is the far less romantic and puzzling Purple Moor Grass. Actually, when it’s young, the first spikes can have a purplish hue, but that colour certainly does not spring to mind in the autumn. In Latin, it’s Molinia caeruleaMolinea after the man who named it, a Chilean naturalist, and caerulea meaning blue. Right – that’s more than you wanted to know about the name.

A Fionnán and Rush pasture is a recognised and important habitat, and should be rich in wildflowers, sedges, and other grasses. But it’s a delicate balance that can be upset by a number of factors – too much or too little drainage, under- or over-grazing, grazing by the wrong animals, and too-frequent burning.

Burning and over-grazing by sheep have affected many of our Fionnán pastures in West Cork. Repeat burning (often done in the belief that it improves grazing and gets rid of gorse) in particular allows the Fionnán and bracken to take over at the expense of other species and in the end degrades the soil.

Birdwatch Ireland says that the answer is sustainable grazing levels to keep certain bog grasses in check, such as Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea). Too little grazing and the grasses can become rank, smothering the important bog mosses, heathers and sedges. This reduces the species diversity and the ability to be an active, peat-forming bog.

On our walk this week it was difficult to assess the health of this particular pasture, since nothing much is still blooming. However, I have walked it before and am happy to report that I have noted many of the species that are indicators of a healthy moor-grass pasture – Meadow Thistle, Heath spotted-orchid,  Lousewort, and Cross-leaved Heath. 

To walk in a Fionnán pasture is a deeply pleasurable experience. There is something about being surrounded by waving expanses of golden grasses – perhaps Sting’s Fields of Gold was influenced by such an experience. The weather has been very variable but we did manage to catch some sun, and evade the inevitable downpour by getting back to the car in the nick of time.

As I said, not a lot was still in bloom – except the gorse because, you know, when gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion. But there is still lots to see and sense. Chamomile grows abundantly along the track and its heady scent drifts upwards as you tramp over it. 

Old fence posts still hang on, with their rusted barbed wire still attached, along with lichens. I was especially delighted to see Devil’s Matchstick lichen on one of the old posts.

This track leads upwards to an intriguing cairn (another of the anomalous structures that I wrote about last week). There’s a memorial bench to a man who used to come here to commune with nature – and you can see why he would. Last time we were there, the bench needed repair but it’s now perfect again – thank you, anonymous fixer!

There are fabulous vistas from the top – on this occasion it afforded us a magnificent view of the squall that was heading our direction, over Mounts Corrin and Gabriel. It was our cue to dash back down again. 

Miniature World

A bog seems at first like an unpromising site for photography but all it takes is getting close. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since bogs are wet places, but having arrived home sodden but exhilarated I’ve decided it’s definitely worth getting wet. My role model in this type of close observation is Tina Claffey, whose book, Tapestry of Light, and whose Facebook Page are constant sources of inspiration. Tina – thank you! We must be twin souls because like you I return again and again to the same patch of bog. Time loses meaning as I simply lie and let my eye tune in.

My little patch is quite close to my house and I described it in my post last year “The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks. It’s taken a while this spring for the Cappaghglass soak to wake up but it’s well and truly alive now so here’s what’s there already.

On the rocks

First of all, the soak is surrounded by heather and rock. Lying on the rock, with my face a few centimetres from the surface, I have become aware of the rich lichen growth all around me. I don’t know a lot about lichens but I have been studying this one (above and below) – Devil’s Matchstick.

It’s obvious how it got that name, and it’s sometimes also known as Nail Lichen too. It’s only about a centimetre high, about the length of my little fingernail. The Latin name is Cladonia floerkeana. In Ireland we get this bright red form of it, whereas in North America the tips are black.  The site I go to to learn about Lichens is http://www.irishlichens.ie. Here’s what they say about lichens on their home page:

Lichens are dual organisms; a fungus and one or more algae in a stable, mutually beneficial (symbiotic) partnership. The fungus provides structural form and protects the algae from extremes of light and temperature. Algae are capable of photosynthesis and some of the sugars produced provide the fungus with energy for growth and reproduction. Some lichens can live for many hundreds of years and being sensitive to pollution levels they are important environmental indicators.

There are several red-tipped lichens in the Cladonia group so I must look out for others. The trunk is described as squamulose which simply means scaly, at the bottom and becoming fruticose (or shrubby) as it grows. The stems are called podetia, and they are topped by the bright red apothecia. Yikes! Don’t think I’ll become a lichen expert in this lifetime.

And look at this one, that looks like a goblet – it’s another Cladonia but I don’t know which one. And lots of white lichen to boot. It’s a whole world down there on the rock, under our feet. 

Let’s move over to the the bog soak now and look at two things in particular. The first is the Sundew. At first I thought it wasn’t up yet, but as I got closer I realised that it was just emerging from the surrounding Sphagnum moss (the second thing).

Besides looking weirdly otherworldly, the Sundew is a clever little critter, well adapted to this habitat. It’s developed a special mechanism to ensure it gets the nutrition it needs, since there isn’t much in the bog. It traps insects on its little sticky hairs, then the leaf rolls rolls over and digests them.

You might not want to watch this video if you have a weak stomach

The sundew does have a little white flower, but it’s the leaves that are the centre of all the action on this plant. Our bog soak has the Round-leaved Sundew, which is more common in Ireland than the Oblong-leaved Sundew that you saw in the video.

A hapless ant is this Sundew’s meal

Finally, as I was nosing around (er, literally) among the Sphagnum, I saw that some of them had these little brown caps and I wondered what they were. It turns out that mosses propagate by means of spores, and the caps are little exploding spore capsules. When they blow, they fire the spores great distances.

Take a look at the spores exploding in slow motion – it’s quite a sight.

Some of the capsules in my little patch had exploded already – you can see the empty cup-like capsules in the photograph below – at the bottom of the picture..

Sphagnum itself is an amazing moss – we wouldn’t have bogs without it, as it’s what holds all the moisture. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council has an excellent information page on Sphagnum. It includes this:

A huge number of tiny microscopic plants and animals live with Sphagnum mosses. A few drops of water squeezed from wet Sphagnum contains hundreds of microscopic species such as desmids, diatoms, algae, cyanobacteria, amoebae, rhizopods, flagellates, ciliates, rotifers (wheel organisms), worms, nematodes (round worms), flat worms and heliozoans (sun animals). One scientist counted over 32,000 microscopic animals from a Sphagnum moss growing in a bog pool!

Now that’s a bit too miniature for my lens. I’m happy at the magnification I can achieve with my Lumix. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.