Seeking Calm Now

What a week it’s been in our part of West Cork! Only the gentlest of images will help to bring me back to earth – hence the somewhat random collection of photographs today, some taken along the Toormore Loop Trail or in my own garden.

Along the Toormore Loop Trail

The highlight of the week was the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger – Robert has given you some sneak peaks into this incredible exhibition in his post. If you do nothing else in West Cork this summer, take in this experience.

Eyebright, along the trail

But that’s not all – we also attended the unveiling of the memorial to the 110 Skibbereen Girls, which I wrote about last week. Most movingly, the ceremony was attended by Judith Constable, the Great, Great Granddaughter (and her daughter) of one of those girls. This is a story of hope, of the bravery of those adventurous girls who accepted the passage to Australia and went on to have full lives in their adopted land. It reminds us that it is possible for individuals to transcend the wretchedness of their circumstances.

Above, Judith Constable – her Great Great Grandmother, Jean Leary, was pictured in my previous post on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. Below, the commemmorative spoons, finally installed, and the block of Australian stone.

And on Saturday night there was the long-anticipated performance of Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) at the ruins of the Schull Workhouse. We found ourselves seated outside the former hospital on the Workhouse grounds, listening to the unearthly lament of a chorus of voices, chanting the names of places stricken by famine, and then walking silently in a torchlight (well, lightstick) procession through the place where so many had come to die. It felt cathartic, respectful, important.

There was a memorial for Seamus Hogan too this week. He was one of us blow-ins to Ballydehob, a poet and raconteur and he will be much missed. His portrait was one of Shay Hunston’s finest and is reproduced here from Shay’s Wild Atlantic People series. It’s in a shop window in Ballydehob, across from his favourite hangout, Ina Daly’s pub.

Photo courtesy of Shay Hunston

And in between we had the launch of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival, which goes from strength to strength each year and which will keep us busy from July 27th to Aug 5th. The program includes many concerts, the world premier of the Asenath Nicholson play, poetry, art exhibitions, movie screenings, walking tours.

Finally, today, was the opening of the new Toormore Loop walk. I helped out by leading a wildflower walk around the small looped trail with a happy group of a dozen lovely people. The greatest reward – a mother telling me that even the kids enjoyed it!

I’m wiped! All this stimulation is wearing me out. I need to take up meditation so all together now. . . om. . .om. . .

Rainforest Path

It’s a magical place, running up from an old graveyard by the sea, past a holy well, through a cool overhead canopy and along a tumbling stream. I’ve never met anyone else along the path, although I know the holy well is visited and the footbridge to it was repaired a couple of years ago.

Moss and Navelwort on an old tree

There’s a big house at the top, with steps leading down to the path. Some of the more exotic plants are clearly imports, but mostly it seems that wildness has simply been encouraged, or not interfered with.

A mixture of native and imported ferns along the stream

I went there twice this week. The first time was with my daughter-in-law, visiting from Canada, and we thought we spotted an unusual flower.  After a night of heavy rain I went there again on Friday equipped this time with my camera. Found it – and it looks as if it’s a Summer Snowflake, which is rare enough that I will report it to the National Biodiversity Date Centre. (Go on, it’s easy, you can do it too.)

The flower I was after – Summer Snowflake. Rare in Ireland but also widely cultivated – so is this a natural occurrence or part of somebody’s planting scheme?

What follows is a photo essay; my homage to a rainforest path on the brilliant morning after a rainy night. I will try to tell the story with my captions.

A friendly dog always accompanies me on this trail. The path is lined with Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, providing a soft and bright green carpet. I also found it growing on old fallen logs

Lovely to find a large patch of Wood Anemone beside the stream

The Holy Well needs attention. The bridge has slipped and the path is too muddy to access the well. Read about this well in Amanda’s Holy Wells of Cork. The dog found her too.

This is Ivy-leaved Speedwell. The flowers are so tiny that it’s easy to miss, especially when it’s all mixed up with the Saxifrage

I was taken with this Greater Wood-rush growing along the bank

My first bluebells of the season

American Skunk-cabbage. Now classed as ‘potentially invasive’ in Ireland. I only saw one but I knew it immediately because they were so familiar to me in Canada. I’ll be reporting this too.

The path climbs upwards

The sycamore are starting to bud and leaf. The intricacy of the underneath of the leaf!

Everyone loves primroses

Lots of insects buzzing about the Dandelions – a hoverfly (top) and a bee

Take a walk in the woods and tell us what you’ve seen!

Become a Citizen Scientist!

The National Biodiversity Data Centre, which is also known as Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal, is asking us to record certain spring flowers that we see. This is not a task, it’s a pleasure! What could be more delightful than wandering down a country boreen, stopping to admire the flowers (like the Cuckooflowers above, seen near Bantry) and in about a minute, sending off a record to the Data Centre?

Common Dog-violets, Greenmount, near Ballydehob

Yes, they have made it that easy, with the most amazing little app. I’ll explain how to use it below, but first – why record spring flowers at all? Here’s what the NBDC says about that:

All recording is valuable as it contributes to furthering plant conservation in Ireland. Most plant recording takes place later in the summer. This project is particularly important as it encourages records of early-flowering species that can otherwise be lacking in data. Many of the spring flowering plants are very distinctive, making it a good way for those new to recording to get involved.

Primroses, Rossbrin

Most (but not all) of the flowers selected for this Spring Flowering Plant Project are common and can be found extensively around West Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. Here’s the list: 1. Bluebell 2. Common Dog-violet 3. Cowslip 4. Cuckooflower 5. Early Dog-violet 6. Early-purple Orchid 7. Lesser Celandine 8. Lords-and-Ladies 9. Primrose 10. Ramsons/Wild garlic 11. Toothwort 12. Winter Heliotrope 13. Wood Anemone 14. Wood-sorrel.

Winter Heliotrope is an invasive species and a common sight along roads and railway tracks. Here it has colonised the Butter Road

The Winter Heliotrope has been blooming since December, and I’ve already seen my first Primrose. But the real spring blooming time is yet to come, in March and April, and into May. That’s when our hedgerows will come alive with Common Dog-violets and Lesser Celandine, and the Cuckooflowers will suddenly appear in the fields.

We saw these beautiful Lesser Celandine consorting with March Violets in the Magic Forest

A venture into the woods will reward you with Wood Sorrel and Wood Anemone, and the ultimate spring experience – a carpet of bluebells. A trip to the Beara Peninsula early last April provided an opportunity to wander up the River Path at Gleninchaquin, surely one of the most picturesque spots in all of Ireland. Not only was it a gorgeous warm spring day, but the path wound its way through clumps of Wood Anemone and Wood Sorrel.

The Wood Sorrel leaves are like large shamrocks, while the flower has a sweet little white head veined with pink

Returning through Kenmare we stopped by an old graveyard just outside the town, to find the entire area covered in bluebells. The other place to look out for bluebells is, perhaps surprisingly, in recently burned patches. It’s the only upside to a lot of the burning that goes on around here. The bulbs, like those of many flowers, are able to lie dormant underground for many years until the right conditions allow them to germinate.

There’s always lots of Wild Garlic around, but the NBDC are asking us to record the native plant, also known as Ramsons, and NOT the ubiquitous Three-cornered Garlic that looks a little like white Bluebells. Ramsons are a little harder to find, although there is a magnificent stand of them near here. Unfortunately, it’s on a bad bend on a busy road, and also under an active rookery. When I finally managed to pull in safely last year, it was to discover that every plant was covered in rook droppings. There went my plans for Wild Garlic Pesto.

The Ramsons stand at New Court – and a close up of the effects of being located under a rookery

While I have lots of photographs of orchids, I have never seen the Early Purple Orchid. However, they have been spotted around Crookhaven, so that’s one of my goals for this year. I want to try to find some Lords-and-Ladies in their spring phase as well – the only photos I have are from the Caol Stream project I did last year, and they already have their green, highly poisonous spikes, which turn red later.

While the Common Dog-violet is, well, common, the Early Dog Violet is rare. I may have spotted one last year on the Sheep’s Head, but I didn’t get good enough photographs of it then to make a positive ID. If you’re unsure, always try to get shots of the leaves, or the basal rosette, and the context (hedgebank? stream bed? grassy field? disturbed ground?) – all this will help you when you download your photographs and look through your resources.

What I think is an Early Dog-violet, found on the Sheep’s Head. I wonder if I can find it again, as I need to verify this by taking better photographs

And speaking of resources – here are my go-to sites and books:

  1. Wildflowers of Ireland: Zöe Devlin’s book is the perfect companion for a walk – small enough to pack around and very easy to use, as it’s organised by colour and number of petals. Her website is likewise excellent and easy to navigate.
  2. Irish Wildflowers – if you can’t find it in Wildflowers of Ireland try this site. The information isn’t as expansive, but it’s good on Cork species and it’s searchable in a variety of ways.
  3. A Beginner’s Guide to Irish Wild Flowers – a handy little reference book that slips in the pocket. It’s published by the wonderful Sherkin Island Marine Station, and is organised by family groups. For such a tiny book it is packed with information (by John Akeroyd) and excellent photographs (by Robbie Murphy). If you can’t find it in a book shop, you can order it through the Marine Station.

Wood Anemone – a delicate beauty

Now – you want to get recording, so here’s what to do. Go to the App Store or Google Play and search for the free app ‘Biodiversity Data Capture.’ You will find a very clean and simple interface which exists for one purpose, to make it incredibly easy to record a sighting. The whole process of recording one flower takes about a minute!

First, find your flower! Make sure your Location Services is ON. Open the app, and in the app take a picture of the flower. While you are doing that, the app is busy establishing your location. From the Species Group, select Vascular Plants (last option). From the Species, select the flower. You can start to type the name and a list of near-spellings should come up. Site – type in the name of the place, for example, a townland or road. Select a habitat – whatever seems closest. Type in any comments you have, add your name and email address, and Save. Once that’s done, go back to My Sightings and hit the Upload button, or wait until you have several (or until you’re on WiFi) and hit Upload All.

Bluebells growing on a recently-burned hillside, where no Bluebells had been before

Don’t worry if you think you made a mistake. A real human checks all the records submitted (that’s why it’s important to include a photograph) and only includes verified records in the final selection. Now so – give it a go and tell me how you get along. And if you do, feel proud, because you will have joined the ranks of the Citizen Scientists of Ireland, all doing their bit to safeguard our precious biodiversity.

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

“The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks

Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and naturalist, might be called the patron saint of swamps. He was in love with them. I know how he feels. Hope and the future for me he said, are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swampsthe wildest and richest gardens that we have.

Top photo and above: Derreennatra Natural Heritage Area

Thoreau was talking about American swamps, but he could just as easily have been talking about an Irish bog, marsh, or wetland. I have two within easy walking distance of my home in West Cork and I am drawn to them like a magnet. One is tiny – a pond in the middle of a boggy area at the highest point in Foilnamuck townland. The other is more extensive – Derreennatra Bog, between Ballydehob and Schull.

Foilnamuck Bog Soak

A bog is a highly acid environment, and some plants, such as heathers, are specially adapted to deal with this habitat. The mineral-rich pools that form in the bog – technically known as bog soaks – are fed by groundwater and rain. Nutrients are more available in these patches of open water, they provide a less acidic environment and support a variety of plant life different from that of the surrounding bog.

Rare Slender Cottongrass on Derreennatra Bog – one of the reasons for its designation and protected status

Derreennatra Bog has been recognised as a very special habitat of the lowland bog type. It has been designated as a Natural Heritage Area and is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there are several reasons for its special status, the main one is that it is home to Slender Cottongrass, an extremely rare form of Bog Cotton that only grows in a few places in Ireland and Britain.

Marsh St John’s-wort, above and below, in its watery habitat

Derreennatra Bog has other uncommon species, but they are hard to photograph without a really good long lens. The one I did manage to get close to was Marsh St John’s-wort. I had to go back several times and wait until the flower opened before I could figure out what it was. It was worth the wait – a very beautiful native wildflower.

Another reason to hang out at Derreennatra Bog is that the lovely, native, White Water-lily flourishes here. It’s an exotic beauty that been here, apparently, since soon after the last ice-age.

The soak in the bog at Foilnamuck is far less extensive – just a tiny wet patch – but it’s reliably present all the time, probably because it’s bounded by a natural amphitheatre of slightly elevated rocky ground. Here is where I was able to photograph Bog Bean for the first time, although not without getting my feet wet. It’s a fascinating plant – it sits in the water and holds the flower head well above the surface. The flower heads are pink before they open but inside the petals are pure white and fringed with long hairs.

The “regular” Bog Cotton, more correctly called Common Cottongrass surrounds the little soak and mingles with the Bog Bean.

The other plant that loves the environment of this little soak is the Round-leaved Sundew. Sundews are carnivorous – the sticky liquid on its hairy round leaves trap unwary insects, which are then digested by the plant. It’s a marvellous adaptation to the lack of soil nutrients in its habitat.

The spikes carry the flowers, not yet open in this shot, but it’s the leaves that do all the work in this plant

The other flowers of the bog – the heathers and asphodels, the mosses and mints – are equally beautiful and interesting, but I will leave them for another day.

Trish Punch – remember the workshop day I spent with her? She’s gone from teacher to friend and she’s into the wildflowers, just like I am! 

Now so, why don’t you wander on over to your local bog/swamp/fen/marsh soak and see what you can see! Just don’t fall in!

 

The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear