Wildflowers of a West Cork June – a Musical Treat

A few years ago I set out to record as many West Cork wildflowers as I can. This is the kind of project that lasts a lifetime and it seems important as our environment is threatened on so many fronts. But it’s also a complete pleasure to wander our beautiful boreens, camera in hand, capturing what I can. This month I want to share with you a selection of images, all local and all taken in June 2019. So sit back, turn on the music and just enjoy.

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One of our favourites pieces of music to go with the images – just click ‘start.’

Eyebright

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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.

 

Inish Beg Estate: Ancient Woods and New Discoveries

Craving a woodland walk, we took ourselves to Inish Beg this week – and found a lot more than bluebells!

This is a cillin, down beside the river. There are lots of stories associated with it

Inish Beg abounds in both the wild and the tame. That’s not such an easy balance to maintain and it’s a real tribute to the team on the ground that manages and nurtures the estate. Mostly, of course, it’s down to the vision and hard work of Paul and Georgiana Keane who bought the place in 1997 when it was crumbling and neglected. The house, Georgie told us, was close to collapse and had to be completely re-done – new roof, plumbing, electrics and a complete re-furbishment. It’s hard to believe now, when you see the beautiful place it has become.

Paul and Georgie run it now as a hotel and wedding venue and it is totally set up for it. In fact it must be one of the most romantic venues in Ireland, ideally situated on an island on the Ilen River, accessible by an old stone bridge. It was originally O’Driscoll territory, but owned by the McCarthy family. When James Morrogh inherited it from a McCarthy relative in the 1830s he changed the family name to McCarthy Morragh – such stipulations were not unusual then.

In the 1890s the family built the grand house, and it is this house that is associated with its most famous inhabitant, Kay Summersby. A noted beauty, she was Eisenhower’s secretary in London during the war, and may (or may not) have had an affair with him.

She describes her early life at Inish Beg thus:

Our home, Inish Beg, was a somewhat run-down estate on a small but lovely emerald island in a river in County Cork. Our favourite pastime (I had a brother and three sisters) was to sail down that river four miles, to the Atlantic. There was a succession of governesses, hunts, spatting parents, riding in the fields and along the long avenue fringed with old trees . . . the usual pattern of life in that obsolete world.

The ‘usual pattern’ for some, perhaps – to me it sounds like a life of breathtaking privilege. However, like many such estates, it became difficult to sustain and by time the Keanes took it over it desperately needed their infusion of enthusiasm and capital. And what a magnificent job they have done with not only the house but the grounds as well.

There’s a walled garden (above) that’s full of organic goodies for the estate kitchens, and also features an indoor swimming pool! Tony O’Mahony, the head gardener, practises an organic philosophy and does not feel the need to eliminate wildness from the garden, which results in a delightful mix of plant life.

But we were here mainly for the woodland walks and we were certainly not disappointed. You could spend several hours wandering the trails here and right now the undergrowth is glorious. Bluebells were in abundance along with every wildflower that contributes to that colourful spring carpet that is so dear to our senses.

There are trails for the kids – pirates and a wildlife search are part of the system, as well as little fairy houses here and there.

There are lovely views (above) across the Ilen to the ruined church at Aughadown – burial place of the Tonsons that I wrote about in New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. Surprisingly, beyond the church, you can see Mount Gabriel. I mention this because of its significance with our next find – a previously unrecorded cupmarked stone!

Regular readers know of our involvement with Prehistoric Rock Art – Neolithic or Bronze Age carvings on open air boulders and outcrops. The cupmark is the basic motif of all Irish Rock Art – a semi-spherical cup-shaped hollow (see more about Rock Art here and here and specifically about cupmarks here). Robert has an amazing eye for slight differences in rock surfaces and has developed a habit of examining every stone we come across for cupmarks. This time he struck gold! At least four cupmarks on the back of a stone along one of the trails.

We like to warn people that rock art can be a little underwhelming. I know these cupmarks don’t look like much, but they were probably carved several thousand years ago as part of a ritual we now know nothing about

The stone has been moved there from somewhere on the estate and the Keanes will try to track down where this was. It’s always important to see a rock like this in its context, of corse, but we are also curious to know if Mount Gabriel was visible from the location, as it is from so many of our West Cork Rock Art sites. We will be returning to do a proper record and see if we can add more information to the story before we send it in to be included in the National Monuments database.

There’s also a boulder burial on the estate, visible as you are leaving. It’s a pretty tumbledown affair, but still recognisable, and we found cupmarks on the capstone too. These may be already recorded, but we will let National Monuments know in case they aren’t.

Fabulous woodland walks, my fill of wildflowers, lovely vistas across the Ilen – and a new archaeological find. Too much excitement for one day!

Bluebell Time in West Cork

What is it about a bluebell wood that re-charges the batteries and lifts the heart? Perhaps it’s that amazing blue carpet that stops us in our tracks: it’s so unlike anything else in our natural world.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it lasts only a little while that makes it special. Like Easter eggs or Christmas carols, we would get tired of them if they were always with us – it’s their brief seasonality that makes us look forward to them (OK, maybe the Christmas carols don’t appeal to everyone in the same way).

Lower: Bluebells and Three-cornered Garlic

Even when it’s bluebell time, as it is right now, it’s not always easy to find a bluebell wood, because we don’t have expansive deciduous forest cover here in West Cork. I love the bluebells that line the boreens in places, growing up the hedgebanks, but it’s not quite the same thing as a woodland carpet.

Bluebells and Celandine growing on the bank on one of my favourite boreens

Let’s start with what a bluebell is – I’m talking here about our native bluebells (Bluebell/Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Or in Irish Coinnle corra, pronounced quinn-la curra). As you probably know, the imported Spanish Bluebell is everywhere now, and to add insult to injury has started to hybridise with our native Bluebell.

A garden near us has a lovely display of blue and pink Bluebells and Three-corned Garlic – unfortunately these are the non-native Spanish Bluebells, or possibly hybrids

Take a look at this excellent video from the Irish Wildlife Trust for a guide to how to distinguish between them.

Fortunately, we still have lots of native bluebells and I was lucky this week to get permission to stroll in my friend, Nick’s, little wood, and also to take a walk with Robert and Gill up the hill behind Long Strand. For more about what we were after, see Robert’s post on the cross today.

Upper: One of the little bridges over the stream. Lower: Bluebells and Irish Spurge

Nick’s little wood is down beside the sea on what was once an old homestead – you pick your way through a heritage orchard to get in there. It felt like an immense privilege to be the only ones there, to wander through the trees and over the tiny bridges.

Upper: one of the way to recognise a native Bluebell is to look at the anthers – they’re white or cream-coloured. Lower: a spontaneous white Bluebell in among the blue ones. It happens

Yesterday, because Robert wanted to see Lady Carbery’s Cross, we walked up Croachna Hill, behind Long Strand, near Rosscarbery. The strand was heaving with swimmers, surfers and loungers, the coffee truck and restaurant were packed and the guy who does the Wild Atlantic Seaweed Baths was out – it all looked so festive and summery.

Primroses and Bluebells

The walk up the hill was awash with wild flowers, besides the ones I’ve illustrated here we saw Common Dog-violet, my first Ragged-Robin of the season, Yellow Pimpernel, Ribwort Plantain, Navelwort, Ground-ivy and Herb-Robert.

I’d never seen that combination of Bluebell and Red-campion before (above). It’s pretty spectacular, and a reminder that colours in nature always harmonise. Together with the yellow of Celandine and Buttercup, and the lovely woodsy smells, it was a sensuous experience.

Upper: Looking back to Long Strand from Croachna Hill. Lower:  Bluebells, Celandine, Buttercup, and a lone Red Campion

Where are your favourite bluebell haunts, dear readers?

 

Top Fifteen West Cork Photographs of 2018

Photographs are vital to this blog, so we are always out and about with our cameras. This is a personal selection of images that pleased us in 2018. Some of these photographs have appeared in our posts, and some on our Facebook pages, but several are appearing here for the first time. Some of them remind us of places we’ve stumbled across, like the one above. It’s a room in the 15th century Castle Salem, all done up for a movie – a wildly romantic one, I bet.

From there to the iconic Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. They changed the bulb this year, to LED. We can still see the light at night, but it doesn’t sweep across the sky like it used to. On this trip, mostly photographed by my nephew, Hugo, the scaffolding was still up for the renovations.

We love the Beara and try to get over there as often as possible. It’s famous for its colourful villages – this one is Ardgroom. And not too far away is a wonderful stone circle – Robert mentioned it in last week’s post. This photograph is of the outlier and shows how it seems to mirror the shape of the landscape on the Iveragh Peninsula.

Coming back, or going, our route always takes us over the incredible Healy Pass. I’ve chosen the photograph below because the remoteness of the little farms take my breath away.

But if you look closely, this photograph also shows the old field patterns from tiny holdings long ago, including the lazy beds – ridges left from cultivating potatoes by hand.

Our own Mizen Peninsula is fertile ground for exploration. This enormous standing stone, for example, can be seen in Crookhaven Bay. But even though it seems to be set in the sand deliberately, some authorities feel it is a natural feature. There’s what looks like an old stone field fence nearby, and lots of archaeology in the area.

We’re looking down on that area from this vantage point (above), and across to Brow Head, always great for a wander – we included it in our West Cork Obscura list.

We love to bring our visitors out to the Mizen Head Visitor Centre too. It’s a wonderful experience, with dramatic scenery and vertiginous cliffs. There are lots of remnants still to remind us of the active past of this lighthouse and signal station, including this derelict, if picturesque, shed.

Of course, the weather isn’t always wonderful, even if it seems that way in a set of carefully-chosen images. But even when it’s wild, it’s worth taking the camera along – the photograph above was taken at the Altar in Toormore on a stormy day.

Robert, as our readers know by now, is a hare fanatic, and one of the highlights of his year (next to becoming a citizen!) was when little Berehert, a young hare, showed up on our lawn and hung around for a few days.

Meanwhile, nothing makes Finola happier than to wander around among the wildflowers. She runs a Facebook page on the Wildflowers of West Cork – so pop over there any time to see the amazing range of flowers that we get to enjoy here.

The other thing she loves is to drop into churches to study the stained glass. We’ve written about the fabulous George Walsh windows in Eyeries before, but there are lots of surprises wherever you go. She was quite taken with a wonderful three-light war memorial window in St Peter and Paul Church of Ireland in Bandon. Above is King David from that window, by the firm of Clayton and Bell. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

From March to October West Cork hosts a huge number of festivals. Everybody goes to everything – from the Ballydehob Jazz Festival (above), to events celebrating country and traditional music, history, wooden boats, the arts, short films, knitting (really), stone carving, food and more.

Our own view is a never-ending source of delight. This is sunset over the Goat Islands, Greater and Lesser, which lie west of Long Island. There’s a cleft down the middle, which is dangerous to try to navigate, and no place to land. As a result the islands are quite wild, with a herd of feral goats. For us, they have an air of profound mystery.

Our final photograph was taken yesterday – a traditional farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Gabriel. Lots more West Cork scenes in the months to come!

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