All Around the Bloomin’ Heather

heathers CappaghglassHeather blooms here in late summer and through the autumn – not, as in the song lyrics, when “the summer time is comin’”. It washes the hillsides with a rich pink-purple that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. The gorse has a late bloom too and the combination of the purple heather and the brilliant yellow gorse is one of my favourite things at this time of year.

We’ve been walking the little roads around us in West Cork again, and observing the new cycle of hedgerow flowers since I last reported on them in June.

boreen

Inspired by my Ellen Hutchins experience, I set out to identify some of the most conspicuous of them, aided by my Zoë Devlin book and my friend Amanda.

Fuchsia Montbretia and blackberries

Most striking, of course, is that combination of drooping fuchsia and the gaily waving montbretia (or crocosmia) underneath. Although technically both are introduced species, together these two flowers define the south west of Ireland – it’s what we see in our mind’s eye when we think of West Cork.

Mainly montbretia

Now the berries are ripening and it’s impossible to walk without keeping an eye out for particularly juicy blackberries.

Blackberries

Although, because we’ve had a cold and wet summer, lots of the brambles are only flowering now.

blackberry flowers

Sloes too, with their glossy blueblack skins are there for the picking. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn, often used for making sloe gin. They are actually a type of small plum and are considered edible after the frost. (Note to self – must try one!) Blackthorn hedges are common around here as they make an impenetrable, thorny cattle-proof fence. The wood was prized in the past for making walking sticks that could also be used as clubs, sometimes called shillelaghs. Traditionally, they were cured and acquired their glossy black colour by sticking them up the chimney.

Sloes

Whitethorn, or hawthorn, hedges and their red berries, or haws, are equally ubiquitous in September. We love to see our garden birds descend on the whitethorn trees in the winter, knowing that the haws provide an important source of nutrition for them.

Haws

The wild roses, white and pink, still sport a few blooms but now mostly the colour comes from the rose hips, the more domesticated ones huge and glossy and the wilder ones smaller and half-hidden among the brambles. I’ve never made rose hip jelly, which is apparently packed with Vitamin C, but I did pick up a delicious rose hip and apple jam at one of our local markets recently, and I’ve been enjoying it on my morning toast.

One of the dominant flowers in the hedges and ditches now is purple loosestrife. In lower-lying marshy ground it masses in a vivid amaranthine swath.

Loosestrife

We can admire it freely here, although when I lived in Canada I knew it as an invasive weed to be feared and eliminated. Researching this online, I came across this excellent article by the Examiner’s Dick Warner. As he explains it, once purple loosestrife established itself in North America…

In these new homes, without any natural ecological controls, it became invasive and threatened to choke up important watercourses. The main reason this doesn’t happen in Ireland is that purple loosestrife is kept in check by a number of specialised and very efficient insect predators.

There are known to be two species of beetle, two species of weevil and one species of moth that feed virtually exclusively on purple loosestrife and control its spread. In America, the first thing they tried when it started to become a problem was to control it mechanically, by cutting and removing it. When this didn’t work they tried chemical control, spraying it with herbicides. Not only was this equally unsuccessful, it had some very undesirable environmental repercussions. Using toxic substances in or around water is always problematic.

Then the scientists looked to Europe. They decided the moth with caterpillars that ate purple loosestrife was itself a potential pest, so they left it alone. But they imported the beetles and the weevils and they did an excellent job. It’s one of the classic success stories of biological pest control.

The grasses, brackens, hogweed and ragwort have colonised the hedges and jostle for space in the corners of the fields.

Thistles have now mostly lost their purple heads but are no less spectacular for that.

thistle seedheads

In fact seed heads of all kinds provide an ethereal fringe to many of the hedges, while the breeze in the grasses supplies the music. 

Thistles and seedheads

Knapweed (top) and ragwort seed heads

A few of the smaller flowers can be easily missed.

Common dog-violet (left) and tormentil (right)

And even some of the larger ones are easy to ignore because they’re so common. But look closely…

meadowsweet

Scabious

Meadowsweet (upper) and Scabious (lower)

And here’s a handsome one – Hemp Agrimony, sometimes known as Holy Rope or St John’s Herb. Apparently you’re supposed to boil the root in ale as a purgative or to cure dropsy. Now you know.

Hemp Agrimony

Finally, and because many of you cherish the memory of curling up with Baroness Orczy as teenagers, here’s a Scarlet Pimpernel.

Scarlet pimpernel

All the photographs in this collection, with one exception, were taken on one day, September 8. There’s more, so much more, to see and hear at this time of year along the boreens of West Cork, but I’ll leave it at that for now, except to show you whom I was sharing all this with on my walk.

FLY ON BLACKBERRY

Clockwise from top: blackberry, dog rose, rose hip, hawkbit, herb robert and a species of willowherb. All with visitors.

Oh and one more thing… there are many versions of the song Wild Mountain Thyme on YouTube, but this one struck me because of the lyrics. Subtle changes make the song both more romantic and more accurate. See what you think.

fuchsia

Window on our World…

Our View to the Islands

Our view to the Islands

Sunlight and drama have been the key elements of the view from Nead an Iolair this week. The drama began at coffe time on Monday: whenever we are sitting having breakfast, lunch, tea, supper – or maybe just sitting – we are looking out over the scene you see above. Central in that prospect is our bird feeder, where we keep a constant eye on the comings and goings.

Suddenly, a bomb dropped out of the sky! It scattered the birds and there was such a twittering and chattering – squawks and alarm calls. The ‘bomb’ was a Kestrel – who had singled out a juicy victim from among the avian throng… I’m pleased to say that it missed its target and crashed ignominiously into the adjacent gorse bush. Seconds later it extricated itself and sloped off, trying not to look too foolish. I have to say I admire birds of prey, although I’d rather not see them lunching on our garden friends. In the past we have also had sight of a Sparrowhawk on our stone boundary wall.

The Swallows: Felix Bracquemond, 1881

The Swallows: Felix Bracquemond, 1881

As I write this there are Swallows wheeling in the air above us: although we have had cloudless skies for several days the wind is in the east and it’s pretty chilly – however these harbingers of the Summer seem happy enough to have arrived on our shores in late April.

The Choughs are always with us!

The Choughs are always with us!

The Choughs are good friends of ours – they sit on the roof or tumble about in front of us, showing off their bright red bills and claws. At the moment they are foraging in the rocky land behind the house, pulling out roots and twigs for nest building. Another nester is the Starling family which inhabits the space in our eaves, creating a lot of noise and mess.

rabb

I was pleased to see a Rabbit in the garden: there has been an outbreak of mixomatosis in the surrounding countryside in recent times and over the last year we have hardly come across any of these mammals in the fields locally. Mixomatosis was introduced into the UK in the 1950s – apparently by accident – and then was used as a deliberate Rabbit control measure, by placing sick animals in burrows (then and now an illegal practice). By 1955 95% of Rabbits in the UK had been wiped out. I remember those days: seeing dead and dying animals every time I went out as a sensitive nine year old made me sickened and appalled, especially when I learned that we humans had initiated such cruelty. The virus recurs cyclically every few years, as has happened around here: I am still sickened and angered by it.

The next visitor was a female Pheasant. Although less colourful than her male counterpart she is nevertheless a handsome addition to our menagerie. The good weather has enabled us to have our doors open every day, but this does mean an influx of smaller guests, which have to be carefully rounded up and ejected before we go to sleep. They include spiders and flies, but also Native Irish Honeybees from our neighbour’s hives. Apis Mellifera Mellifera has evolved over thousands of years with a large body and long dark abdominal hairs which make it uniquely suited to survive in a harsh Irish climate. It will be found foraging early and late in the season and will fly in dull, drizzly and cold weather. I gleaned this information from the comprehensive website of the Native Irish Honeybee Society.

Castle in the Mist

Castle in the Mist

These wonderful spring days have been heralded by misty mornings. Evenings have been clear, with the crescent moon and Venus prominent over the western horizon. This is the time when we see our Bats. They might be either Common Pipistrelles or Soprano Pipistrelles: I’m sure you know that the former echolocates at a peak frequency of 45kHz while the latter echolocates at a higher frequency peaking at 55kHz. I keep listening out but can’t quite decide which is which… Anyway, they are both indigenous – and are probably sharing our eaves spaces with the Starlings.

crescent moon

The gorse is in full bloom, as are the blackthorn hedges. Any picture of our surroundings at this time of the year has to show off the yellow and white – and, of course, the emerald green and azure blue.

looking out

No ‘nature post’ here would be complete without mention of our own Red Fox, Ferdia. In fact, part of the drama of the week was the appearance of another Fox! As we hadn’t seen Ferdia for quite some time we worried that he might have gone the way of all Foxes: the average life of a Red Fox in the wild is only around five years – and our neighbours claim to have been hosting Ferdia for more like ten… The new Fox only made the briefest of appearances, just enough to be photographed. I think it is a Vixen – smaller and thinner – and very nervous. We couldn’t help thinking that she had come on to the scene because of Ferdia’s demise – but no! Yesterday evening, there was Ferdia knocking on the window, cocky as ever – although he does look a bit bedraggled at the moment, possibly because he’s beginning to lose his fine thick winter coat. Perhaps now we will have to find scraps for two foxes…

Fresh on the scene: a female Red Fox

Fresh on the scene: a female Red Fox

Seen through the window: a bedraggled Ferdia posing with one of our many household Hares!

Seen through the window: a bedraggled Ferdia posing with one of our many household Hares!

Finally, I was fascinated by another visitor to Nead an Iolair this week: a female Emperor Moth took up residence on our bedroom window cill. As you can see, her appearance is very striking. I wish I had been able to observe her all day, as evidently these Moths stretch themselves out in the sun waiting for a mate to arrive. The males are even more spectacular, but alas I didn’t see one. You’ll find this lady in an Irish folk tale: The Children of Lir.

Female Emperor Moth

Female Emperor Moth

I have to give a special word of thanks to Finola, who expertly took most of the photographs in this post with her excellent Leica-lensed camera