General nature

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Guided Walking Holidays in Mayo & Connemara, Ireland

 

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General nature

Spring Wildflowers of Mayo

Perhaps the most lovely thing about getting out for a walk at this particular time of year is the renewed colour all around as the spring wildflowers of Mayo come out and begin to dominate our forests, hedges and fields. But nor do you have to go far – simply enjoy those in your uncut garden or hedge.

The white of Wild Garlic carpets the forest floor, which it shares with the beautiful drooping Bluebell. Get down on your hands and knees and breathe in the powerful aroma of the Wild Garlic – one of the great experiences of Ireland’s springtime.

The bright cream Primrose is visible in tight bunches along the hedgerow, while the especially excellent Marsh Marigold stands bright yellow along the damp water’s edge, often with its feet wet.

The small white flowers of Wild Strawberry is a hedge neighbour for the discreet blue-purple Dog-Violet. We hope we’ll see the fruit of the Wild Strawberry later in the summer, while the Violet will soon fade away.

Some green is supplied by the carpet-forming Opposite-Leaved Golden Saxifrage on stream banks, along with Lords and Ladies in the hedges and the fabulous tall and erect shoots of Yellow Iris on damp ground, although neither of these is yet in bloom.

In the unmowed garden, Daisies, Dandelions and Cuckooflower already dominate the grass. Herb Robert trails along the borders, while if you go exploring a little, you might find glorious Early Purple Orchids in nearby fields.

So get out and enjoy the outdoors, ever more interesting with the arrival of spring wildflowers. For all you need to know about Ireland’s wildflowers, visit Zoe Devlin’s superb website, at http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/ and don’t leave home without the Collins “Complete Irish Wildlife” book, with its introduction by Derek Mooney. The latter also contains Ireland’s mammals, trees, birds, insects, etc.

Spring Wildflowers of Mayo – what to see

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Importance of Connecting with Nature

Are we and our kids spending too much time indoors? I think the answer is clear.

While today’s electronic devices bring many great advantages of connectivity and learning, they are contributing to a serious diminishing of our connection with the outdoors. There can be little doubt about the importance of connecting with nature, yet, as a society, we seem to be turning our backs. Taking a regular walk in nature is good for the heart, body and soul and it is vital that we pass this message on to the next generation.

As somebody who goes hiking often, I know there’s something powerful and uplifting in getting my hands dirty in the bogs, wet in the cold rivers, or simply feeling the roughness of mountain rocks on my palms. Watching a kestrel hover, as I did just yesterday, enjoying frolicking foxes playing through the fields, or listening to the roar of the red deer during the rut are important life experiences to my mind.

Then there’s the extra special treat of strolling among trees. More than simply walking, being within a forest brings great joy, peace and perspective. It brings disconnection from the humdrum of the daily chore and replaces it with the importance of connecting with nature. There’s something wondrous about being a little short-lived human among giant trees, much bigger and older than you will ever achieve. It’s in some way liberating.

Importance of Connecting with Nature

Do you know the difference between Whitethorn and Blackthorn?

Get down to the sea on a windy winter’s day and feel the power of nature blow the cobwebs off your face, to the soundtrack of crashing waves. Visit a tranquil lake on a balmy summer’s afternoon and absorb the cacophony of bird and insect life, all under the whiff of blossoming wildflowers.

Ultimately, our disconnection with nature doesn’t just mean we’ve lost touch with the outdoors and our fellow inhabitants of Planet Earth. It also leads to ignorance and disinterest. Why should we care about habitat loss and species extinction if we no longer have a connection?

Importance of Connecting with Nature – Two Pieces of Research

Study 1

A few years ago, Travelodge, the well known British budget hotel chain, carried out some research into British people’s attitude towards and knowledge of their countryside. Its results included :

* 53% of respondents thought there was nothing to do or see in the countryside
* 10% could not identify a sheep
* 83% could not identify a bluebell
* 32% could not identify a pheasant.

Study 2

The University of Michigan carried out interesting research into the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature a few years ago.

In it, the authors state that “Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion”. I couldn’t agree more.

The authors carried out two experiments with students, which “show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve [certain] attention abilities.”

Interacting with environments rich with inherently fascinating stimuli (they give the example of sunsets), allows some attention mechanisms to replenish. After such an interaction with nature, one is able to perform better on tasks that depend on so-called directed-attention abilities.

Directed attention can be described as the “ability to concentrate in the face of distractions”.

In the first experiment, participants had their mood assessed. They were then randomly assigned to take a walk, either in a nearby arboretum or downtown area. The former was tree lined and secluded from traffic and people. The latter was on a traffic heavy street, lined with buildings.

Performance in the test was much improved among those who walked in nature, but not with those who walked in the urban area.The season in which students were tested had no impact – researchers found that mood improved after walking in nature, compared to urban.

The second experiment showed pictures to students of nature and of urbania. Participants rated viewing those of nature as significantly more refreshing.

The researchers, in concluding, stated that “these experiments demonstrate the restorative value of nature as a vehicle to improve cognitive functioning.” Indeed, they add that “To consider the availability of nature as merely an amenity fails to recognise the vital importance of nature in effective cognitive functioning.”

Therein lies both the problem and the challenge.

Recognising the importance of connecting with nature brings joy and loads of energy. Seeing how ‘nature’ and ‘us’ are so deeply interconnected can lead to only one conclusion. We are nature. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There is no separation. We must understand that we humans are part of life on this planet, just like the beetles, bats and birds.

Here in Ireland, we’re particularly disconnected from nature. I’m not sure why, since we’re still very much a rural population. We could blame 800 years of oppression, the loss of ownership of the land and its eventual recovery. When we regained ownership of our land, did we then see it purely as a means of economic gain, where its other facets, such as biodiversity, were to be ignored or destroyed? Why don’t we teach nature in our schools? Why don’t Irish people know anything about wild berries, tree species, mushrooms and foraging? Why don’t we protect our fellow creatures, like birds of prey, badgers and freshwater pearls? Why don’t we destroy non-native invasives, like rhododendron, gunnera and japanese knotweed?

Importance of Connecting with Nature – Resources

The most obvious and useful resources to reconnect with nature are your feet, public transport, bike or car. Just get out there, find a nice spot like a forest, bog, local park or beach and go walk. Even better, do dawdle. Just hang out and connect with what’s around you. Or discover one of our National Parks. Other than that, join some organised events run by organisations like Birdwatch Ireland and many others.

Recognise the importance of connecting with nature for you and your family, then get outdoors, dirty, wet and enjoy!

If you live anywhere near Castlebar, here are two accessible walking options, not requiring any special hiking equipment : Bellacorick Bog Loop Walk and Croaghmoyle Booster Station Walk.

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And so to Winter …

I must admit that I’ve no problem with winter. In fact, I’m a fan. I kind of think it suits a place like the West of Ireland.

Rather than grumble about the summer showers (of which, by the way, there were precious few during 2014), the rain of wintertime just feels right. It belongs. It fits.

The bogs gorge on water, so we can enjoy trudging through them during the colder months. Our medium-height mountains treat us to a few days snow cover now and then, through which we can crackle with the wide-eyed delight of a child. Down by the sea, the wind-blown waves of winter roll and jump and spray and crash, to remind us that we are not in control.

Winter hiking on Nephin

Nephin mountain in Winter

Winter walking means more layers and thicker socks, perhaps, but it also heralds that strange but pleasant sensation of cold lips, raw cheek bones and stinging ears. Trampling the crispy layer of icy frost on early morning grass is a special little thrill not to be missed. Don’t forget your gloves, now. Heck, I might even bring along a pole the odd time.

For me, winter already kicked off back in September, with the first Hen Harrier surveying of the season, Seal pups way out west and the long hike into Red Deer rut country. Just to listen, in awe. Later, I will go in search of spawning Salmon, then spawning Frogs. Before I know it, it will once again be springtime and time for the Snowdrops. Around and around she goes; where she stops, nobody knows…

Winter Weather

Do not go out hiking during wintertime if you are unprepared. West of Ireland weather can change rapidly, even during the height of summer. Much more so during winter. Read my hiking advice for the West of Ireland.

In winter, as at all times of the year, never plan to get home just before dark. That rarely works out. Give yourself plenty of leeway when heading out into the hills or even when rambling at low level. You will get delayed and walking in the dark is to be avoided. Check the weather forecast through, for example, these services :

Met Éireann for Connacht

YR (Norwegian service)

Accuweather

And know when sunrise and sunset times are.

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Often, It’s the Simple Pleasures…

While we all love to view the spectacular sights and experience the wonderful places, often it’s the simple pleasures that we enjoy the most.

Like sitting on a rock, in silence, and watching the seals go about their daily routines. Or sharing a forest track with a hare for a surprisingly long time. Or coming across a fox in the middle off the road after dark, sitting on his hind legs as a dog would. Indeed, when he eventually noticed my approach, that fox jumped up, left the road and took up the same sitting position on a narrow garden wall.

Simple pleasures - seal

Grey Seal, Mayo

The other day, just after sunset, I had the rare pleasure of observing a badger plodding along a small track for 20 metres in front of me, before skulking into the ditch.

Among the most memorable of simple pleasures are those afforded by peregrine falcons. I’ve had the good fortune to sit and watch these magnificent creatures zoom through the air, like fighter planes, in chase of tasty pigeons and seabirds. Fantastic.

One early morning, while walking the cliff-top trails of North Mayo, I came across the scene depicted in the picture below. I stood still, taking advantage of the fact that I was downwind of the fox. For several minutes I enjoyed the incongruity of the situation, before I was eventually noticed and the protagonists scattered. What a discovery!

Simple pleasures

Sheep and Fox, Mayo

Rediscover simple pleasures

Of course, the message here is clear : you need to get out and about and enjoy the countryside if you want to experience any of these simple pleasures. Go and sit or stroll by the seaside. Find yourself a nearby river or lake and wander along its banks. Discover your local forest and enjoy the birds. Tread slowly and quietly. You never know what you might bump into…

If you would like to receive newsletters, with upcoming events and other news, please “Join our mailing list” (above right).

Learn about Ireland’s birds at Birdwatch Ireland and about our biological diversity in general at Biodiversity Ireland.

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Hedge Life at our Mayo Home

Our hedge gives us great joy, especially during spring and early summer. As much as I’d love to live out in the wilds of Mayo, maybe under a mountain or by a lake, with a wooded area nearby, unfortunately this isn’t the case. At my semi-urban home, the hedge separating our house from the open fields beyond, with her Ash, Whitethorn, Bramble and wildflowers, is my little bit of nature.

Right now, she has produced her first Primroses and the Blackbird, Wren and Blue Tit occupy her branches and undergrowth. This morning, I noticed our first Wild Strawberry flower of the year. When they mature, we will pick and eat the odd tasty little fruit, leaving the majority on the plant.

Hedge Primroses

The first hedge primroses of the year.

We’re currently watching the Whitethorn sprout her new leaves and await the those of the Ash, later. Soon, she will give us our annual Lords & Ladies, Dog Violet, Common Vetch and Germander Speedwell wildflowers. We’ll especially love the large white Field Rose petals that appear during summer. Later on, almost in autumn, it’ll be time to harvest our hedge Blackberries for dessert.

Hedge Whitethorn

New Whitethorn leaf growth.

Fifteen years ago, I named one of our Ash trees after my first-born, as they both appeared in the same year. Needless to say, the tree is now far taller than my child, at some 5 metres, as it struggles for its place in the sun.

Earlier this week, our cat presented us with her maybe once-per-two-years catching of a tiny Shrew. I measured it at 4.5 cm for the body, plus 3.5 cm for the tail, giving a miniscule total length of 8.0 cm. Typical of the cat, she left her kill intact. Speaking of the cat, she has her special place in the hedge too, where she’s hollowed out a patch just the size of her body. She’ll lie there, snug, with the ever lengthening grass keeping her warm.

Shrew

Shrew

Hedge Wildflowers

Don’t forget the wonderful online resource for wildflower identification (whether in your hedge or any other Irish habitat) that is Wildflowers of Ireland.

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Spring Gentian – Wildflower of Limestone Landscapes

As we left the stump of the once impressive round tower behind and began our gentle climb towards Teampall Bheanáin above, we came upon several little groups of the gorgeous Spring Gentian.

A flower of the Burren, its Aran Island outposts and a few sites in north Galway and south Mayo, the Spring Gentian truly is one of the most beautiful of Ireland’s native wildflowers. Its particular hue of blue attracts the eye very quickly, as it lies low in the grass among the pinks, purples, whites and yellows of the Orchids, Daisies, Bird’s Foot Trefoils and Sea Thrift.

What I find particularly attractive about this little flower is the slightly off-oval shape of the stunning petals. They come to a slight point at the end, resulting in a quite unusual form and marking them out from other flowers. The white centre (‘throat’) to the otherwise fabulous blue petals is simply beautiful.

Spring Gentian Inis Mór

Spring Gentian, Inis Mór, Aran Islands

Each flower of the Spring Gentian is on its own bulbous stem, standing quite erect, to a height of just 4 – 6 cm. The flower head has a diameter of only around 2 cm and could well be overlooked if it wasn’t for the stunning blue colour.

Spring Gentian

Spring Gentian

For all you need to know about Ireland’s wildflowers, consult Zoe Devlin’s fantastic Wildflowers of Ireland website, or enjoy her beautiful accompanying book of the same title – a great present for the wildflower enthusiast.

Zoe Devlin describes Spring Gentian

Zoe comments that it “is the wildflower for which the Burren is famed. Although there are many startlingly attractive flowers growing in this wonderful limestone area of western Ireland, the Spring Gentian is the plant which has become best known of all by those seeking to see the Burren’s great variety of flowers. Its pure, bright blue flowers are extremely beautiful. As each of the petal tubes unfurl, they spread to reveal a little white throat”. Gorgeous.

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