General nature

General nature

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.



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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Wildflowers Delayed due to Cold

Out for a woodland walk at the weekend, I noticed how delayed the arrival of seasonal wildflowers has been. The very cold spring (even last night, temperatures around the country were barely 1 to 4C) has resulted in few wildflowers in bloom to enjoy.

Here are some examples of how I fared on Sunday, over a stretch of mixed woodland that I know well :

Ramsons (Wild Garlic) – Eight in bloom, where there should be literally thousands. Those that were open were positioned out at the edge of the Beech woodland, where they can receive a little more sunlight. Under the trees, there was not one open flower.

Bluebells – Very few in bloom and even then, the heads are not properly open out into their complete ‘bell’ shape.

Orchids – None whatsoever, at a time when I would normally see hundreds. This includes areas under the sun, where the first would normally bloom.

Lords and Ladies – None whatsoever; there should be tens.

Water Avens – Much fewer than normal.

Wildflowers - Water Avens

Water Avens

I also noticed that new leaves on trees, such as the European Larch and Sally Willow, seem less advanced than normal. Nor did I hear a single Cuckoo.

I did, however, enjoy the beautiful bright green spring leaves of the Beech tree.

Luckily, the weather is supposed to finally warm up over the coming days and the May bank holiday weekend is announced nice and dry (-ish).

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I Love Bog Pools on Walking Holidays

Bog pools, large and small, dot the peat covered terrain of Mayo, from down in the valleys to the very top of our 700m+ mountains. I love them. They are a regular feature of our walking holidays and are especially evocative when you can see the sea from standing by one.

Bog pools catch the light unlike any other feature of the landscape. Full of peat dust and mosses, they can turn from deep rusty red, through a sort of mossy green, to beautiful rich blue, as the clouds drift by and the sun peaks out.

From as little as 2 m2 up to over 400 m2, bog pools tend to form where water can remain stagnant on the lowland bog or hilltop plateau. Perhaps older bog pools were formed where there was a natural depression in the subsoil as the bog grew. They then grow outward, creating a patterned landscape of pools surrounded by open bog, some of which can be reasonably dry, with other parts, particularly between pools, very wet. The very borders of pools, however, are often among the drier parts.

Interestingly, a Scottish research project from 10 years ago found that, as they grew bigger, bog pools became more elongated and convoluted in shape. The study concluded that, while wind and pool waves play a role in bog pool expansion, ground slope is more important a factor.

Next time you’re on the mountain, out on the open bog, or on one of my walking holidays, stop for a while and admire the lovely bog pools. Mind you, don’t step in them or the sphagnum moss all around !

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White Tailed Eagle Weekend

On Friday last, I tweeted the following :

“Not 1 but 2 WT Eagles above me in Killarney NP ! I will die happy.”

I was out walking around the lakes in Kerry, under the cover of mostly oak trees. When I emerged from beneath early summer’s developing canopy, I looked up to see a pair of magnificent White Tailed Eagles soaring up in the thermals above my head. It was a beautiful, sunny, dry and warmish day. I lay down on my back on the forest track and had a wonderful view of these magnificent birds through my binoculars for quite a few minutes. They were huge – we’ve all heard they’re called “flying barndoors”. I had seen eagles before in France, Spain and Poland, but nothing as big as these guys, and to think they’re possibly still immature. Had they even grown to their maximum size ?

After a while, they disappeared over the nearest mountain and were gone. A little later, one of them reappeared on my side of the hill again, but a little further away.

Now I decided that I would visit Clare on the way home Saturday to see the nesting pair on Lough Derg. Unfortunately, I ddin’t manage that, as I ran out of time to swing by and witness what would have made for a perfect White Tailed Eagle Weekend down south. Anyway, I was going to “die happy”, so it was no big deal and I thought I would surely get down there at some point over the coming weeks **.

White Tailed Eagle

White Tailed Eagle (source: Commons Wikimedia)

Die happy ? I’m afraid I didn’t even end the weekend happy. Back in Mayo on Sunday, I was told that “our” White Tailed Eagle, Lochlann, had been found dead near Castlebar.

Lochlann (“Place of the Lakes”, a name of Viking origin) liked Mayo and its lakes, big time. He first came here at the end of April 2011, spent almost all summer 2011 here, with the odd foray into Galway and had returned from winter roosting in Kerry at the end of March for this coming Mayo season.

Last summer, I spent three full 8-hour days out in the mountains looking for Lochlann. In addition, I spent god-knows-how-many sets of 1, 2, or 3 hours trying to spot him, when on the way to or from somewhere up in the wilds of west Mayo. I’d check out his satellite fixes on, which are time-delay released (three days later) and discover he was maybe just 500m from me on such-and-such a date. Alas, I never got to see our very own White Tailed Eagle.

It is beyond my comprehension how a person could poison or raise a weapon, point it and deliberately shoot such a magnificent creature of our shared planet. But the fact that I can’t fathom such actions is not what is important. What is vital is that it become incomprehensible to the type of person who actually did this.

What is required here is education. People like the person who did this need to be educated. The Irish Farmers’ Association and other rural bodies should play an active role in educating people about these magnificent birds and the level of threat (or lack thereof) they pose to livestock.

I am well aware of the attitude of many country people to “environmental” bodies, like An Taisce and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Frankly, many country people do not trust them. Some think these bodies would prefer if all farming and rural activity was stopped and the whole country turned into one big National Park.

The people who work on these projects are undoubtedly wonderful. I am terribly sorry for them and the obstacles they seem to so regularly be confronted with.

Here is what I think must be done.  NPWS, together with the IFA and other rural organisations (what about Leader?), should get Norwegian, Welsh and Scottish farmers and other rural dwellers, who live with these magnificent birds in their countries, in to talk to Irish rural communities and farmers. Get them to tell the Irish what, if any, threat is posed by eagles and other birds of prey. Brand the events “IFA”, not “NPWS”, for greater buy-in.

Do it now, before any more are needlessly slaughtered.

Two years ago, Conall, a Golden Eagle, was poisoned up in Leitrim. I blogged angrily about that here.

** Today, May 18th, I read that the nesting effort at Mountshannon has unfortunately failed. However, those are young birds and hopefully they will find success in 2013 or beyond.

White Tailed Eagle

Measuring up to 95 cm in length and with a wingspan up to 245 cm, the White Tailed Eagle is a massive bird. Also known as the Sea Eagle, or indeed the White Tailed Sea Eagle, it is the largest raptor of northern Europe. Ireland’s reintroduced birds were donated by Norway, which boasts the largest population in Europe. These eagles mostly eat fish, small mammals and other seabirds.

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Even as I begin this blog post, I’m apologising. To the many of you who never ever litter, I am sorry.

Litter in the countryside really annoys me. Here’s a pointless question – does anybody know why some people throw litter ?

There are two types of litter thrower. First, there’s the guy who opens his car window and throws out his coke can, or crisp bag, as he drives through our beautiful countryside. Then there’s the more serious guy. He places his household litter in to rubbish bags – you know, the black ones or animal-feed heavy duty plastic bags. He then carefully loads it into his car, brings the whole thing down some quiet (usually scenic) bóithrín and throws a complete bag full out into the ditch.

What kind of education system do we have that this still goes on ? What kind of parenting skills do certain people possess, that they allow (perhaps even encourage) this behaviour to continue in their family, generation after generation.

It’s so sad.

When you are out in nature, I would encourage you to pick up something you did not drop. If you take just one crisp bag or just one drink can back and put it in a bin, you’ll feel even better about your hike out in our wonderful country.

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