I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but let’s face it, the meadow brown doesn’t have much going for it! Not only is it a fairly nondescript brown butterfly, with only an eyespot and splash of orange to enliven its appearance, it is also very common. Wherever there is grassland with a bit of structural diversity it will be found flying from June through to August.
I didn’t have far to go to photograph this species, just outside my office window, in fact. And even managed to get the photograph during work time (Oops, sorry boss!). For we have left the grass around the Data Centre grow to encourage biodiversity. The cutting regime couldn’t be simpler; the grass is cut once in autumn and taken away. In a sea of otherwise tightly cut lawn on the campus, our patch stands out, and confirms to our neighbours that we are a bit odd, doing all that biodiversity ‘stuff’. But our wildlife patch is proving a great success. First the dandelions, then the ox eyed daisy and bird’s-foot trefoil, then the self-heal and knapweed ensure we have colour throughout the season. Last year the first orchid, a common-spotted, grew much to our delight. But it is the insect life it attracts that surprises me most. I know little of the tiny insects that lurk in the depths of the vegetation (I leave that to others with more expertise), but I love watching the meadow brown, ringlet and common blue content in our patch. After suitable south easterly winds the migratory Silver Y, the moth made famous by Ronaldo, arrives to keep the six-spot burnet and cinnabar moths company. And almost daily the large and hugely impressive emperor dragonfly can be seen quartering over the grass. Not bad for a small patch of uncut grass! But, I suppose, better get back to work….
Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5, Small blue #6 & Meadow brown #7.
The small blue is the third species of blue that occurs in Ireland, but you really shouldn’t confuse it with the others as it is tiny, often no larger than 20mm. And whereas both the holly blue and common blue often announce themselves with a flash of bright blue, the small blue is a butterfly that one needs to search to find. Even where it occurs, you need a sharp eye to see it, and even sharper one to follow its erratic flight. It is found in very dry habitats, mostly along the coast but also at a few inland sites. Dune grasslands, esker ridges, disused quarries, and the limestone of the Burren region are the habitats where it can be found.
When speaking to Jesmond Harding, one of the foremost authorities on butterflies in Ireland, he mentioned to me that the Gortlecka area of the Burren National Park was one of the best places to see this species. This surprised me greatly for I walked a regular butterfly transect along that area for about four years in the mid-1990s when I was a Park Ranger in the Burren, and I never once saw it in that location. So to satisfy my curiosity I visited the area in May. And sure enough, after a short time of searching to ‘get my eye in’, I found one, then another, and another… Jesmond, of course, was right and they are to be found there in good numbers. However I find it hard to believe that I would have missed them back in the 1990s, particularly since I spent so much time at Gortlecka recording butterflies. The only explanation I have is that they must have colonised the area since the 1990s; an alternative explanation is that I should have gone to Specsavers earlier!
Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4, Holly blue #5 & Small blue #6.
Holly blue is the other butterfly than could be confused with a common blue, however, its behaviour is very different. Holly blues tend to fly strongly around bushes and shrubs, often quite high up; by contract common blue fly low to the ground. The holly blue is also the first of the blue butterflies to be seen each year, emerging in March and April. For me the sighting of my first holly blue is as significant an event as hearing my first cuckoo a month or so later – it is a harbinger of spring.
Holly blue is an intriguing species. It was once a much more localised butterfly, but its range has expanded significantly in recent years and is now commonly seen in gardens, even in urban areas. The sight of holly blues flying around parks in Dublin is not uncommon, and delightful to see. But holly blue populations vary significantly from year to year, and years when they are very plentiful can be followed by years when they are very scarce. It is thought that this population cycle is due to predation of holly blue by ichneumon wasps. Predation rates by ichneumon wasps increase as the butterfly population increases, only for the butterfly populations to crash when predation levels reach a certain level.
Here in Bramblestown, holly blue is most often seen in April and May, and again in August in years when it has a successful second brood. I find this a difficult butterfly to observe at close quarters, as it is always actively flying. But, as luck would have it, early one morning I noticed one on our garden hedge, and it remain still long enough for me to get my photograph. Job done!
Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3, Common blue #4 & Holly blue #5.
This spring, I visited parts of Connemara that I would have known well, when I worked there in 1990-1992. I remember the machair grasslands at Aughrus Beg, just west of Cleggan as being a magical place, so I decided to search them out again to see if they have changed. And much to my delight, the extensive grasslands here still look fabulous. The rolling grasslands were carpeted with yellow bird’s-foot trefoil and dandelions and pinks of thrift- a veritable pollinator’s paradise. As it was early in the season I wasn’t expecting much butterfly activity, but close to the shore, along a sheltered bank, I came across a couple of common blue butterflies enjoying the spring sunshine. I was able to get my photograph, and tick another species from my list.
Common blue is the commonest and most widespread of the three species of blue butterfly that we get in Ireland. It can be found in dry areas wherever its food plant bird’s-foot trefoil grows, and on the machair here at Aughrus Beg, it can be extremely plentiful at peak season. Males are bright blue with no markings on the upper wing, whereas in females the blue is fringed with orange spots. This predominately blue form of the female common blue is considered an Irish subspecies, referred to as Mariscolore, which differs from the predominately brown females found in England and Wales. Both sexes have well marked underwings with prominent orange dots. These differentiate common blue from the other two species of blue butterfly found in Ireland. If you have missed seeing common blue this spring, don’t worry, for they are double brooded and will be flying in abundance again in August.
Speckled wood #1, Dingy skipper #2, Wall brown #3 & Common blue #4.
Wall brown was one of the species that I thought might be difficult to find and photograph. It is one of six butterfly species threatened with extinction in Ireland, having suffered an alarming 50% reduction in range over the last 20 or so years. I have personal experience of this decline, for wall brown used to be seen at Bramblestown until about 2000, but I have not seen it there since. Indeed it is now a very scarce, if not already extinct butterfly in County Kilkenny, which is a shocking thing to report.
The last time I saw wall brown in any great numbers was in 2003 when on a visit to Inisbofin off the Galway coast. As luck would have it, in May this year I was invited over to Inisbofin to officiate at the launch of the locally-led Nature Plan developed for the island, a visit that coincided with glorious weather. I took the opportunity to revisit where I had seen wall brown 13 years previously, and sure enough, along the road to Cloonamore, east from the pier, exactly where I had seen them in 2003, they were in abundance. Wall brown are described as ‘being alert and difficult to approach’, but here many butterflies were basking along the sheltered warm earthen and stone banks by the roadside, so I did not the let photo opportunity pass.
Wall brown is a butterfly of unimproved dry grassland and is another of our species that is becoming much more localised in its distribution. At one time it would have been found across most of the country, but it is becoming increasingly confined to the coastal fringe and to fewer and fewer sites in the midlands. The 50% reduction in range was reported in the Red List of Irish Butterflies published in 2010 but based on data up to 2009. Wall brown occur in too few sites for its population to be monitored effectively under the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, so it is unknown how its population has fared in Ireland since 2010. But my guess is that its population continues to decline, which is a shame.
Speckled wood #1, dingy skipper #2, wall brown #3.
Dingy skipper is a curious little butterfly. It is drab and unassuming, rather like a dayflying moth in appearance. It has an erratic, skipping flight, making it difficult for the eye to follow. But if you are successful in following its flight, it will soon land and bask with its wings wide open, often on the flower head of ribwort plantain. It flies in spring, May and June, but needs warm, well sheltered sites. It is a localised species in Kilkenny, known from no more than a handful of sites, but undoubtedly this species is under-recorded. When I first moved to Kilkenny 18 years ago, it was known to occur in a small disused limestone quarry near Thomastown. My first visit to the site was a delight as I found it straight away but, I’ll admit, it was rather a challenge to separate it from the burnet companion, a day-flying moth with which it shares the site.
Since then I have found dingy skipper at a handful of previously unknown sites in Kilkenny, mostly along forest tracks on the higher ground to the south of the county. It makes me wonder have they always been there, or have dingy skipper eggs or larvae been transported with the limestone chippings brought in to make the tracks when the land was first afforested?
If so, I have benefitted from this, for on the high ground at Glencoum no more than 5km from where I live, there is a small isolated wooded area overlooking the beautiful Barrow valley. Here, dingy skipper are plentiful along one section of the somewhat overgrown forest track, and are a delightful butterfly to see so early in the year.
For many, birdwatching is about making lists. Lists of the birds seen on a walk, lists of the birds that visit your garden, or lists of all the birds seen over one’s lifetime. This characteristic of birdwatching is taken to its logical extent with the advent of Patchwork Challenge –500 or so birdwatchers across Britain and Ireland making lists, and competing, to see who can see the most birds in their site (or patch) in a year. The rules are quite simple; your patch can’t be more than 3 km2. You make a list of all the birds seen over the year and for each common bird seen you score a single point, less common species 2 points and 3 or more points for rarities, mega rarities, etc. The patch with the most points at the end of the year wins. Simple!
But of course it is only the very special wildlife sites that can compete at this level, so the Patchwork Challenge has another dimension. It allows participants to list all the species they find in any given year, and use this as the benchmark to reach, or exceed, in subsequent years. This ‘comparative’ score allows everyone to compete on an equal basis, irrespective of the quality of their patch. It is this that makes it so appealing (or compelling) for bird watching in a local patch.
Well I thought I would join this merry band of men (for the majority are men) and give this Patchwork Challenge a go, to see what it is all about. First task was to decide on my site. As I don’t have much time for birdwatching these days, the choice was simple. My patch would have to be either around where I live, or around where I work. As the latter was already someone else’s patch, it had to be around where I live in Bramblestown, Co. Kilkenny. This is prime agricultural land – not great raw material to work with, in birdwatching terms, that is. But looking at the map, if I was clever, I could draw the boundary to include Bramblestown Bog and Gowran Park Race Course within my patch to maximise the variety of habitats. The patch I settled on has an area of 254 ha, comprised of 121 ha of grassland, 55 ha arable, 33 ha golf course, 31 ha broadleaved woodland, 8 ha commercial forestry and 6 ha of wetland. That I could find such diversity of habitat in my local patch was my first ‘patchwork’ surprise, and this augured well for my challenge.
I have now completed my first month of the Patchwork Challenge, so how have I got on? Well, first the statistics. In January I recorded 44 species and amassed 47 points; I picked up double points for long-eared owl (seen in the headlights of my car going to work), peregrine and hooded crow. The latter is a geographic anomaly of this being a British-led initiative!
And more importantly, what do I make of it all? Certainly it has given birdwatching around my home some purpose, and adds more enjoyment to walking the dogs. And although it is just a list, it has meant that I am far more observant and questioning about bird behaviour in my patch. I was intrigued that I had difficulty, for example, in seeing snipe despite there being plenty of apparently suitable habitat. I did manage to see them, but not in the area I expected. I wondered why that was the case? I know there are tree sparrow in the area so I make a point of regularly locating and scanning the resident flock of finches and buntings looking for the ‘tick’. Still no sign of the tree sparrow, so I am curious, where might they be? Or perhaps the population in Ireland is on the decline once more? [note to self- I must check the Common Birds Survey data]. And late last year I thought yellowhammer numbers were way down on previous years, but that is not the case; it is only that they have moved to a part of the patch I rarely walk through. This has made me question, what determines small scale distributional shifts like this? And showing off stock doves was a regular party piece of mine for any visiting birder, but no sign of them so far this year. Where have the blighters gone when I need them?
And, perhaps most importantly of all, I know that if I make a full list of all the species I see on my regular walks and submit this to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Bird Track system, then I know that I am helping to build up quantitative information that can be used to track bird population change across Ireland and Britain. That is a good use of my precious birdwatching time.
All in all, this has been enjoyable, and I have been surprised at how much there is to learn on one’s doorstep, on one’s patch. Oh, and the dogs are fitter!
Here is my month’s diary:
1st JANUARY: was a wet, windy day. Took dogs for walk across Tomas Brennan’s arable fields – didn’t even make it into to double figures!
List: 1. Blackbird, 2. Robin, 3. Blue Tit, 4. Great Tit, 5. Rook, 6. Woodpigeon, 7. Dunnock, 8. Skylark.
3rd JANUARY: was drier. Visited Bramblestown Bog for a while. Delighted visit brought me to 28 species, including beautiful views of a peregrine and heard jay calling -15 teal, 2 mallard. First proper day birding in my patch and was able to add 20 species.
9th JANUARY :Cool (6 °C) and overcast. Ground still saturated. Tomas Brennan and Greg’s fields. Added only two new species, song thrush and raven. Surprised not to have seen redwing, fieldfare or snipe yet
List: 29. Song Thrush, 30. Raven.
10th JANUARY: walked the large cereal field to north of Drey’s Gate (got strange looks from neighbours when taking photograph in middle of field!) Here I located my flock of finches, buntings and thrushes. Field very wet but good numbers of birds about.
14th JANUARY to work spotted Long-eared owl in headlights of car (too easy!).
List: 36. Long-eared Owl
17th JANUARY: Dull overcast damp day. Had a few nights of frost during week, but gone now, 8 °C today. Walked south of Drey’s gate to forestry at south western side of patch. Nice patch of woodland; alder and birch around perimeter of conifers. Flock of about a dozen siskin was my highlight, and a sparrowhawk. Tracked down the linnet flock near John O’Donnells.
20th JANUARY: Didn’t need to leave for work until about 10:00hrs so took the dogs for a walk. Frost overnight so ground was white, but not too frozen. On John Farrell’s scrubby patch flushed three or four snipe. First for the year. Relieved to have them ticked off!
List: 42. Common Snipe.
22nd JANUARY: beautiful bright mild spring day. Walked across Tom Brennan’s fields in afternoon. Flock of 35 yellowhammers, and 30 or so Skylark. Saw a large flock of Golden Plover, 500 birds at least, high in the sky off to the east. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the distance too.
List: 43. Golden Plover, 44. Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Here are some of my reflections on the year just gone, based on media coverage of nature conservation issues.
Nature conservation needs champions, and in May, with the publication of the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, Pope Francis became that champion. Calling for a ‘…new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet’, the encyclical’s hope is to ‘… help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face’… to protect the future of our planet. The language is clear, unambiguous and hard hitting, and contains a whole host of messages that should become compulsory reading for politicians, business leaders and decision-makers. For me, the message that ‘Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation…’ is a core principle that undermines my personal conservation efforts.
In my view, public policy is driven by short-termism and way too narrowly focussed economic metrics for measuring progress. The publication in November of A Map of the Irish State, produced a graphical representation of where the funding and power lies within public administration in Ireland. The landscape is dominated by the powerful and big spending Departments of Health, Social Protection and Education and Skills. Far from the centre of power, away off to the right, on a peninsula surrounded by pale blue seas, lies the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Clearly poorly resourced, even when the Department is successful in securing funding, such as for the €250 k tender issued for monitoring of Irish bats, the predictable media stories appear about waste of money. The response from the Department to this criticism is almost apologetic. Just in the way that investment in transport is not seen as spending money on concrete or screws, or investment in pharmaceutical is not seen as spending money on tablets, investment in biodiversity should not be seen as spending money on wildlife. Instead it is spending money on a valuable national asset, the proper management of which will enrich all our lives and Ireland’s socio-economic well being. This message needs to be articulated more frequently and with more vigour.
Off-shore from the peninsula that is Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltach lies the Heritage Council. An independent advisory council on Ireland’s heritage, it celebrated its 20th anniversaryin May and was joined by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins to mark the occasion. In an inspirational talk the President set the scene, and identified many of the challenges facing the heritage sector in Ireland. It was one of the best delivered and most inspirational speeches on heritage I have ever heard [view speech]. Off the back of its 20th anniversary, the Heritage Council used the milestone to mobilise the sector around its call for enhanced fundingto strengthen the heritage infrastructure and community-based heritage initiatives of the nation. Just recently, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht announced a paltry increase of €500k to the Heritage Council, rather than the modest €2.5 million sought.
The Map of the Irish State is a stark, but true representation of the very significant challenges to be overcome if the conservation of biological diversity is to ‘mainstreamed’ in Ireland; one of the key objectives of the National Biodiversity Plan.
Nature conservation controversies continued to make the news in 2015, and illustrates the rather convoluted relationship that we, as a nation have with wildlife. The majestic hen harrier was the focus of much attention with a concerted effort by some groups to undermine its conservation measures. Thekilling of one of the radio-tagged hen harriers in Kerry was greeted with dismay by conservationists, and highlighted the potential consequences of irresponsible populist grandstanding by local public representatives. There was similar stories on pine marten and seagulls (sic) from other local areas during the year, but these were generally met with ridicule.
On the other hand, the golden eagle and white-tailed eagle re-introduction programmes show there is significant support for nature conservation in some quaters. In Mountshannon, for example, a local group did great work in actively protecting and promoting a breeding pair of white-tailed eagles. Sadly, the golden eagle is struggling to gain a sustainable population foothold in Ireland but the news for the white-tailed eagle is more positive, as thirteen pairs held territories and four young fledged this year. The news that red squirrel is making a strong comeback in many parts of the country is greeted with delight. The extensive and hugely positive media coverage of the publication of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020 showed there is an audience for well-presented, positive action for the conservation of nature in Ireland.
There were stories about ‘conservation’ battles, but unfortunately most issues seemed to involve a diminution of the protection measures afforded wildlife. A consultation exercise to review dates of hedgerow cutting under the Wildlife Act, pitted farmers against conservationists, with farmers seeking a reduction in the period of time when cutting is prohibited. A campaign was also mounted to amend the conditions attached to Special Protection Areas for hen harrier and pushes for changes to the management of Killarney National Park for ‘controlling’ fires and red deer numbers, while management of the Rhododendron problem continues to remain inadequate. The upshot is that the Minister has just announced that the periods for controlling hedgerow cutting and burning of vegetation under the Wildlife Act is to be curtailed on a ‘pilot basis’. Clearly, there is an issue of uncontrolled burning of hillsidevegetation as half the county was burning this spring, but how reducing controls on burning of vegetation in March will help this, is beyond me. The decision to change the dates when hedgerow cutting and burning of vegetation is permitted is a bad decision, made for the wrong reasons. On the positive side, the decision to introduce a ban on the sale woodcock was a welcomed move.
And the enchanting Sceilig Mhichíl was in the news too; a virtual galactic warfare manifested as a real life spat. I don’t know what to think about this issue. Based on the media coverage it has the appearance of a decision by our authorities to allow filming of Star Wars at all costs, paying scant regard for due environmental process. I can understand the desire to benefit from the spin-off that the association with Star Wars will bring, but is this too high a price to pay? Certainly, there is risk of losing the spirituality of the Sceilig; I hope the tangible heritage does not suffer the same fate.
The release of Ireland’s National Biodiversity Indicators, only the 5th European Country to have developed such indicators, shows that satisfactory progress has been made on only 32%. Again, not great news but at least now, we have a means of measuring progress on meeting Ireland’s international obligations on the conservation of biological diversity.
On the positive side, GLAS the new agri-environment scheme has been established, which has the target of providing payments to 50,000 farmers for environmental, including biodiversity, measures. High Nature Value farmland initiatives seem to have finally gained traction in Ireland. The well-publicised Burren LIFE project has now been joined by the equally successful Aran LIFE project, and other regionally-based schemes like the Blackstairs Farming Group are being planned. And there are many examples of excellent local initiatives where communities are delivering positive, on the ground actions for biodiversity.
Three champions of biodiversity were rightly recognised for their work this year. Kevin Flannery was awarded an honorary degree by U.C.C. in recognition of his work on documenting Ireland’s marine life. Padraig Whooley was this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Recorder Award for his work on recording of cetaceans. Matt Murphy celebrated his 80th birthday and 40 years of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that he and his wife Eileen established in 1975. Matt also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cork Environmental Forum in November. Neither events made it into the media, but they should have done, for Matt and the Sherkin Island Marine Station is a national treasure.
And it needs to be said that, throughout the year, I have been in contact with a very large number of people who are passionately interested in wildlife and nature conservation, yet this interest is rarely captured by the national media. Therefore, if my year’s reflection is a bit negative this year, I blame the media!
Well the Wild Ireland Tour is completed and I deliberately left writing an ‘epilogue’ for a short spell to take time to reflect on the month long odyssey. First of all, to present some of the statistics of the cycle:
Distance cycled – 3,200 km
Number of days cycled – 30
Elevation gained – 28,794 metres
Time in saddle – 128 hours
Calories used – 60,131
Approximate revolutions of pedals – 600,000
Punctures – 2
Falls from bike – 1 (don’t ask! – but no harm was done).
Before I left, I had set myself a wishlist of 10 species I wanted to see. By the end of the month, I had only seen four of the ten; Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Natterjack Toad, Dorest Heath and Twite. I had expected to fare better on this quest, but that I didn’t reinforces the fact that nature is not something that can (or should) be available on demand or, indeed, taken for granted. In one way I am pleased with this outcome, for it means that the Wild Ireland Tour has unfinished business that I should follow up on, and it provides the germ of a new adventure at a later date.
Since I finished, people have been asking me ‘what was the highlight of the Tour?’.This really isn’t a question I can answer, for the Tour was just a continuum of experiences, each different from the other. Certainly, some days were easier than others, but it would be wrong to categorise them superficially into highlights and low points. Some of the days that made for the most difficult cycling conditions, for example, gave me a greatest sense of personal satisfaction for being able to deal well with the conditions.
But there are two messages that I will take from this journey, one relates to the wonderful landscape we have and the other to lessons for nature conservation.
The Wild Ireland Tour took me through some of the most special landscapes and natural heritage sites in Europe. But no matter how stunning these areas are, without having people to share their knowledge and passion for their locality, and to serve as champions for nature, these place remain fairly sterile, inert areas. Yes, one can certainly be moved by the awesome power of waves breaking on the shore, or feast on the kaleidoscope of colours of a hillside, but it is only by seeing localities through the lenses of people who care, that places come alive and are imbued with character. Certainly investment in marketing and infrastructure is needed to unlock some of the value in our special landscape, but investment in people who can unlock the knowledge of the landscape is far more important if we are to gain the full benefits of our unique natural heritage. I don’t think this elemental precept has even begun to be appreciated.
I also realise that those of us who have an interest and appreciation of the rich biodiversity of the country are a fortunate lot. The differences that separates one grassland type from another, or one woodland habitat from the next, are subtle, nuanced differences. We are privileged to be able to view the countryside through this prism of detail, but we must understand that this is a world invisible to many. If we are to build a greater constituency for nature conservation we have to look at ever more novel ways to communicate the value of biodiversity, and break down the barriers that have become established between conservationists and the rest of society. How we do this, I’m not too sure, but do it we must.
The Wild Ireland Tour has been a fantastic experience. Bella and I enjoyed each other’s company for the entire month, an experience that we will both cherish. We met with some really inspiring people along the way, some of whom are working for conservation under difficult circumstances. I often heard it said that Ireland is a country of begrudgers; we found the exact opposite to be the case. People we approached to meet during the Tour could not have been more supportive or done more to help us along the way. Thank you all for your support, it is really appreciated.
There are two people I must thank for their special support. When first I broached the idea of cycling around Ireland to my boss, Gearoid O’Riain, Managing Director of Compass Informatics, he said two things; first, you’re mad, and second it was a great idea. (Actually he also said a third thing about the state of my backside, but that is not fit for sharing!). Without hesitation he agreed to sponsor the venture, sponsorship which made the Tour possible.
And of course, my wife Josephine for her huge support. In a weak moment last autumn, I first mooted my idea for the Wild Ireland Tour. When I conveniently put the hare-brained scheme out of my mind, it was Josephine that kept reminding me of the idea, and took it as a given that the Tour would become a reality. And she was also understanding (well most of the time anyway!) of the need for me to spend many long hours training since the beginning of the year.
I hope the blog was worth following, and that it helped in some small measure to promote Ireland’s special biodiversity. This effort is finished and I must move on; I think the lawn needs cutting.
Well, we have arrived at the 31st and last day of the Wild Ireland Tour, only requiring a tour of Co. Wexford before finishing where we began at the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford. I headed off from Garrettstown to the Raven Nature Reserve to meet with Christopher Wilson, for it would be impossible to pass this way without saying hello. I really only became interested in bird conservation in Ireland in the mid 1980s, by which time Chris was one of the stalwarts of Irish ornithology. I didn’t know it back then, but ornithology was only a relatively new departure for Chris at that stage, as his early career was as a police officer in London. Chris always had a passing interest in bird watching, but it was only with a bit of good fortune that he was asked to take up the mantle of Irish organiser for the final year of the Atlas of Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. And he must have taken to the task like the proverbial duck to water, for his contribution to nature conservation ever since has been enormous. His early interest was in birds, but this quickly expanded to include, butterflies, dragonflies, plants; in fact, almost all aspects of wildlife. Today he showed us his butterfly transect at the Raven that he surveys each year as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.
He is a powerful communicator, being able to instil his love of wildlife in a wide audience, to which he did to good effect when hosting a wildlife slot on local radio. He also worked closely with artist Don Conroy to produce many wildlife educational books. And as I saw how Bella was captivated by Chris telling her stories about the Raven Nature Reserve, about its special wildlife like the Red Squirrels, Natterjack Toads and Adder’s Tongue Fern, and personal stories about his late father, I realised there and then, just how good a communicator he is.
And Chris has always been interested in imparting his knowledge of wildlife to others. It was this drive to share his knowledge that led him, together with colleagues Lorcan Scott and Jason Monaghan to set up the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club, 10 years ago this autumn. The Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club has gone from strength to strength over the 10 years, and now boasts 150 or so members. It runs a range of activities throughout the year, based around a monthly evening talk and weekend field excursion for members to come and learn about Wexford’s wildlife. But it is also actively recording and documenting the wildlife of the county and has already published a guide to the Lepidoptera of County Wexford and is planning on a similar publication on the county’s Dragonflies. The Club is one of the more active Field Clubs in Ireland, and there is a strong collaboration between it and the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and colleagues of mine are regulars on its programme of events. The Club uses the Pump House at the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve for most of its evening talks and some of its workshops, so it was only appropriate that it was there that I met with some of the members to say hello. It was really nice to spend some time with the Club members and to hear about the work the Club is doing. Thanks to its work, there is a far greater awareness and appreciation of Wexford’s wildlife now, than there was 10 years ago.
After lunch we met up with Zoe and Pete Devlin. Zoe is well known for the huge contribution she has made in recent years to raising the profile of plant recording in Ireland. Her website, Wildflowers of Ireland, brings brightness and a splash of colour to the subject of plant recording, and provides a rich resource for anyone interested in identifying and recording plants. Her two books, Wildflowers of Ireland – A Personal Record and Wildflowers of Ireland – a field guide are of a similar vein, effortlessly releasing some of the mystique surrounding Irish botany. Ever since she was introduced to the beauties of a wild orchid when she was eight, Zoe has been fascinated by wildflowers. She has photographed wildflowers for decades, and has amassed a very large collection over the years. It was on the prompting of her daughter that she set about using these photographs and creating a wonderful website around this resource. And her creations are a wonderful tribute to the many long hours that she has spent on pulling the information together, and to her desire to share her interest and knowledge with others. Of course, Zoe was ably assisted in this by her husband Pete who claims he had little or no role in this, but I suspect played a far greater role than he lets on.
And it was Pete who cycled with me for a good part of the journey through the Wexford countryside, and who regaled me with stories not about wildflowers, but about cycling. A man after my own heart, for I think I have had sufficient talk of wildlife for a while.
I realise that people with an appreciation and knowledge of wildlife are privileged, for they can see the subtle characteristics of different types of woodlands or grassland, or can detect minute features that separate one species from another; a level of awareness and observation that others don’t possess. This interest in wildlife that people have is usually attributed to some inspiring individual or mentor who opened up the wonderful world of wildlife for them. It is the likes of Chris and Zoe or the many, many other naturalists who want to share their knowledge and fascination of the natural world with others that need to be lauded. And groups like the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club who provide many opportunities at the local level for people to become involved and enjoy the learning experience. In a world where everyday life is becoming increasingly detached from the natural world, the work of these wildlife champions is of vital important to help build a support base for nature conservation.
And so I headed for the car ferry at Ballyhack, and from Passage East back to Waterford. Arrived back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, from where I had left one month earlier to complete my cycle around Ireland. I was delighted to get back home to a very warm welcome, and to pop open a bottle of champagne for Bella and I to celebrate a job well done. Prost!!