Speckled wood is a common and constant summer companion around us here in Bramblestown. It has a long season, fitting in three generations between April and October, and can be seen flying daily throughout this period. It is perfect here for them as we have many overgrown shaded hedgerows and areas of tall, unmanaged grass. It is wonderful to watch them on our sun-speckled lane; males standing guard over individual patches of sunlight, then flitting out to entice passing females or scare off encroaching males. On dull, overcast days their behaviour is very different as they bask low down on grasses and other vegetation.
It is appropriate that speckled wood is the first species of my butterfly challenge as, surprisingly, all is not well with this common and widespread species. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which monitors butterfly populations across Ireland each year, found that the speckled wood is one of three common butterflies species that has experienced a steep population decline between 2008 and 2015. Declines of this kind in common species is something that should be taken seriously, as it means that habitat changes in Ireland are no longer local, but happening at a landscape-scale. Perhaps the widespread clearance of patches of scrub and improvement of rough grazing areas that has continued apace over the last couple of decades is now reaching a tipping point where even our common countryside species are being affected? Now that is something to stop and think about! Do we really want to create a countryside that lacks vibrancy and richness? And rob the next generation of all the wonderful benefits, both intrinsic and tangible, that nature has to to offer?
Now as I watch speckled wood on the lane, knowing that they might become yet another species that is seen less commonly in the countryside, I look on them with far more affection.
After my adventure of 2014 when I cycled around the coast of Ireland, I was looking for something else to do this summer. Another cycling adventure was considered but ruled out for a couple of reasons, mainly because I am terribly out of shape due to a long run of injuries and an equally long bout of laziness. Yet I am determined to continue to do my bit to promote Ireland’s biodiversity and to make a case for better nature conservation policies and practices in Ireland.
So the challenge I set myself this year is to find, photograph and write an account all of 35 species of butterfly that regularly occur in Ireland. If I had chosen to undertake this challenge say, ten years ago, I would only have to find 32 species, for Essex skipper, small skipper and comma have only established resident populations since then. And, if I had chosen to do this challenge in, say 1900, I would have to search for one additional species, the mountain ringlet, as it has become extinct in Ireland, probably since the beginning of the 20th Century.
Butterflies are a good group to choose for a challenge of this kind. Quite a bit is known about their distribution and their status, and populations are monitored through the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, managed by the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In 2010, a Red List or conservation assessment was completed which found that six of Ireland’s butterfly species are threatened with extinction. These are pearl-bordered fritillary, small blue, wall, large heath and marsh fritillary. A further five are near threatened; dingy skipper, grayling, gatekeeper, small heath and wood white. Of these, only the large heath is of conservation status at a European level, and the marsh fritillary is the only species of butterfly, indeed insect, protected by law in the Republic of Ireland. So insects are a manageable group to tackle and each has a unique story to tell.
To find all butterfly species in Ireland in a single year may seem a fairly straightforward task, but it is not without its challenge. Firstly, it is one thing to see a butterfly flittering past, it is another to observe and anticipate butterfly behaviour to enable a decent quality photograph to be taken. Also, some butterflies have both limited flight periods and geographic distributions, so it will involve some planning to make sure I don’t miss these windows of opportunity. As both my wife and colleagues will attest to, I am not the most organised person in the world, so organisation may be my downfall. Also, I have never seen the rather elusive purple hairstreak in Ireland, so locating and photographing one may prove my biggest challenge.
So, having publically announced the challenge I have set myself this year, it will be interesting to see how I get one. Over the season I will be writing profiles, species by species, once I have found and photographed them. So be sure to follow my progress here.
Below is my Comment piece in the latest issue of Biodiversity Ireland newsletter. This issue is on sale for €5 until 31 May, with all proceeds going directly to Special Olympics Ireland in support of their annual collection day. Our employer Compass Informatics will match any income from the sales. This issue can be purchased on-line by clicking here Purchase Biodiversity Ireland. The 24 page issue is crammed full of information about Ireland’s biodiversity, and purchasing it is a good cause.
People do care about biodiversity
If one were to judge only by the coverage that biodiversity receives in the mainstream media, then it would be easy to conclude that there is no support for the conservation of biological diversity in Ireland. Nature conservation provides rich pickings for a mainstream media whose primary focus is on conflict and controversy. Biodiversity loses out for seldom does the media have the patience to understand what often can be complex issues, nor does it find much value in good news stories. The one exception to this is the coverage received by the publication of the All-Ireland Pollination Plan. In contrast to other conservation issues, this has received serious media attention and there is genuine and deep interest in the plight of pollinators. The message is stark; about 30% of bees are threatened with extinction in Ireland, and unless we take concerted action, the pollination services which are so beneficial to Irish society and the economy will be lost.
But what sets this issue apart from many others is that the All-Ireland Pollination Plan presents a clear roadmap for how the plight of pollinators can be addressed. Thanks to the exceptional work of Úna FitzPatrick, Jane Stout and others, 81 easily implemented actions have been identified that can create a landscape that is more pollinator friendly. And there is something for everyone to do, no matter how much land, time or interest one has in the issue. The message I take from this is that there is an innate interest in biodiversity amongst the Irish population, but this can only be unlocked with innovative approaches to conservation.
Another initiative that has proven successful in unlocking this interest is the Data Centre’s BioBlitz event. This year BioBlitz will be a celebration of the natural heritage of islands, with five of Ireland’s special islands participating. BioBlitz has struck a chord with people as it allows everyone to participate and experience at first hand the remarkable diversity of life supported by some of Ireland’s most special places. It is a simple, yet effective, way to communicate the message that the conservation of biological diversity is important, and to demonstrate in a tangible way that natural heritage is a valuable asset.
And the value of this natural asset is being eroded continuously, as shown by the National Biodiversity Indicators. Progress has been made on only 32% of the indicators established to track the delivery of the conservation of biodiversity in Ireland. This demonstrates that Ireland is falling well short of meeting its national and international conservation targets, and that a much more concerted effort is needed to remedy this. This concerted effort will require tapping into the innate interest in conservation amongst a much broader population base.
Here is a copy of an article I wrote for the latest issue of Biodiversity Ireland, on why I record biodiversity.
Most days, when I am out and about, I take note of the wildlife I see and submit the details to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. In this way, I am an active biological recorder. As long as I document what species I see, when I see it, and where it was seen, then I have a valid biological record. I know that whether it is a fleeting encounter with a stoat crossing the road or a more detailed list of species for one of my favourite sites, the information I collect is valuable.
Value of one-off sightings
I know that recording one-off encounters with species like the stoat can help to build up a picture of its distribution in Ireland. The Irish stoat (Mustela ermine hibernica) is one of Ireland’s really special species, a near endemic to Ireland. Yet there is little empirical data on its distribution for it is an exceptionally challenging species to study. As part of the Atlas of Mammals in Ireland 2010-2015 project more than 1,100 sightings of Irish stoat have been submitted by people across the country, allowing us to better understand the species distribution in Ireland. And thanks to the online data portal, Biodiversity Maps, all of these observations of Ireland’s threatened and protected species are now freely available to local authorities and other land managers to improve the quality of their decision-making to assist nature conservation.
Recording common species
Periodically I also record the commoner species, for who knows what the future holds? I love seeing yellowhammer signing from telegraph poles near where I live in Kilkenny, but I know that they are rare or absent from other parts of Ireland. My father told of, in his youth, being deafened by calling corncrakes in north Kerry, a species long since gone from that region. Think of the value of having a detailed database of observations of this once common species so that we could present dramatic quantitative information on the impact that drainage and land management has had on this iconic species?
Contributing to large Atlas projects
Being an unskilled botanist, I can probably identify only about 100 of our commoner plant species. But I also record these for I know the more I record, slowly the number of species I can confidently identify increases. And every little bit helps. At the moment fieldwork is under way for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland’s Atlas 2020 project, a huge project that aims to map the distribution of all plants across Britain and Ireland. Comparing the results of this Atlas with two previous atlases, published in 1962 and 2002, provide valuable data on the changing nature of Ireland’s flora, and insights into the impacts of, for example, climate change and invasive species. For large projects of this kind, recording of even the commoner plants helps to achieve baseline coverage.
Identifying Ireland’s threatened species
One advantage of submitting my data to the Data Centre is that all my records are stored in a database and I can map and query them online. I don’t have to worry about managing my own records, or making backups – all that is done for me. Looking back at my old records I notice that I observed a wall brown butterfly in my garden on 20 August, 2000. I have long since forgotten I had seen one in Kilkenny. Certainly I have not seen one since, as this is now a rare species in the county. I wonder have they become extinct in the county in the last 10 years?
Collating historic records of this kind into different date periods allows us to detect if a species range has contracted or expanded over time. Using criteria developed by the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) the risk of extinction faced by species can be assessed objectively. The process, known as Red Lists, has been completed for 10 taxonomic groups in Ireland and shows that on average, about 20% of species are threatened with extinction. For bees, such an important group that provide valuable pollination services, over 30% of species are threatened with extinction in Ireland. These are important, if not alarming, findings that should feed into policy to conserve biodiversity. On checking the Butterfly Red List I find that the wall brown is indeed, one of three species endangered with extinction in Ireland.
I don’t have a great deal of time for scientific survey, but to make best use of the time available to me, I have signed up to walk a butterfly transect each week as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. This gives me an excuse to get into the field, and I know that by walking the identical route, in a standard way on different dates, the data I collect is used to monitor changes in butterfly populations. For I am one of 120 recorders who contribute to make the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme the largest citizen science insect monitoring scheme in Ireland. And thanks to our combined efforts the scheme can show categorically, for example, which years were good for butterflies and which were not, and over time between-year population variation can be separated from long-term population trends. And the European Grassland Butterfly Indicator has just been published by the European Environment Agency, so I have the satisfaction of knowing my sighing are contributing to policy formulation at both the national and European level.
Ecological modelling – the future of Atlas projects?
When I started recording a number of decades ago, the task was to cover as much ground as possible, recording as many species as possible. Now, with the greater power of statistical modelling, predictive models of the likelihood of encountering a given species based on partial, or incomplete data can be derived. In the very near future I am looking forward to participating in a recording scheme where distribution maps are generated by statistical modelling and my task will be to visit specific area not to derive a species list per se, but to confirm the prediction of which species should be present. It may take me some time to adjust to this new way of surveying but I will do it, as I will know that my recording effort will be far more efficient and the information generated far more valuable in the long run.
The long dark days of winter are a dangerous time; it gives one far too much time for thinking and pondering on the meaning of life, etc. Well this winterI got to thinking. Even if all nature conservation policy was fully implemented in Ireland in the short-term, there are still additional things that I would like to see happen. So here is a list of 10 ‘big ticket’ additional initiatives I would like to see happen in nature conservation in Ireland before I die. It could be considered my ‘Nature Conservation Bucket List’!
A State Agency for nature conservation in Ireland
It is somewhat of an anomaly that Ireland doesn’t have a state agency with responsibility for nature conservation. Ireland has the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental protection, Inland Fisheries Ireland for fisheries management, Coillte for forest management, Waterways Ireland for waterways management, and so forth, so why not an agency for nature conservation? (NPWS is part of a Government Department).
Designate sites of national, regional and local importance.
In contrast with most other European countries, Ireland lacks a network of legally protected sites of national, regional and local importance (the current network of SACs and SPAs are protecting sites of European importance). Such a network was in place until 1990 with the designation of the Areas of Scientific Interest, but has become redundant as a legal challenge found the designation process to be unconstitutional. The removal of this pillar of nature conservation policy should be rectified.
Provide additional financial incentives to promote positive land management for conservation
Nature Reserves and positive land management for conservation are a vital element in any nature conservation policy. Special financial and taxation incentives should be available for landowners and farmers who are willing to designate their land as Important Nature Areas under a medium to long term agreement, and carry out specific, target-driven management actions to achieve nature conservation objectives.
Articulate a vision for Ireland’s biodiversity in 2050
A vision for what the Irish countryside and biodiversity should look like in 2050 needs to be articulated, and a high-level blueprint presented for the structures and actions that are needed to achieve this vision. This would help conservation to have something positive to strive for, and introduce some unity of purpose within the conservation movement.
Appoint a Conservation Champion
All causes need champions, and there are few if any conservation champions operating at a sufficiently high level in Ireland to contribute to political, economic and social dialogue. As a public service, an Office for Nature Conservation should be established, and a Commissioner for Nature Conservation appointed, whose job it is to influence high level decision-making for the benefit of nature conservation.
Invest in survey, monitoring and research
Biodiversity is a science-based policy. Scientific survey and monitoring is needed to document Ireland’s biodiversity resource, to understand how it functions and to track how it is changing. Investment in survey and research should be seen as an investment in human capital through employment of high-calibre professionals who can make a valuable contribution to Irish economy and society by improving the quality of decision-making.
Properly resource the Wildlife Grant Scheme operated by the Heritage Council
The Wildlife Grant Scheme operated by the Heritage Council has delivered many local and community based initiatives, filling a very important niche in conservation management. It is targeted, well administered and promotes grass-roots, community-led initiatives in an extremely cost effective manner. The future of the scheme needs to be secured and properly resourced so that it can expand and facilitate funding of additional projects on a multi-annual basis.
Introduce a high level promotional campaign to promote Ireland’s biodiversity
The Wild Atlantic Way has been a phenomenal success in promoting tourism along the west coast of Ireland. A similar large-scale promotional drive is needed to promote Ireland’s biodiversity, its value and the benefits it brings to society. This would be a high-level, properly funded campaign with the objective of garnering public and political support for nature conservation.
Support conservation NGOs
A dynamic conservation NGO sector is good for civic society and can contribute in a meaningful and positive manner to development of public policy. Greater engagement by the environmental NGOs in public policy needs to be facilitated and encouraged, and both human and financial resources provided to assist capacity building within the sector.
Oh, and sort out the mess with the conservation of protected Raised Bogs in Ireland.
Raised Bogs are of inordinate conservation value in Ireland, and less than 1% of this once extant resource remains active. The legal protection for these last remaining active raised bogs is in place; what is needed is the political will to resolve outstanding issues and deliver proper protection for the benefit of future generations.
Here are some of the species that made the news from the year just gone.
Bermuda Petrel: In wildlife terms, this was certainly the find of the year. A Bermuda Petrel (also know as a Cahow), one of the world’s rarest birds was recorded in Irish waters for the first time in spring of this year. Niall Keogh (BirdWatch Ireland) was on board the research vessel the Celtic Voyager over the Porcupine Bank about 170 nautical miles north west of Slea Head when he made the amazing discovery of a Bermuda Petrel. This was the first sighting of this species in Irish waters, indeed for the entire North-east Atlantic. The species was thought extinct for over 300 years but was dramatically rediscovered in 1951, breeding on just four small islets off the Bermuda coast, with a tiny population of just 18 pairs. Since its rediscovery it has been the subject of a painstaking conservation programme with slow but steady success, and the world population is now estimated to be 108 breeding pairs. Seeing the Bermuda Petrel on a expedition in Irish waters was considered a million to one chance as this was the furthest sighting of the species from its breeding ground. The discovery by Niall Keogh, and confirmed by Ryan Wilson-Parr, made the birding news across the world, and made every birdwatcher in Ireland extremely envious of Niall’s discovery.
Asian Clam: The invasive Asian Clam made the headlines in September when its discovery led to the closure of a stretch of the River Shannon to angling. Large populations of this highly invasive species were found along the hot water discharge from the ESB electricity generating station on the River Shannon at Lanesborough, Co. Longford. Inland Fisheries Ireland took the unprecedented step to close the river to angling as a rapid response measure in an attempt to stop its accidental spread on fishing equipment such as nets, rods, boats and clothing. The Asian Clam was first discovered in Ireland from the River Barrow at St. Mullin’s in 2010, and has since been found on the River Nore and at five sites on the River Shannon.
Southern Cuckoo Bumblebee: there was great excitement when in June when a species of bumblebee not seen in Ireland for 88 years was rediscovered. The discovery of the Southern cuckoo bumblebee, thought extinct in Ireland, was made by Eddie Hill, a Gardener at St. Enda’s Park in Rathfarnham, Dublin. Eddie had begun monitoring of bee populations as part of the Data Centre’s Irish Bumblebee Monitoring Scheme and was astonished to make such a discovery in his first year.
Lion’s Mane Jellyfish: Lion’s mane Jelly made the news in August, with reports that 17 were removed from Sandycove Beach. These large bell-shaped jellyfish have long tentacles which can cause severe stings to bathers. As a result, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council erected warning signs at three beaches in South Dublin, Killiney, Sandycove and Seapoint, alerting bathers to the presence of jellyfish. This story followed hard on the heels of an earlier story of reports of Portuguese man o’ war, which strictly speaking isn’t a jellyfish, and barrel jellyfish being washed up on our shores. But according to jellyfish expert, Tom Doyle, there were no verified sightings of Portuguese man o’ war in Ireland in 2014, so the reports were in error. Being the silly season with regard to news, the jellyfish caused a bit of a media flurry at the time.
White-tailed Sea Eagle: Raptors were in the news quite a bit in 2014, mostly for all the wrong reasons. But there was a real feel good factor around the success of the White-tailed Sea Eagles breeding for the second year running at Mountshannon, Co. Tipperary. The local community has taken to the new residents, and a special viewing and information point was opened to cater for visitors to view these magnificent birds. The Mountshannon pairs was one of 14 breeding pairs established in Ireland in 2014, an increase of four on last year. Seven pairs laid eggs in 2014, with one chick at Mountshannon being the only fledged chick. The White-tailed Sea Eagle re-introduction programme began in 2007 in Killarney National Park and 100 birds released. The programme has suffered some setbacks, in particular with the mindless poisoning of at least 12 the birds. Thanks to the dedication of the Golden Eagle Trust, National Parks and Wildlife and the many volunteers, the White-tailed Sea Eagle project might just be on the cusp to great success.
Pygmy Shrew: The Pygmy Shrew, one of the world’s smallest mammals, hit the news in June with claims that it is disappearing from parts of Ireland because of the impact of the newly arrived invasive Greater White-toothed Shrew. A team of researchers led by Allan McDevitt in UCD showed the Greater White-toothed Shrew was rapidly colonising the midlands of Ireland at an alarming rate of over 5km per year. Where they occur, they are likely to outcompete their smaller relation, and possibly leading to the local extinction of our native Pygmy Shrew. For a mammal that has lived in Ireland for thousands of years, this is a real shame.
Japanese Kelp: September came the news that the invasive species Japanese Kelp, was discovered for the first time in the Republic of Ireland. Already known to occur at Carrickfergus Marina in Belfast Lough since 2012, it was confirmed to have spread to Carlingford Lough in the Republic of Ireland in September. Japanese Kelp is native to Japan, Korea and China, but has since spread to New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Europe. Within Europe it occurs in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy. It is considered one of the worst 100 invasive species in the world. Japanese kelp is the latest in a large number of non-native and invasive species that have colonised our shores.
Waved fork-moss: In June, the Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, T.D. issued a press release announcing the discovery of a species of moss previously presumed extinct in Ireland. The rare moss Waved fork-moss was discovered in Clara Bog Nature Reserve by Dr. George Smith who stumbled upon it while preparing for a workshop at the site. The moss which is a specialist of raised bog habitat was thought extinct because of the large amount of raised bog destroyed in Ireland in the last century. Clara Bog Nature Reserve protects a 450ha raised bog, one of the best examples of this habitat in the world. Instead of cutting peat from these extra-ordinarily rare habitats, we should be cherishing them.
Seagulls: well what can I say? The impact of ‘seagulls’ was raised in the Seanad by Ned O’Sullivan, who wanted Dublin ‘…to introduce policies to limit seagull numbers and abate their noise levels and more aggressive behaviours’. Why? Because apparently inhabitants of Dublin were being kept awake ‘by seagulls screeching throughout the night. They are fighting, bickering and are raucous. They have caused sleep deprivation’. He also claims that ‘..youngsters have been attacked in parks and had their lunches snatched.’ Thus ensued a great deal of media coverage on the topic of seagulls, much of which it must be said ridiculed the concerns of the Senator.
Hen harrier: The hen harrier has been in the news on and off during the year, mostly for all the wrong reasons. Early in the year it was the threat to hen harriers from large scale wind farm development, then it moved to the issue of afforestation. Hen harriers and afforestation restrictions has become a hot political issue as farmers are ‘…not being properly compensated’ for the ‘restriction’ on their farming activities within Special Protection Areas (SPAs), according to the Irish Farmers Association. A new farming group, Irish Farmers with Designated Land, has been lobbying hard to have the restrictions on new afforestation within SPA weakened, as they claim the €7,500 per year payment proposed under the new GLAS+ scheme is inadequate ‘compensation’ for their ‘losses’. Their efforts seem to be paying off as Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly is now championing their cause, and Minister for State at the Department of Agriculture, Tom Hayes is in favour of allowing further afforestation within SPAs designated for hen harrier conservation. The controversy over hen harriers and afforestation has caused an impasse over designation of 90,000ha for SPAs, an impasse which the EU Commission claims needs to be resolved before Ireland’s Rural Development Plan can be finalised. Earlier this month, BirdWatch Ireland and the Irish Raptor Study Group issued a statement calling for the end of vilification of the Hen Harrier. It also claimed that the allowing further afforestation in SPAs would be ‘…an environmental disaster and have a devastating effect on the national hen harrier population’. No doubt, this issue will remain in the news for 2015.
Hidden away between the small villages of Kilmaganny and Hugginstown, at Aghaviller in Kilkenny, is a wonderful local woodland amenity. Castlemorris Wood forms part of the 2,000ha of woodland owned and managed by Coillte in the locality. It once formed the estate of Castlemorris House, one of the largest houses in the country, but was razed to the ground in 1978. All that remains now are some remnants of the stable yard and a curious assemblage of trees.
The woodland probably doesn’t support anything very exciting in terms of rare species (but I don’t actually know that for a fact), yet that is not to diminish its biodiversity value. The woodland has a nice mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland. But the woodland does have the appearance of not being aggressively managed for its commercial value (which is a good thing!); the scrubby undergrowth and plenty of dead wood giving it a ‘natural’ appearance in places. The network of woodland paths and narrow tracks that weave their way through the estate provide a very pleasant walk and are well used by locals. A 7 km loop walk around the wood is one of the routes promoted as part of the the Trail Kilkenny initiative.
But the naturalness of the wood is deceptive for much of the estate is planted with beech, a species which is not native in the true sense of the word, as it was introduced to Ireland sometime in the last 1,000 years. There are mixed opinions on the biodiversity value of the ‘non-native’ beech, but for me this is an entirely esoteric debate for it is now naturalised over much of the country. And the patches of woodland that remain in Kilkenny add important diversity to the farmed landscape dominated by intensively managed grassland and cereal fields.
Castlemorris Woods looks really beautiful with the autumnal colours. It has been a particularly good beech mast year, with mast carpeting the woodland floor. Currently the mast is being devoured by woodpigeon, but will become increasingly more important for finches as the winter progresses. Perhaps it will attract in brambling, the winter relative of the chaffinch that arrives to Ireland from Scandanavia and Siberia each year. The woods also have many majestic sweet chestnut trees, and these too have produced a bountiful harvest this year.
Now is the time to explore the many different species of fungi that grow in abundance on the woodland floor, and sprout from rotting timber. Even up to the end of October, shieldbugs, butterflies and hoverflies were to be seen basking in the late autumn sunshine.
But the woods hold something of interest at all times of the year. For me, the chance of seeing a red squirrel is always an attraction as there is still a healthy population here. But the mammal population of Castlemorris Wood is changing. Recent years has seen the arrival of the beautifully elusive pine marten, a species which fortunately is expanding its range greatly in Ireland. It is thought that this expansion is due to the increased forest cover in Ireland, but be that as it may, it can now be seen in farmland away well away from woodland. And the pine marten expansion has coincided with the contraction in range of the invasive grey squirrel who seems to be moving out of areas when pine marten arrive. As pine marten like to eat grey squirrels, it is understandable that grey squirrels tend to find their environment less desirable with their new neighbours. But the theory is that red squirrels can live in harmony with pine martens as they are lighter and, by moving to the extremities of branches, can keep out of reach of the pine marten. Hence, it seems that the advance of the pine marten has benefited the red squirrel, to the detriment of its larger and brasher American relation. And pine marten droppings (or scats) can be seen in places at Castlemorris Woods, so the prospects for our native red squirrel looks quite good here.
And in the undergrowth things are changing too. Another non-native mammal, the bank vole, was first recorded near Listowel, Co. Kerry in 1964 and is expanding its range in a north-easterly direction. It now is found over almost half the country and has made it as far as Kilkenny city. Castlemorris Wood has been colonised by the bank vole in recent years and it is known that wood mice are being replaced by the bank vole where they invade. What impact this replacement is having on the ecology, however, is still unknown.
Castlemorris Wood is a wonderful local amenity and there are always people out walking and enjoying the site, no matter the weather. Coillte manages woodland sites like Castlemorris Wood all across the country and it is easy to take these local amenities for granted. It is only when amenities like this are threatened that their real value is appreciated. A short time ago there was a very real possibility that Ireland’s forest resource was to be priviatised and the open forest policy adopted by Coillte would have been placed in jeopardy. Fortunately this did not come to pass, and hopefully it never will. Sites like Castlemorris Wood are valuable natural assets, and Coillte does a good job at managing them on our behalf. Long may it continue.
Did you ever spare a thought for the jellyfish? I certainly haven’t, but there is far more to a jellyfish than meets the eye. Jellyfish have been quietly living their lives, roaming the great oceans of the world for at least 500 million years. They evolved during the Cambrian Explosion, a short period in the Earth’s history that saw a great flurry of evolutionary activity. While other organisms joined this evolutionary rat-race to go on to become dinosaurs and a myriad of other creatures, the jellyfish, happy with its lot, shunned evolution and retired to the peace and quiet of the high seas. This may, in part, be due to the fact that they are without brains, or at least brains as we typically think of them. Their bodies, of which more than 95% is water, comprise two basic layers of cells. One forms a loose network of nerves called the ‘nerve net’ which is considered the most basic of all nervous systems identified in multi-cellular organisms. This primitive system allows jellyfish to sense their environment, such as changes in water chemistry indicating food, light sensors to detect the presence of light, and balance sensors to let them know if they are facing up or down. Basic, but effective weaponry, which has allowed jellyfish to prosper down through the millennia.
It is a misconception that jellyfish just aimlessly sail the high seas at the whim of ocean currents and tides, for the manner in which certain species are geographical spread suggest they have some habitat preferences. Around the Irish coasts, for example, the barrel jellyfish each year forms enormous smacks (a ‘smack’ is the collective noun given to a group of jellyfish) off Rosslaire and Wexford Harbour, but is rarely seen elsewhere in such numbers. And the Lion’s Mane jellyfish seems to prefer the cooler waters off the coast of Dublin.
The knowledge of jellyfish around Irish coasts has increased in recent years thanks to research done by Tom Doyle, Damien Haberlin and colleagues at the Coastal Marine Research Centre at University College Cork, research that was spurred on by the apparent worldwide population explosion of jellyfish. It is thought that the removal of top level predators through over-fishing may have created conditions to allow jellyfish to flourish. Similarly, changes ascribed to climate change have also been implicated for this increase. There is no hard evidence to show that jellyfish have increased in any great numbers in Irish waters, however, the closure of beaches in Dublin in 2005 due to a Lion’s Mane jellyfish infestation, has raised the issue in the collective consciousness.
If your only encounter with a jellyfish is an unexpected eye-to-eye one when swimming, you could be forgiven for not being their greatest fan. Not all jellyfish are small unspectacular blobs of jelly, but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Lion’s Mane is a majestic reddish-brown gelatinous bulk over 1 metre in diameter with masses of long tentacles. Also spectacular are the wonderfully coloured and shaped Compass and Blue Jellyfishes, both roughly the size of a dinner plate. The Barrel Jellyfish is a huge mass of solid ghost-white jelly. Tom Doyle and his colleagues found one specimen that was 80cm in diameters and weighted in at 35kg. Now that’s a lot of jelly(fish).
Then there are the other jelly-like creatures found around the Irish coast. The wonderfully named ‘Portuguese Man-O-War’ which has a Cornish pastie shaped balloon as a float. Riding the waves with the balloon above water, it somehow resembles an old warship at full sail. But the Portuguese Man-O-War is not a jellyfish, nor is it even a species. Rather it is a colony of creatures that work together to eke out a living, much in the same way that marine corals do; scientifically they are referred to as Siphonophorae and are related to jellyfish, corals and others. But as its name suggests, give the Portuguese Man-O-War a wide berth for its body and tentacles, which can extend for 50m, contain a serious sting. Portuguese Man-O-War made the news headlines in 2012 when some were found washed ashore in Waterford and Cork, but fortunately they normally live further south and only venture north when unusual weather conditions persist.
But there are many other, less spectacular Siphonophorae living in Irish waters, beautifully shaped jellyfish of varying sizes, each with its own delicate shape and function. And jellyfish do serve important functions; because of their sheer abundance they eat vast quantities of plankton, crustaceans and fish, and in return vast quantities of jellyfish are themselves preyed upon, thus fuelling the marine food web. And jellyfish can be quite the delicacy; the leatherback turtle apparently likes nothing better than to feast on jellyfish, and has been known to swim all the way from the Caribbean to Irish waters searching them out.
So next time you meet a jellyfish spare a thought for how they have done so well for themselves in this rat race of life on earth.
Running along the eastern bank of the River Barrow is the old tow-path. Built in the 18th Century to tow barges plying the waterway, it has long since become redundant for its original use. The picturesque tow-path is now used by locals as an amenity, and is increasingly promoted as an amenity to encourage activity holiday-makers to visit the villages that straddle the Kilkenny and Carlow border; Goresbridge, Borris, Graiguenamanagh and St. Mullins, beautiful unspoiled villages with unique Irish charm.
Ballytigelea Bridge provides access to one of the nicest stretches of the Barrow. Downstream the river flows along the wonderful semi-natural deciduous woodlands of Borris Demesne, linear patches of wet alluvial woodland backing onto to majestic ancient oaks. North of the bridge the river valley opens onto pastoral farmland with beautiful luxuriant species-rich hedgerows and areas of waterlogged ground and pools, each with their own special character. The grassy tow-path is maintained to keep it free for walkers, but the level of intervention is minimal, so it retains is natural feel.
This is a strange time of year. Winter is almost upon us yet on some pet days it still feels like summer. Today along the Barrow the temperature was in the high teens with plenty of bright sunshine. A flock of about 20 swallows were feeding over the river, a surprise, for in most years by now they would have left on their migration south.
Near Ballytigelea Lock, red admirals were basking in the warm sun and, much to my delight, I also came across a couple of comma butterflies. These look for all the world like small tortoiseshell butterflies with badly frayed wings. But the comma is a relatively new addition to the Irish fauna. It was first recorded 2007 or 2008 in County Wexford where it gained a foothold and has continued to expand its range. It now occurs over most of Wexford and has spread into Waterford, Wicklow and Dublin, and is expanding northwards along the river network. There are established populations along the Slaney and Barrow Rivers, and Ballytigelea seems to mark the limit to its range at the moment. I hadn’t seen a comma so far this year, so seeing one so late in the season was an unexpected treat.
The juxtaposition of butterflies basking in the sun and shrubs laden with autumn fruits is a reminder of the changing season. The autumn colours are everywhere; the rusty brown bracken and bramble, vivid red dog rose and guilder rose berries, the carmine guelder rose foliage and the curious vivid orange spindle seeds breaking out from their deep pink shell. Less spectacular but more abundant are the blackberries, haws and sloes, and even the crab apples are almost the size of eating apples this year. A natural bonanza for the birds this winter.
The natural tow-path along the Barrow is a wonderful resource for local and visitor alike, and serves as a huge natural artery for wildlife. Walkers, joggers, anglers and boaters all use and enjoy the amenity, in perfect harmony. The low-level management of the tow-path and the discrete signage make for a experience in keeping with the character of the amenity. It came as a shock to me, therefore, to read a notice pinned on a gate at Ballytigelea, that Waterways Ireland are seeking planning permission to resurface the tow-path with limestone filling. There may be some sound reason why Waterways Ireland are seeking to do this, but for me this would be a huge act of vandalism and totally unnecessary. The Barrow tow-path is an extremely valuable natural asset for the locality – by all means help and promote greater use of the resource, but lay off changing the character of the experience. I’m sure there are better ways of spending the money.
Everyone seems to have bucket lists, or wish lists these days. Not to be outdone, there are ten species that I hope to see during my month long Wild Ireland Tour. Some I have seen before, other I have not. Regardless, all are special and a privilege to see. So my wish list, in no particular order is: Continue reading 10 species on my wish list→