A walk in the woods

14th March –  The Corona Virus is a real worry, but as long as my family and I stay healthy I have the pleasure of still being able to get out into the fresh air and enjoy the countryside. It’s a cool windy day; not quite raining, just damp and no more than about 8 degrees. The dog is getting restless for he knows it is time for a walk. I decided to visit Glencoum, an afforested hill a few kilometres south of where I live. I walk my butterfly transect here each year, and it is one of my regular haunts for in Kilkenny, there are surprisingly few areas where it is free to walk off-road.

Today, my dog and I had the place to ourselves. I walked the route of my butterfly transect to check it out before the monitoring season begins. It’s a two kilometre loop through the forestry along a forest track. I was surprised that there were so few signs of spring, certainly far fewer than visible at lower elevations. The leaves of the honeysuckle are well out and the larch leaves are just breaking free of the twigs. But other than these there was little fresh growth. Even the birds were mute today. Just a couple of chaffinch, blue tit and goldcrest calling, with the only song coming from a couple of Robins. Glencoum is a favourite place of mine. It has been planted with sitka spruce but there are areas too of mixed woodland around the perimeter. Birch, oak, larch, willow and hazel grow here, and there is even a line of sweet chestnut trees and some horrible leylandii. The leylandii is spreading, closing in on the path, and in places little saplings are growing. I spent a few minutes pulling out a dozen or so young plants from the path that I had missed in autumn, the last time I weeded here.   I am intrigued how this combination of trees came to grow here. The sitka spruce were certainly planted, but the others must be the remnants of older woodland, but even this wouldn’t explain the sweet chestnut or leylandii.

I am somewhat fascinated by Glencoum. Trees were planted here on what used to be dry heath. The forest paths created by infilling with shattered shale, retain some of the characteristic of dry heath, and are surprisingly biodiverse in summer. Knapweed and Bird’s-foot trefoil grow in profusion along the tracks, and these in turn support a wonderful insect life. I can rarely identify any of the masses of hoverflies and other flying and crawling creatures that I see here in summer, but for me, seeing dingy skipper and common blue butterflies flying low over the ground in spring is a real delight. Then in late summer, when there is a flush of vanessid butterflies (the peacocks, red admirals, painted lady and small tortoiseshells) sometimes butterflies are so numerous it makes counting them difficult. There is no doubt but these paths are important for biodiversity, yet, take a few strides off the path into the forestry plantation and it is a dramatically different picture. Shade and a dreary understorey of moss and the odd fungus the only real signs of biodiversity between the spruce trunks. It is not true to say that these forests are sterling. But it is true to say that it is hard to think of any other type of forestry that would have less biodiversity associated with it. And I know that soon the clear-felling machinery will move in causing utter destruction to the landscape, soil and water.

Today I had little choice but to explore the minutiae of nature along the forest edge. The light blue foliose Parmotrema lichen was advancing on last year’s larch cones that no longer had the vitality to protect themselves. The smooth bark of the hazel was a masterpiece of lichen landscape, where different species competed for space to grow and conquer their relatives. A veritable lichen battlefield and cryptogam war zone, the lines of attack and defence clearly visible as bands and blotches all over the trunks and branches. I could make out some species of Caloplaca, Lecanora and Opegrapha, but precisely which ones? I fear I will never know. For I lack the meticulous approach needed to truly get to grips with this difficult group of organisms. And there, standing proud on an oak twig was an insect gall, last year’s wasp creation. Even on this damp, dull day, I enjoyed my walk in the woods.

 

Biodiversity and the General Election 2020

I have looked at the manifestos of the different political parties for General Election 2020 to assess their ambition to address the biodiversity crisis in Ireland. I have taken a fairly straightforward approach to this. My starting rationale is that because Dáil Éireann has already declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency I would expect each party to have specific biodiversity policies and actions to address this emergency. I haven’t looked at their other policies to see their potential impact on biodiversity.

Here is my summary of the different party’s positions.

 

 

Biodiversity is mentioned as one of the issues under the Environment section headed Environment – statement of biodiversity.

The text reads:

Irish Native Bio-diversity

Ireland’s Bio diversity is being hammered. This is dangerous at a number of different levels. Even if you set aside our responsibility as a society to protect the diversity and richness of the flora and fauna in our natural environment, there is still a significant economic cost to the destruction of our environment. It is estimated that Ireland’s biodiversity contributes €2.6 billion each year to the Irish economy through ecosystem services.

Ireland has traded for generations on its image of being a green and natural island. We have made billions of euro from food and tourism on the basis of this image.”

My comment: I couldn’t find a single suggestion as to how this issue would be addressed if Aontú formed part of a new Government.

Score: 0 out of 10

Fianna Fail’s election manifestion is called Ireland for all.

A high level commitment under A sustainable future proposes to “Create a new Biodiversity Fund to protect species”.

Under its agricultural policies in relation to Areas of Natural Constraint it proposes three actions; “1. Allocate an additional €50m above 2020 levels to bring the ANC scheme funding to €300m per annum. 2. Enhance biodiversity management of lands by fully restoring the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Farm Plan Scheme with an additional €4m in funding. 3. Ensure the NPWS completes a Threat Response Plan for the conservation of Hen Harriers on designated land.”

Under the Create a sustainable Forestry sector it promises to “Update the legislative mandate of Coillte Teoranta so it will also have a specific remit for supporting the delivery of climate change commitments and biodiversity protection”.

Under the Secure a strong Fisheries sector it proposes to “Protect Marine Biodiversity and Enhancing Marine Tourism. This includes introducing an ‘Oceans Act’ to protect Ireland’s seas, while working at an EU level to achieve the establishment of ambitious 2030 targets”.

Under the Safeguard our biodiversity, it proposed five actions.

  1. “Deliver the 119 targeted actions in the National Biodiversity Plan”
  2. “Initiate a new €10m Biodiversity Fund to protect our natural heritage and support environmental NGOs”
  3. “Increase the budget for the National Parks and Wildlife Service by €25m by 2025, so that it has sufficient resources to advice and support the National Biodiversity Action Plan and tackle areas of non-compliance”
  4. “Launch a national re-wilding plan across OPW and Local Authority parks.”
  5. “Ensure the public sector leads by example in biodiversity by protecting and rewilding green spaces in all public sector premises. The Oireachtas will lead the way re-wilding Leinster Lawn and re-introducing a green space in Kildare street.”

My comment: Fianna Fail pledges quite a significant increased budget to assist biodiversity conservation, which is to be welcomed. However, other than pledging more funding I get no sense from the manifesto that Fianna Fail understands the drivers of biodiversity loss, and the transformative changes that are needed to begin to address this crisis.

My score: 4 out of 10

Fine Gael sets out its policies in its 109 page manifesto A future to look forward to 

Under the heading Sustainable Irish Farming it includes a section on Supporting biodiversity. Specifically it promises to  “continue to invest strategically in programmes under the CAP that support biodiversity. We will complete a national hedgerow survey, …and will continue to fund initiatives under agri-environment schemes that support biodiversity initiatives in this area, building on our significant investment in the hen harrier, freshwater pearl mussel, apiculture and European Partnerships initiative (EIP) projects.”

Under Funding Climate Action it promises  “An €80 million Enhanced Peatland Restoration and Rehabilitation scheme to run over four years, which will restore thousands of hectares of Bord na Móna bogs to a high standard, so that they can store carbon, foster biodiversity and provide 200 jobs.

A section under The importance of our biodiversity the main committment is that  “Under Project Ireland 2040, we are investing €60  million in the greater protection of our nature and biodiversity. Central to this will be the continued implementation of the third National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 and building on the commitments made at the first National Biodiversity Conference, which took place in 2019.”

Under the Restoring our bogs section, it states “A major restoration effort has been underway on our raised bogs since 2011. We will continue to invest in peatlands restoration, rewetting and restoring native peatlands. This will include funding to community groups to develop projects that promote our peatlands.”

Under Local Biodiversity Project four comittments are made:

  • To increase funding for local nature groups and local authorities to work in partnership on [existing local biodiversity] projects”
  • “continue to raise awareness of biodiversity through initiatives,
    including an Annual Biodiversity Awards Scheme”
  • “achieve further UNESCO designations for Irish sites, including the Lough Allen region.”

Under the Implementation of the ‘biodiversity duty’ section Fine Gael promise to “ensure full implementation of the ‘biodiversity duty’ on public bodies to have regard to policies, guidelines, and objectives to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the National Biodiversity Action Plan.

Under the Appointing an Education Liaisons Officers in our National Parks heading it promises to  “appoint Education Liaison Officers in each of our National Parks to work with schools across the country, in order to promote the importance of biodiversity and the natural world, and to involve pupils in the work that goes on in our National Parks.” In addition, it seeks “to promote biodiversity initiatives across primary, postprimary and third-level sectors and seek to ensure that schools, colleges and universities across the country play an active role in providing areas to promote biodiversity.”

My comment: The manifestion largely draws on the continued implementation of actions in the National Biodiversity Plan. This is to be welcomed, but mind you, when in Government Fine Gael didn’t allocate any additional funding to help its implementation. Overall the policy manifesto does not recognise the dire biodiversity crisis that we have in Ireland, and proposing what is effectively a ‘business as usual’ policy when clearly it is not working is just not good enough.

My score: 3 out of 10.

Green party has a separate Position Paper on Biodiversity and the first section in the consolidated 62 manifesto Towards 2030: a decade of change deals with Addressing the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency

The four page Position Paper on Biodiversity begins by setting out the evidence for Biodiversity Crisis and identifies the drivers of biodiversity loss- habitat destruction, pollution, growth of invasive species, land use change and climate change

The position paper identifies 12 highlights of their policy and these are elaborated upon under five headings, namely; Institutions, Organisations and Policymaking, Farms and forests, Water, Wetlands, and Measures for Specific Species.

The twelve actions are:

  1. Work to ensure Brexit does not have negative impact on Ireland’s biodiversity
  2. Publish a National Land Use Plan to maximise biodiversity
  3. Split NPWS into two bodies and substantially increase funding
  4. Legislate for protection of natural heritage, including stricter planning on major land use changes
  5. Government Task Force on Farming and Biodiversity
  6. Task force will inform the development of a National Action Plan on Biodiversity in Agriculture
  7. New afforestation scheme to pay 120,000 farmers to plant one hectare of woodland on their farms.
  8. Switch in forest policy toward mixed, biodiverse, Close to Nature-Continuous Cover forestry
  9. Designate 50% of Irish territorial waters as Marine Protected Areas
  10. End ‘denuding’ of upland blanket bogs and undertake a major programme of peatland restoration and rewetting
  11. fund and support the National Pollinator Plan across all land types.
  12. At least a doubling of the core funding provided to Environmental NGOs

There are some other elements of their proposals outlined in the text of the document, such as acknowleding the transboundary context for biodiversity actions and the introduction of annual audits of local authority environmental performance. There is also a clear statement that if in power the Green Party would “encourage an extensification of the animal agricultural model which places emphasis on biodiversity, habitat creation and other environmental outcomes.” It also mentions the legendary ecologists E.O. Wilson!

My comment: This is a clear policy statement that articulates the problems and prospective solutions to tackle many of the issues around biodiversity loss. Many actions, such as a National Land Use Plan and a Task Force on Farming and Biodivesity, are strategic and could lead to new direction for biodiversity. The efforts to reduce the conflict between farming and biodiversity are particularly welcomed.

My score: 9 out of 10

 

The Labour Party sets out its policies in a 44 page manifesto Building an Equal Society. It addresses biodiversity under three sections.

  1. AgricultureLabour will support the growth of diverse and organic farming methods to enhance biodiversity outcomes in the agricultural sector.”
  2. ForestryLabour will instruct the Department, along with Coillte and the National Council for Forest Research and Development, to develop and implement an ambitious national strategy for forestry and the “bioeconomy” of new products made from wood pulp, including biodegradable industrial foams and plastic substitutes, with an aim of further increasing the amount of land under forest cover, and striking the right balance between continuous cover, native species and commercial Sitka Spruce growing with the aim of maximising carbon capture, biodiversity and sustainable jobs.
  3. Cleaner air, water and habitatsLabour will require detailed annual reports to be published on Ireland’s biodiversity and the status of habitats, as part of a strengthened biodiversity strategy. We will invest more in protecting habitats to preserve biodiversity.

My comment: These actions attempt to address only some isssues of biodiversity loss, and what is proposes is little more than generic comittments. The manifesto fails entirely to recognise the biodiversity crisis we face, and lacks any ambition in this area.

My score: 1 out of 10

People before Profit sets out its policies in a 40 page Election Manifesto which does not mention the word ‘biodiversity’. But it does propose two actions that could benefit biodiversity.

One of the actions listed under the Green Jobs heading reads  “Introduce payments for farmers to reforest the land: Ireland has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in Europe and farmers struggle to make an income off the land. We would pay farmers €3,000 per hectare to reforest and tend to new native forestry – drawing down carbon and improving lives in rural Ireland.

A second action listed under the A new deal for farming communities, reads “Incentivise the development of organic farming for local consumption and direct farmer markets”.

My comment: People Before Profit shows little, if any interest in the biodiversity crisis.

My score: 1 out of 10

Sinn Fein outlines its policies in its 110 page manifesto Giving workers and families a break – A manifesto for change. The only mention of biodiversity is under the section dealing with Agriculture, Food and Marine. It reads “All farmers should be supported through CAP payments in protecting hedgerows and other natural features of their land, which enhance the environment and biodiversity. Under current rules, livestock farmers are often encouraged to remove hedgerows to increase farm sizes. That needs to change in the next Common Agricultural Policy”. 

My comment: The protection of hedgerows is an important issue, but it is hardly the only one that contributes to our biodiversity crisis.

My score: I out of 10

 

Social Democrats have a specific policy on biodiversity, one of 10 key policy areas.  It is titled Biodiversity: protecting our fauna and natural habitats, a beautifully produced six page document.

The opening paragraph under the heading Our Urgent Biodiversity Challenege holds no punches “Biodiversity loss is one of the biggest challenges that Ireland faces. This is not a crisis that has just come upon us, but has been years in the making. For far too long, we have relied on the false narrative that Ireland as a green country, is also an environmentally friendly one

It then highlights the recent IPBES global assessment, some evidence of biodiversity loss from Ireland, and the fact that Dáil Éireann declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency in 2019. It goes on to stress the importance of working with farmers to restore biodiversity.

Under the heading of Our Natural Habitat, it highlights the need to promote more broadleaf deciduous forestry, to buy ‘unprofitable’ farmland to plant native forest, and to expand the area of National Park. Under the heading Our Fauna it highlights the dramatic insect declines and makes a committment to fund conservation.  The document provides a very succinct overview of its policy objective – “If we wish Ireland to be a country where nature thrives once again, we must also continue to fund conservation for our vulnerable and endangered larger animal species, on land and in water, and, where suitable habitat exists, endeavour to reintroduce species which have become extinct on the island due to human activity.” This is a statement that I might use in future presentations.

The policy proposes 18 specific actions to address the biodiversity crisis. These are:

  1. A voluntary purchase scheme for unprofitable farmland, to be
    converted into protected native woodland
  2. Incentives for the practice of agroforestry
  3. Incentives for the planting of native trees on private land
  4. Double the area of protected nature reserves by 2040
  5. Promote and expand wildlife corridors across the county
  6. To require state bodies to first examine upstream natural based
    solutions when considering works required to deal with flood relief and protection
  7. Reintroduction of extirpated species where research has established feasibility
  8. Significant state funding for the conservation of endangered and vulnerable native species.
  9. Fund Councils and Inland Fisheries to map and remediate barriers to fish migration within their riverine systems
  10. National legislation to significantly reduce or eliminate the nonagricultural use of pesticides and herbicides outdoors
  11. State funding for the monitoring and eradication of invasive species
  12. Require Councils map areas of local environmental importance ….and include them in County Development Plans as areas to
    be protected.
  13. In urban areas, …to prioritise the planting of trees and flowers in existing and new developments, and on streets
  14. To fund Councils to undertake Trap, Neuter and Return programmes for feral cats
  15. Encouraging local councils to create native Woodland Walks and
    Wildflower Meadows in existing and new parks.
  16. Making the creation of wild picnic bench spots in office developments and … the creation of rooftop gardens in offices and apartments a vital part … urban planning regulation
  17. Ensuring all local authorities and planning authorities have all
    hedgerows assessed while making planning decisions and that priority is given to maintaining and protecting existing hedgerows and trees….
  18. To establish a Wildlife Crime Unit in an Garda Siochana

My comment: This is an excellent policy document, very well laid out and clearly written. The proposed actions are strategic and address most of the key drivers of biodiversity loss. The policy shows a deep understanding of the issues, and the kind of response that is needed if we are to achieve transformative change. Recognising that an expanded protected area network has a key role to play in conservation policy is particularly welcomed.

My score: 9 out of 10

 

My coffee break

A red-headed cardinal beetle

My brain is frazzled. A morning of looking at budgets and worrying about how the Data Centre can be properly funded does nothing for one’s mental state. But one of the advantages of working from home today is that instead of drinking coffee at eleven, I can bring the dogs for a stroll across the fields to clear my head.  Expectations are low for it is cloudy and cool, and my mind is elsewhere. But just outside, feasting on dandelion heads, are three delightful goldfinches that fly off, charming as they go.

Good. The cattle are in another field so I won’t be disturbed. A clump of bramble and nettles at the far side of the field is my focus of attention. A quick scan and 7-spot ladybirds are there as usual standing proud like brooches of the undergrowth.  I wonder, is it their bright red warning colour that allows them to be so audacious?

I pause to get my eye in. I spy a small yellow dot on a bramble. The geometric shaped dots reveal that it is a 14-spot ladybird. I reach down for a photograph, knock against a leaf, and it scurries off before it can be photographed for posterity. No matter, I have recorded them here before. I loiter at my bush and quickly find another, then another. I see that 14-spots are here too in good numbers, but unlike the 7-spots, they remain secluded among the leaves and the thorns.

And there, standing alert, trying to blend in with the leaves is a green shieldbug. I move to take a photograph but it too sensed movement and disappeared. I did, however, manage to get the better of another one nearby. Closer to the ground, basking on a dock leaf were two of the curiously shaped dock shieldbugs. I move in closer with my camera, but they were having none of it; darting off surprisingly quickly. Then after careful scrutiny of the brambles, I spied a different shieldbug in the depths of the bush; it was a beautiful bronze shieldbug. Seeing three species of shieldbug together wasn’t bad going, I thought to myself.

The nettle weevil

The clump of nettles a couple of metres away is full of tiny active life forms. There are masses of miniscule bugs, they may have recently hatched for they look like miniature versions of the common nettle bug that I see here each summer, but these are only a fraction of the size. Actually, other than knowing that they are tiny, I haven’t clue what they are but that doesn’t detract one bit from my enjoyment of finding them.  But what is cool are the numerous nettle weevils sitting on the leaves; oddly shaped with their long snout and antennae, and a very distinctive bluish-grey sheen to their body. The closer I look at the nettles, the more the nettle reveals tiny creature of all sorts going about the business, unseen. It truly is an ecosystem in miniature. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a stunning red-headed cardinal beetle crawling through the grass. They are beautiful creatures and it is the first one I have seen this year.

I dally for a bit longer at the bramble bush and focus my attention on the flying insects. There are hoverflies, dung flies, solitary bees and a myriad of other types of flying insect of all shapes and sizes.  The longer I watch, the greater variety I see. The weather is cool so many are perched, finding what little warmth they can get from the sky.  Briefly the sun shines and almost immediately a male orange-tip flies past. Remarkable how quickly it responds to a small increase in temperature.

As I watch, a black fly with orange at the base of its wings lands right in front of me. I know this one, for it is distinctive; it is a noon fly. Noon? Makes me check the time. Feck! It is past 12 O’Clock! I have been lost in the wonders of my nettle and bramble patch for over an hour now. I must get back to work. I am sure my boss won’t mind me spending some time like this, but I will have to log the hour as CPD.

Counting our common birds

The Barrow at Milford

Early mornings never agree with me. But twice each spring I find myself at first light walking around the beautiful village of Milford on the River Barrow to survey breeding birds as part of the Countryside Bird Survey, a national monitoring programme that tracks population changes in our commoner widespread species. With my binoculars around my neck and clipboard in my hand, I feel a great sense of self-righteousness out collecting valuable long-term data while dreary eyed motorists speed past on their daily commute.

The survey involves walking exactly the same two 1km routes (or transects) twice during the breeding season, counting all the birds seen along the route and noting their behaviour. I know this area and its birdlife well for I have surveyed here now for 22 years. The first 1km transect takes me along the old Kilkenny to Carlow road, and the second 1km route begins along the Barrow and then through Milford village.  I find it extraordinary that year on year I can generally predict where I will see different species along the route. Linnets and goldfinches sing from the rough ground at Milford Cross, a moorhen is a permanent feature of the wet alder woodland, blackcaps along the riverside willows, and then towards the end of the village a noisy group of house sparrows and starlings either on the roof of a bungalow or hidden in a nearby bush. And in the distance a calling pheasant or two; there is always a pheasant or two.

But what makes this survey interesting is the subtle difference that occur from year to year. When I began walking this route back in 1997 I would have heard no more that a couple of singing blackcaps, and these I would have noted with great pleasure for a singing blackcap is one of my favourite species. But blackcaps are now much more common and this morning I counted nine singing males. Scanning the wet woodland to tick off the regular moorhen, I was thrilled that what I saw swimming among the alders was not a moorhen but a beautiful male teal; I think this is the first time in the 22 years that I have recorded a teal during the survey. One of the pleasures of this survey is that you never know what you will find.

The beautiful village of Milford

In contrast, in the early years a singing yellowhammer used to brighten up the telegraph wires running across a cereal field but, sadly, I haven’t seen or heard one here now for years. And even with the common species, each visit is different. This morning there seemed to be blackbirds everywhere, yet I heard only two singing robins. The ubiquitous wren; I counted 18 singing this morning. I wondered how did this compare to the same time last year? I found it strange that I didn’t see a single hooded crow or magpie this morning; they must be busy incubating eggs. And even though I know dunnock are a common species I only came across one, and that wasn’t even singing but skulking in the undergrowth.

I am always a little disappointed when I don’t glimpse a dipper or grey wagtail along the short stretch of the Barrow  close to the weir. But I know what matters isn’t the number of species that I see as I do my walk, rather ensuring that I am as consistent as possible in how I do the survey from year to year.

Any perception of change that I get from walking the transect from visit to visit is impossible to make sense of; it could be just the result of some local changes to land management or might even be influenced by factors such as weather condition, or indeed, how alert and perceptive I was on any given morning. But each year more than 400 surveyors participate in the Countryside Bird Survey, pooling their finding from across the country. When these finding are analysed it allows Birdwatch Ireland to separate out what are long term trends from short term local anomalies, and present hard evidence of how our common countryside bird populations are changing.

And the national trends confirm some of what I was seeing along my transect; the population of blackcap (and goldfinch) have shown what Birdwatch Ireland describes as ‘remarkable increases’ since 1998. And the biggest losers over that period were greenfinch, swift and stock dove. Interestingly, any changes seen in the population of yellowhammer were not statistically significant. That surprises me. And I see that pheasant were recorded in 80% of all the transects surveyed; a fact that does not surprise me one iota.

A solitary existence

The Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria)

I took the dogs for their usual Sunday walk across the fields; I use the term ‘walk’ loosely for it is more an adventure than a walk. A route of no more than 1km long can sometimes take two hours to cover for all the nature distractions along the way. The two dogs are old now so their pace matches mine, but it wasn’t always thus.

The far side of Greg’s field marks the boundary between the townlands of Bramblestown and Neigham. It’s an overgrown treeline on a large earthen bank with a stream flowing along one side.  It stands out for being such a wonderfully rich boundary compared to the other tightly trimmed hedgerows of which Bramblestown has many.  Spring has certainly arrived; a couple of chiffchaffs in full song with their ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’ tune (phonetics are important for in the German speaking world it is ‘zilp-zalp’ and the Dutch ‘tjift-jaf’), and the ‘chakk, chakk’ of a scolding blackcap from a willow, before it too bursts forth into its delightfully rich and energetic song. And from the wings of this natural stage a quiet nasal ‘tweeb’ belies the handsome bullfinch. Willow warblers are a bit late this year as their song has not yet graced Bramblestown. But their arrival is imminent.

A solitary bee nest in the bank

Along the earthen bank, between the primroses, are hundreds of small holes; evidence of the nesting activity of the mining bees, a group of Ireland’s solitary bees. Unlike their honey bee relations solitary bees nest individually rather than in colonies. It is hardly solitary, however, for there is such great activity crammed into a relatively small area; their living arrangements are more suburbia than tower block but definitely not splendid isolation.  Solitary bees are notoriously difficult to identify, but fortunately most of the bees I saw were the most easily distinguishable species, the Ashy Mining Bee, with its conspicuous grey hairs.

It’s not always a solitary existence

Hundreds were busily flying onto the earthen banks, excavating holes in the friable earth for nests, then depositing stores of pollen for their larvae to eat and survive on before emerging next spring, to start the whole cycle over again. They fly in spring to coincide with flowering fruit trees, of which they are one of the most important pollinators. For these creatures to survive and flourish they need to have suitable nesting habitat and adequate food resources within a relatively small area. They can forage up to 600m from the nest if they have to, but generally would forage much less if food sources are plentiful.   Knowing this, it makes me happy that we planted a few wild cherry and apple trees a number of years back, no more than about 300m from their nests as the bee flies. At the time, unbeknownst to me, I was building a relationship with these bees; I provide food for them in the form of blossoms in spring, and they reciprocate by providing me a bounty of apples and cherries in autumn. Mind you, with the cherries, it is those blasted birds the benefit more than I!

Waiting for woodcock

I am volunteering to survey some woodland sites this year for the Breeding Woodcock Survey being undertaken by James O’Neill, a student in University College Cork. I visited a nice mixed woodland at Kilfane, just before dark. I arrived a bit later than I had planned. At the woodland entrance three blackbirds were calling agitatedly, seemly unhappy in each other’s company, and a great tit gave a brief song before the woodland quietened down for the night. I walked for about a kilometre to a small woodland clearing that provided a view of a portion of the sky.

Waiting for woodcock

A grey squirrel scurried away and the still silhouette of three woodpigeons looked down on me from the branches of a tree 30 or forty feet above. There I waited, straining my ears at every sound that might indicate that woodcock were nearby. A dog barked in the distance and the sound of the nearby stream flowing over rocks was all that could be heard; almost complete silence with not even the movement of branches in the still cool evening.

Straining my neck looking skyward over the tree canopy waiting for a roding woodcock to come into sight, the only movement I detected were a few bats flying close by my head, probably inspecting this strange interloper. Staring at the sky, up at the big dipper, with the moving aircraft like shooting stars across the night sky. Forty-five minutes standing, listening and looking in vain for woodcock as darkness descended was time well spent. I will just have to come back another evening.

Day 30 – A journey’s end

I awoke with a feeling of having the hard work done. Sure, it’s only a short hop of about 90km to the journey’s end. And so the day continued, me feeling I had the job done, yet I still needed to get to the Black Sea. And rather than my anticipated glorious victorious final stage, with a glass of champagne raised in salute as the winners of the Tour de France do, lethargy set it. Each kilometre was a slog, not helped by having these distance markers at each kilometre taunting me for such slow progress. The rolling hills were picturesque and I stopped to take photographs, but even this felt like a distraction from the real work at hand, an excuse for not putting the head down and getting the job done.

It was a long hot day on a road that got busier with each mile closer to Constanta. Then about 20km from the end, onto a busy dual carriageway that went on and on. At one stage it was quite dangerous as there was no hard shoulder and after a couple of trucks passied me way too closely, I cycled along a grassy track for a couple of kilometres, further slowing progress. Quite a bit of the heavy traffic was lost when I got to the motorway junction, then it was busy local traffic heading into Constanta for another 15km or so. I was delighted to reach a big colourful boat at the side of the road with Constanta blazoned across the side, but this was only to trick you into thinking you were nearly there- you were still only at the outskirts.

Finally, on arriving at the centre of Constanta all access roads to the beach were blocked off, and there were police everywhere directing traffic. I never heard so many policemen blowing whistles at traffic to such little effect. Constanta was in the throes of a huge beach festival; there were stages and inflatable banners everywhere. The beach was also a good 100ft or so below me, with no apparent way to reach it with a bike. Rather than battling my way through the festival and festival goers, I headed north to get to the beachfront further on, or so I thought. But I was first forced to make a couple of detours to get an encore from the policemen’s whistle ensemble, before finally getting out of the chaos. A couple of kilometres further on I took a right turn towards the beach. I was met with a long flight of broken steps, then a sort dusty track through waste ground, had to lug myself and the bike over a low wall, and only then could I make a break for the sea. Lathered in sweat, covered in dust, and with a big red sunburned face, I pushed my bike through bronzed and glistening bodies to finally, finally dip my feet in the waters of the Black Sea. Such was my victorious conquest of the Danube!

It was with a great sense of achievement, and relief, that the journey ended. It was a wonderful experience to get familiar with the flow and landscape of one of Europe’s mighty rivers. To get some sense of how the river is the artery for commerce, and how it has influenced history and culture. I really only got a fleeting glimpse of some of its wildlife; getting a better impression of that would take far more time. And of course, the whole trip was a personal journey, not only testing my physical endurance, but challenging me to tell a story so that I could share some of my experiences with family and friends. Social media gets alot of bad press, but having facebook and twitter as a channel of communication was wonderfully comforting, in a way I didn’t anticipate.

After a journey of 3,290km ‘Down The Danube in 30 Days’ has a nice ring to it.

Day 29- A change of plan

I didn’t give a huge amount of thought to booking my return journey, but this was to be my last day’s cycling. It was kind of a daft thing to do, allowing 29 days cycling- why not the round 30? This morning, planning my day, I estimated that I am about 225km from what was to be my journey’s end. I would probably cover 120km or 130km today, coming up short by about 100km. Well that would never do as that would leave unfinished business. The only thing for it was to reschedule my homeward journey, and to head off happily on my penultimate day’s cycling.

Today’s cycle was in two parts. The first 60km was continuing along the interminable kilometres of the Danube Road. I would break for lunch before a ferry trip across the river to the southern shore.

They sky darkened in the morning and I could see lighting in the distance. I kept cycling until the first few raindrops fell, then took shelter. I got to explore the insides of a Romanian bus shelter and all its exotic life forms for an hour or so, until the shower passed. Cycling the rain-soaked roads for the next half an hour was a special treat I hadn’t anticipated.

The Danube Cycleway crosses onto the southern side of the river south of Calarasi, taking you right up to the Bulgarian border. It would be the last of about six ferry crossings I made. It was a floating platform with half a dozen trucks, being pushed by a tug. Off to the right a urban landscape of dilapidated appartment blocks, and off to the left an exposed sand bank, with a fisherman casting his net from a small boat in the shallow water.

As I watched two large white birds flew towards the sandbank; big broad wings and a large body, for all the world like one of the early boatplanes; wings high with a large undercarriage- absolutely fantastic! two pelicans, two immature Dalmation Pelicans just standing there! What an unexpected treat. I thought these were only to be seen in the Danube Delta. There was also about 20 Spoonbills on the sandbank.

Only 100km to Constanta!

Once across the river the landscape changes. This corner of Romania wedged in between the river and the Bulgarian border is wine country. Extensive area of well tended vineyards on the slopes overlooking the river. It only occurred to me when I saw these large vineyards that I had passed areas over the last day or two where vines grew, but they all appeared poorly maintained. Not so here. I also passed the first visitor facility where you could taste and purchase wine.

Once away from the river valley, it was across broad rolling countryside, really quite beautiful with its patchwork quilt of pastel colours; yellows, browns and greens. The rolling hills did, however, take it out of my legs, so it was hard won kilometers for the latter part of the day. But passing the 100km to Constanta milestone did put a spring in my step, figuratively speaking.

Day 28-A wonderful wife

Today was going to be a long stage, lunch stop in Giurgiu after 90km and bed for the night in Oltenita at around 150km. With temperatures to hit the low 30s,I made sure to lather myself in sun block. The early part of the day took me across the floodplain of two rivers that are tributaries of the Danube, wide flat expanses of grassland, which was the first significant change to the landscape in days. These grasslands are grazed by sheep and goats, and in places cattle. The kind of grazing practised here is extensive, with shepherds accompanying their roaming animals. Extensive grazing of this kind usually brings great benefits to nature – it is called High Nature Value farming- and you can understand how it is a way of life that is dying out. Seeing the shepherds with only a straw hat, staff and bottle of water, out all day in the baking sun, makes you appreciate how tough a life this is, and is a way of life that you would have to be born into. Mind you, what a Romanian shepherd makes of a pale, lycra- clad man killing himself cycling across the open countryside in the baking heat for no good reason, I suppose I’ll never know.

There was an exposed sand bank along the road with maybe 100 or so nest holes. Bee-eaters were flying around,stiff-winged, showing off their green and yellow plumage. And in the middle of them, flashes of electric blue from about half a dozen Rollers, birds about the size of Jackdaws. Absolutely beautiful birds that were nesting in the sandbank too. Not much wildlife to distract me these last few days, so this was a delightful find.

I took numerous breaks during the day to drink and get into the shade for a while. At one small bar where I was having a bottle of beer, a man in his forties sat down beside me. Not having a single word of a common language was not going to stop him finding out what I was doing in the vicinity. With plenty of loud talk from him and sign language from me, I was able to tell him I was from Ireland and that I flew to Stuttgart. And that I was cycling down the Danube- making downhill gestures with my hand. He began to get the gist of it and you could see he was kind of impressed. Then we got to the countries I cycled through, him repeating the names to make sure he understood; Germania- da, Austria – da, Slovacia – da, Ungaria – da, Croaţia -da, Serbia- da, România – da. Now he was dead impressed! When I showed him I had done all this in 27 days, he shook his head in disbelief. Then, as if to make some kind of sense of it all to himself, he pointed to his wedding ring, shaking his head saying ‘Nu’?. I peeled back my cycling glove to expose my wedding ring, nodding my head ‘Da’. He had heard enough. He shook my hand, said something to me and left. He may have said ‘you lucky man, you have a wonderful wife’. However I suspect his words were directed at his own wife and they may not have been entirely words of fulsome praise.

The afternoon’s cycle was a 70km slog in the heat taking me through one village after another. I found the going difficult in the heat, and the body is definitely getting tired. Was delighted to reach my accommodation for the night. Had a beer with a German businessman who was also staying there; it was nice to chat with someone, or so I thought!. He was involved in the textile industry and was in Romania for three weeks. Well, all he did was give out about everything, and how shit Romania was- the people, the hotels, the service… He was not a fan of Angela Merkel for letting in all those refugees, and players of Turkish descent shouldn’t play for the German Football team. And on it went… I ended up with a pain in the arse- not from 3,000km of cycling but from listening to him moan on for an hour. Now he is a man, I thought, who should learn the guitar, let his hair grow, and head off with his frying pan for a few months.

Day 27 – Counting the miles

I must be losing perspective but only 100km today seems like just a stroll. The journey at this stage is really just about counting the miles to cover the ground, stage-posting between meals and places to stay, cutting across the south Romanian landscape.
Passing through two villages early in the day, Seaca and Navodari, the number of large ostentatious houses (by Romania standards) along the road was remarkable. House after house, three storeys with balconies and ornate railings. But many were only half finished, and the other looked like they were only half lived in. On checking later, apparently these were homes of Roma gypsies who had made it big, as a way of showing off their wealth. I can understand the statement made by building a big house to live in, but to only half build a house I couldn’t understand. They must have a different attitude to money as we do.

The towns along the route all have a similar character. The outer approaches have grim derelict and decaying industrial buildings, I presume from the communist era, then long straight roads leading to the centre. But the centres are busy with people shopping, carrying small bags of groceries and vegetables. It is noticeable there is none of the blatant consumerism you see at home. The town centres have a nice casual air to them. And usually they have a leafy well maintained park with a children’s playground, and groups of three or four men around tables playing Rummi – a tile-based game combining elements of the card game rummy and mahjong.

On the road, at one stage I heard the distinctive ke-ke-ke-ke of a Red-footed Falcon calling from a tree. It was answered by another a short distance away. I stopped and watched them, I couldn’t be sure what they were doing. Then I noticed there were more around; at one stage there were nine or ten calling and flying around the trees by the side of the road. They are a lovely falcons, and great to see them so close.

A convoy of cyclists passed me going the opposite direction flying the Canadian flag, obviously having just started the Danube Cycleway from the other end. I saluted them and they returned the salute, but had no interest in stopping for a chat, they were powering ahead. They were bright, clean and enthusiastic, and you could tell they had fresh legs. Ah, yes. I remember those days!

It got me thinking about travel and the pros and cons of group travel versus solo travel. One of the things I like about travelling alone is that it forces you out of your shell to engage with others at every opportunity. There is also a curiosity about others. There was no such need for the Canadians to stop for they had their own company. Which is fine, it is the other way to do it. While my trip is a personal one, with one of the objectives being to see how well I’d hold up to the physical challenge of covering the distance, I have been writing this blog to share some of my adventures with family and friends. Their feedback and response to the blog is a nice way to keep in touch with the family.

I was thinking about travel and the education it provides if you have a curiosity about the environment around you, and I would encourage everyone to do some travel. Towards the end of today’s leg, I came up to a cyclist laden down with a fair amount of baggage, frying pan attached to the paniers and a guitar case on his back. He was well tanned, with very long black matted hair; obviously had been on the road a fair bit. We got talking. He was a young Spaniard, 21 years of age.

As we cycled he told me he had been cycling for the last three months having started in Spain. He was heading to Greece, or perhaps Poland, he wasn’t quite sure. He was free-camping, pitching up for the night in some secluded spot in the countryside. Being all in favour of solo travel, I asked him why he was travelling. He didn’t know, he said. I tried to get some sense of what motivated him, but couldn’t. He didn’t seem to have much curiosity, indeed I was surprised how little awareness he had of his surroundings. When he needed to plan a direction of travel, he would ring his brother back home in Spain to ask him what was the best way to go. I was surprised with my own response and attitude, but I got increasingly frustrated with him and his aimless travel. What was the point of travelling without some aim or purpose, hiding away from humanity each evening?

Surprise with my own conservativism coming to the surface, I couldn’t help but think it would be far better if he cut his hair and got a job, rather than wandering aimlessly around Europe with his frying pan and guitar.