Last month I visited an extraordinary project in the village of Baltinglas in west Wicklow. The Tearmann Community Garden was the brainchild of Sister Mary Carmody, a Mercy Sister, whose keen interest in the natural world drives a desire to encourage the people of Baltinglas to connect with nature in a harmonious and productive way. Anyone is welcome to drop in for a visit, and picnics are welcome too. The orchard and picnic area are exactly what a painter or photographer would want to see. The video below gives only a sample of this extraodinary community project.
There is a very good reason for visiting this extraordinary garden: it is one of the very best places in Wicklow to see and photograph Cowslips (Primula veris), those increasingly rare wild flowers that signal the health of the countryside. In Tearmann Community Garden they grow in abundance across the lawns, making this beautiful little paradise in west Wicklow an important stop-off for anyone wanting to get good photos of this plant. Sister Mary collects the seeds and has told me she will gladly provide seeds to anyone, in return for a small donations to help maintain and support this garden. Money well spent! If you plan to create a truly complete wildlife garden then you will certainly want cowslips.
There are many very good reasons for visiting west Wicklow. Spring arrives slightly slower there than to the east of the mountains, and blooms you missed in the east will only be appearing some weeks after in the west. Of course, the rules vary according to altitude, angles and shade.If you make the journey from west to east Wicklow, along either the Sally Gap or Wicklow Gap mountain passes you will travel past pine forests, and here you have a very good chance of seeing Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris).
In the British Isles (the geographic term for the islands of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the many hundreds of smaller islands around them) Red Squirrels are in decline. On the island of Great Britain they are rarely found south of Scotland, and the larger, introduced North American Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been blamed for this decline by out-competing its smaller cousin and spreading the squirrel Parapox virus. But in Ireland the evidence is certainly not so straightforward. The Grey Squirrel was introduced in 1911, and slowly began to spread throughout the island, and did seem to be either filling the gap left by Grey Squirrels, or else were being directly driven out by them. Between 1989 and 2008 when there was an extremely warm period in Ireland, with little or no snow during the mild winters, the Grey Squirrels seemed to spread more rapidly. It could be because the Greys normally don’t hibernate, whereas the Red Squirrels are used to cold winters which require some degree of hibernation.
But there is a huge paradox at the centre of the Red Squirrel story: evidence from records suggests that it was already extinct by the late 17th or early 18th century in Ireland, possibly due to overharvesting by the fur trade, or an environmental factor that has not been identified yet. The Red Squirrel species was then systematically reintroduced to Ireland from 1815, and the numbers have apparently fluctuated ever since, although the Grey Squirrel numbers did not seem to rise significantlyor in a threatening manner until the 1990s.
However, whatever the factors involved, in Wicklow you will sometimes find both species living, and apparently thriving, quite close together.