All posts by Samuel Connolly

Tearmann Community Garden

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.

Cowslip - Primula veris

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).

Red Squirrel - Sciurus vulgaris - photo by Trevor.

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.

 

 

 

Wicklow’s Spring Biodiversity Explosion

As April draws to a close we have reached high Spring, and this year has been a superb one. The steady weather conditions and good levels of sunlight have transformed the landscape. The shrubs and trees are beginning to bloom, adding to those of the undergrowth. This year the lilac trees have been early and especially impressive due to the dryness – in wet years the fleshy, fragrant flower-spikes rot rapidly. This year they are the magnificent ornaments they are meant to be.

Lilac blooms - Syringa vulgaris

But the undergrowth is only really getting started. In woodlands, and on the narrow lanes of Wicklow you will find intoxicating seas of Ramsons (Allium ursinum), the wild garlic. Driving along these lanes with the car window rolled down can be something of an aromatic adventure in springtime.

Ramsons or Wild Garlic

The flowering plants depend on sunlight, and in turn the invertebrates, particularly insects, depend on the flowering plants to provide serious energy, in the form of nectar and pollen. Of course, the plants are equally dependent on the insects to fertilise them so there will be more plants, and insects, next year. Away from the trees the Daisy (Bellis perennis) are one of the most important nectar-producing species, supporting every conceiveable pollinating creature, and reaping the rewards. Wild meadows are very important habitats for this reason.

A Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) feeds on one of thousands of daisies in a small meadow.

As the length of days and exposure to sunlight increases the number of plant species in bloom greatly increases, which in turn supports more and more pollen and nectar-dependent organisms.

This, in turn, leads to an increase in predator numbers. One of the most interesting and unusual predators of other insects is the Yellow Dung-Fly. These flies are normally seen perched on cow dung in huge numbers, where they mate, lay eggs, and attack and eat other insects attracted to the dung. However, in spring they feed mostly on pollen, because there is so much of it about, and their prey numbers are still growing. The fly in the photo is covered in pollen, having clearly gorged, probably on daisies.

Yellow Dung-Fly (Scatophaga stercoraria)

Because of predators nectar and pollen-feeders have to be able to defend themselves: in spring you will see many species of bee, all armed with potent stings.

Bombus pascuorum is a distinct bumblebee species with a very long probing tongue, which allows it to fertilise many flowers no other insects can...it is vital to the environment. Here is is seen feeding on dandelion.
Nomada bees are small, solitary species that look very like wasps, but are extremely shy and best seen feeding on apple blossom. They are quite curious and will "people watch".
A female Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa), a solitary species commonly seen in spring, where they build little tunnels in lawns and meadows, with small vocanic-looking cones around them. This species collects pollen on special hairs on its hind legs, as you can see in this photo.

However, many of the bees you will see in Wicklow are not bees at all. Instead of developing toxins, many species of fly have opted to imitate bees, and it is difficult even for naturalists to tell them apart. The trick is to look at the heads: the flies have large round heads with little or no fur, and they have only stubby antennae, whereas bees always have long antennae curling from their heads.

A brilliant white-tailed bumblebee-mimic hover-fly, Volucella bombylans, feeding on Alexanders.
A stunning hover-fly, Leucozona lucorum, also feeding on Alexanders by a roadside.

However, flowers do sometimes get more than they bargained for, slugs will also happily eat pollen, and the entire flowerhead. But only very, very slowly, and very occasionally.

A beautifully-patterned Common Garden Slug (Arion distinctus), feeding on dandelion pollen.

Thanks to the abundance of nectar many insects can take time off to find mates and breed, something that would be impossible to do if they didn’t make a profit when it comes to feeding. The beautiful little Orange-tip butterflies are only with us for about four or five more weeks, so watch out for them in gardens, along roads and flower-filled meadows with good hedgerows. They are now taking the time to find mates and breed, and the sight of a pair of them dancing over hedges is a strong sign you will very soon witness a marvellous event: I saw Orange-tips mating for the first time in my life this week. They are so common at this time of year, it is strange how well they hide their social lives. Maybe they’re marvellous camouflage prevents the casual observer from noticing. However, I’m not a casual observer, so it is rare: if you do witness this event you are one of a lucky few.

A mating pair of Orange-tip butterflies perched on sedge. The male is the right way up.

A Fantastic Voyage into Spring

The air is now filled with wonderful aromas and perfumes from the blossoming trees, bushes and flowers. All along the hedgerows is the heady scent of freshly flowering alexanders, flowering currant and the subtle fragrance of apple blossom wafting from the orchards.

Now there is an excitement of life. The big bumblebees harvest the nectar of the apple blossoms, and the predators hide among the petals to snatch the unwary insects that come to feed.

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) feeding on apple blossom.
Look closely - this little fly has been captured by a large and superbly camouflaged Flower Crab Spider (Misumena vatia).

Added to the aromas is the subtle and delightful fragrance of gorse (Ulex europaeus), a spiny bush that grows in dense thickets across the hillsides of Wicklow and provides a vital habitat for vast numbers of species. It is also known as Furze or Whin, from which the small bird known as the Whinchat derives its name. The flowers are very popular with small insects, especially pea weevils, the flowers being remarkably like those of peas.

Gorse flowers, complete with tiny weevil.

At this time of year the hedgerows are edged by dense thickets of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum), a hogweed like umbellifer with lovely yellowish-cream flowerheads that provide vital nectar for honeybees, drone flies, ladybirds, and many others. But in April you will see a very peculiar, large black fly hovering above them and the hedgerows, with long legs trailing beneath it. This species is the St. Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci), which is so-called because it usually appears in the sky near St. Mark’s Day, the 25th April. Although excellent fliers, much like hoverflies, they are incredibly ungainly when they land, which is usually only to feed and to mate. Mating pairs are normally found all over the Alexanders, which are like the insect equivalent of dance clubs.

 

St. Mark's Flies hovering above a hedgerow, legs trailing beneath them conspicuously.
St. Mark's Flies mating while perched on Alexanders. The larvae live long lives in the soil and leaf litter and will appear as adults next spring.

However, it is the butterflies that steal most attention in the hedgerows. April and May are the time of the short-lived Orange-tips. The female is extremely beautiful, but upstaged by the male, with his glowing orange wing-tips. Like so many insects, most of their lives are spent as larvae, but most spectacularly for the brief period they are adults. They are among the most difficult butterflies to photograph, of those found in Wicklow.

Female Orange-tip (Anthocaris cardamines) at rest on apple. It is rare to see a female perched with her wings open for any length of time, but if you are patient you increase your chances.
A spectacular male Orange-tip feeding on vetch in a hedgerow.

Although the Orange-tips certainly draw most attention, by sheer force of their colour and presence in numbers at this time of year, they by no means hold a monopoly over colour. Not so common in spring, but equally colourful are the Peacock butterflies, which are especially fond of dandelion flowers. They are a long-lived hibernating species, so many of those that apear in springtime have slightly ragged wings. However, their eye-spot wing-markings sometimes draw attacks from highly territorial breeding birds.

A European Peacock butterfly (Inachis io). Note the torn left hind wingspot...almost certainly made by an attacking bird, possibly a territorial attack or the hallmark of a hunting Swallow.
The hedgerows of a spring lane in the warm April of east Wicklow.