Tag Archives: nature

Book launch!

Last week I attended the launch of botanist Zoé Devlin’s beautiful new book Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record. Zoé was on hand to sign autographs of this magnificent tome – the book is a quality publication, produced by the Collins Press. There was a time when such lavishly illustrated books on Irish nature were unheard of, but the Collins Press have made a name with prestige volumes of this high quality, and it is very fortunate for anyone with an interest in Irish wildlife. That said, the book is heavy in construction (if you should find yourself in front of a firing squad it would be helpful to have a copy tucked under your shirt!), but laden with superbly-written information and detailed maps for each plant species, and absolutely fantastic photographs taken by Zoé. Anybody who is familiar with this blog will remember reading in June of how I came to meet Zoé and her husband John as they searched for rare Sea Kale along the Wicklow coast in June.

Zoé Devlin with her beautiful and lavishly illustrated Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record.

The Collins Press produce books designed to stand the test of time, so although this a bit too heavy to serve as a field guide, it is a perfect reference, and the descriptions of folklore, medicinal application and personal encounters elevate this volume to a status far above anything you are likely to find in a typical book on the subject. For example, here is part of her description of Silverweed – Potentilla anserina:

“My first record of this plant is from the Vartry Reservoir near Roundwood, Co. Wicklow, in 1976 and I photographed it at Tacumshin Lake, Co. Wexford, in 2008.

Also called ‘Argentina anserina’, many of Silverweed’s names refer to its leaves; in French Richette and in Dutch Zilverkruid. These same leaves were, at one time, used as insoles in the shoes of tired walkers to ease their feet. The plant was also used as food for geese, hence its species name ‘anserina’ (anser = goose in Latin). In early times the roots of this plant were cultivated in some of the Scottish islands until potatoes were introduced. It is said that they taste somewhat like parsnips. The dried fruits were also ground and used like flour in bread-making.”

The beautiful cover: you can judge this book by it's cover! It's superb.
Just a sample of the layout of the book: each page contains superb photographs and detailed information, and beautifully-written anecdotes.

Clearly the sort of book that will be of interest to botanists, general purpose naturalists, folklorists, foragers, cooks, medicinalists and, of course, survivalists (so if you’re a fan of Ray Mears I’d say this book is for you).

There were quite a few scientists and TV personalities at this book launch, and the event was hosted by Gerald Fleming, known as the “winking weatherman” from his broadcasts on RTE television.

Cornered by two people armed with cameras, Gerald Fleming contemplates the inevitable photographs.

For anyone interested in spending the money on Zoé’s magnificent book (money well spent!) follow this link to Amazon.co.uk (which lets you see more content too):


Archaeology 101

Now that August has drawn to a close and we are in the very late part of summer, it is a very good time to turn attention towards archaeology. Anyone with an interest in history there will undoubtedly have an interest in archaeology too to some extent. Wicklow is one of the most poorly archaeologically explored regions in western Europe. In Wicklow the foliage is beginning to make way for the autumn, farmers are ploughing fields and there is a good chance of seeing and finding ancient artefacts that can remain hidden during summer. You can visit many of the already recognised sites, such as Glendalough, but there are many others where discovery and adventure are very real.

Last Friday I went to Bray Head with my brother Owen, a qualified archaeologist, and local Bray historian Tom ‘Lofty’ Loftus to see what we could discover in the way of ancient or more recent archaeological remains. A good walk to follow is from the Ramada Hotel in the outskirts of Bray. There is a nice fenced path directly on the opposite side of the road to the hotel, near the roundabout that leads up to the big cross on Bray Head.

The famous cross that overlooks the north Wicklow town of Bray.

From the site of the cross there is a great view of the surrounding countryside and in particular Killiney Bay to the north.  The rock of Bray Head is a very ancient shale, with areas of red quartz to the north, beneath Bray.  In the 1870s extremely ancient fossils of strange, worm-like little sea creatures were discovered in the shale here, dating to Pre-Cambrian times, over 560 millions years ago by current reckonings, and possibly much, much older.

Owen, standing on a lump of red quartz as he examines the more recent cross. The whitish quartz crystal is exposed here.

The whole hillside is covered in fallen walls from sructures of varying ages. Many date from the 19th century.


Tom and Owen discussing a large slab-like stone that is a collapsed wall of relatively recent vintage.

An especially fascinating, and bizarre relic of the mid-20th century is a series of stone steps that led up to a now defunct holiday resort called Eagle’s Nest. The steps were an alternative way up the hillside to the cable car that had been installed, and which can be still seen rusting on the hillside. Both cable car and steps were an expensive financial failure. However, the steps are a wonderful legacy, and they appear to have been built to last.

Tom and Owen examining the "stairway to heaven", a little used but convenient means of reaching the cross site on Bray Head.

However, the most striking and interesting remains on Bray Head are the ruins of a church called Raheenaclig. This name is usually translated as “Little Church of the Bell”, but this seves only to cover up a pre-Christian origin. The Literal translation is “little rath of the stones”. A rath was an ancient mound of earth, usually dating to the Bronze Age or even earlier. There are many places with “rath” in their title in Wicklow, and many of them had churches built on them, both hiding them and stealing from their significance simultaneously.


The church is believed to have been built in the 13th or 14th century, but the architecture could easily match up with earlier ones dating to the 8th century. There is a very deep hole in the wall by the doorway, clearly designed to receive a massive sliding bolt of heavy timber or even metal, and obviously to keep people out in times of danger, something more necessary in the early Middle Ages than the late, when sea raiding vikings were a constant threat indigenous Christians. The building is entirely made of hard red quartz, and underwent some degree of restoration work in the 19th century. However, it has been a ruin for many hundreds of years and historically is mostly associated with smugglers in more recent centuries. They were known to bring their contraband ashore at the nearby Naylor’s Cove and then hide it in the church grounds, or the church itself. The church is best reached from Bray promenade. Just follow the promenade as it rises to a car park just above Bray. The church is in a meadow above the carpark and can easily be spotted.

Local Bray historian Tom Loftus on Bray Head with Killiney Bay and the Irish Sea behind him. Beyond that is Dublin Bay, flanked to the north by Howth Head, which looks like a big island on the horizon above Tom's head. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group sometimes gather here with there telescopes for whale-watching events.

Thanks to Tom we got a guided tour of the various artefacts on the hillside, but a second archaeological field trip to Bray was to prove even more interesting and rewarding…


Stings from nettles and bees

As I mentioned in the previous post, wasp stings can be treated successfully with acidic foods. However, bee stings, nettle stings and ant stings are themselves acids so they must be treated in a different way, with alkaloid/base foodstuffs or similar. To put an acidic food on these stings would make them much worse.

But almost all other stings will be acidic, and the most common of these in Wicklow come from two closly-related plants, the very common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) and the Small Nettle (Urtica urens). Nettles are extremely important and beneficial plants, and they make fantastic fertiliser too, and support many species of insect. They are foodplants for the caterpillars of numerous species, such as the Peacock, Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell. But they are also a painful nuisance for us humans.

A typical Common or Stinging Nettle.

The pain is caused by unique poisonous hairs on the leaves and stems of these plants: the spiny hairs are actually made of transparent silica, or to put it better, they are hollow glass rods. When you brush off a nettle the sharp tips catch in your skin and break off causing an acid contained in the spines to pour into your flesh, causing a burning, stinging sensation. The Romans used to use nettles to treat rheumatism and arthritis with nettle stings, but personally I have found that stings to my own joints, particularly to the knuckles, cause rheumatism that can last for several days.

The toxic hairs of nettles: actually glass tubes filled with acid.

Fortunately there is a very effective traditional cure, long used by the natives of Wicklow. Wherever nettles grow you will also find large fleshy-leaved fronds of a plant called Dock (Rumex species), that can be up to 30cm long and very wide. There are many similar Dock species but they all can be used to treat nettle stings. Take a big leaf, mash it up in your hands and then rub it over the area/s stung by nettles. The effect is usually quite immediate, with the pain being neutralised. However, I have noticed that the potency of the Dock leaves depends on the time of year, but the sap is alkaloid, and this seems to be why it works so well. And it works on bee stings too.

Large fronds of a Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), one of the commonest species.

Fortunately bee stings are much less likely than wasp stings. Bees and wasps differ mainly in that bees are (with few exceptions) entirely vegetarian, whereas wasps are omnivorous, taking plants, nectar and hunting and killing other insects and invertebrates. Bees tend to be very gentle insects and won’t bother you unless you attempt to harm them. Honey bees are the most volatile, usually in defence of their nests. Because the hive is so important to them honey bee workers sacrifice their lives to defend it: when a honey bee worker stings it dies because backward pointing barbs make it impossible to retrieve the stinger. When the bee flies away its stomach gets pulled out, and a disembodied muscle continues to pump poison into the sting victim while a pheremone is released causing other worker bees to go on the attack.

A mild-mannered Bumble Bee feeding on the flower spike of a Butterfly Bush. The stings of bees are acids and can be treated with the leaves of dock plants, and some household foodstuffs.

However, honey bees do not attack for no reason…you have to harm their hive, or them (to a lesser extent). And the same is true for all other bees, but other species do not die when they sting. Bumble bees live in nests usually numbering between 10 and 50 individuals, and they can’t afford to lose valuable members of their society, so each individual is capable of stinging many times over. And small solitary bees are the same, but the sting is an absolute last resort, not an offensive weapon as in the case of wasps, who use their stings to hunt prey. And big bumble bees are the most gentle of creatures, and the most easily handled of all bees.

If you have an allergy to bee stings you can’t take any chances and should always be prepared to seek urgent medical aid. Don’t take chances with your life under any circumstances. Even if these treatments I have described work to the fullest extent, it is best to get checked out by a doctor.

However, dock leaves could sufficiently delay the effects. But, if these are not immediately apparent, an alternative you can buy in the shops is baking soda. Soda is an alkali and therefore is perfect for neutralising the acidic stings of nettles, bees and ants. But make sure you don’t apply it to a wasp sting, because that would make it far more painful.

Remember, most wasps are quite big and wear shiny yellow jackets. Bees are generally very hairy and no big ones are as yellow as a wasp.