It has been a somewhat blustery and cool May, with a many showers, but according to a new version of an old saying: “Wet and windy May, fills the barns with corn and hay”. But the rain and the sunlight combine to support lush vegetation in Wicklow, and there are dramatic scenes everywhere. The Hawthorn, the sacred tree of the ancient druids, bursts into blossom and crowns the spring and announces the summer.
Hiding on the blooms of dense plants like the Russian Comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) the small predators aim to catch big prey. The Flower Crab Spiders are especially brazen, and can even be seen attempting to snatch bumblebees.
Even on the ground in towns and villages there is drama and action: watch for ants hurrying back to their nests with food and prey. Their incredible strength is fascinating in itself.
However, not all of the action near to the ground is of a predatory fashion. Some creatures have no problem finding food in abundance, and therefore have plenty of time for other activities. On the large fleshy leaves of the Broad-leaved Dock (Rumex obtusifolius) you will often see beautiful sweet-wrapper shiny green beetles calmly munching on the vast leaves. This is the Dock Leaf Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula), a very distinctive species of leaf beetle, due to the enormous abdomen of the pregnant female. She becomes swollen with hundreds of eggs, and is usually garded closely by a mate, or a suitor waiting for her to lay her eggs so he can take his turn fathering offspring.
All of this excitement between waist and ground level is wonderful to observe, but it can distract you from incredible seens high above. A chance glance at the Wicklow clouds could bring your eye into line with a flock of fleeing pigeons or doves, and just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon slowly wheeling above. If you can see it clearly then your back will almost certainly be to the sun, and the great predator’s prey will be even further from you than the falcon, because this bird likes to fly at it prey from the direction of the sun, where it can be seen least well, if at all.
Although a very similar species of falcon, the Hobby (Falco subbuteo), can occasionally be found in Wicklow, this Peregrine is a stouter bird with wings that appear wider from front to back when seen in flight. It has recently been dicovered that Peregrines living in cities and towns will hunt actively at night, usually striking their night-flying prey from beneath, in the ambush-style of their sea-dwelling equivalent, the Great White Shark. It is theorised that the lights from buildings illuminate the undersides of birds flying above them, allowing the Peregrine to see its prey in the dark, although it might also be argued that it is using the lights of the buildings in the same way it uses the sun during daylight hunting, to prevent its prey from seeing it.
If you are visiting Wicklow with the intention of watching wildlife, and visiting habitats, then here is some advice that will help make things easier. In my opinion the most useful items you can bring with you are as follows:
The advantage of a messenger bag is it leaves your hands free and can be dipped into quickly, without having to be first removed (as in the case of a back-pack). The messenger bag only needs to be light and preferably with some degree of water-resistance, allowing you to keep your more precious items dry, and carry a sandwich if you intend going out for a few hours. It also allows you to carry a light jacket and a hat in case of rain or a sudden drop in temperature.
For your camera you will ideally have a seperate pouch. Unless you are specifically on a photographic expedition in the pay of National Geographic, for roaming around the countryside a compact superzoom camera will be more than ideal. Any camera is good, but a small superzoom will let you take good long distance and close-up macros too, while not being heavy to carry, or, in the worst case scenario, expensive to replace in the case of an outdoors accident. Always keep the strap wrapped around your wrist! These cameras are superb pieces of equipment: they allow you to record nature without harming it, and to examine it in minute detail, and so are a terrific replacement for the old magnifying glass or botanical lens.
Mobile phones are virtually vital pieces of equipment to take out in the field: they allow you to stay safely in contact
with the outside world in the event of an accident, or getting lost. This doesn’t happen very often in Wicklow, but anyone can wander off the beaten track and sprain an ankle, or fall on a mountainside, or encounter someone in distress in the sea on a lonely stretch of coatline, so always carry your mobile phone and keep it charged. Many of the newer ones have GPS and compass applications so you can navigate with them, allow people to follow your route as you make it, or allow you to keep track of the night sky, even if it’s hidden behind a veil of cloud. Also, mobile phones almost always have built-in cameras, so yours can be a useful back-up to your main camera.
A small penknife is also an extremely useful tool to carry. In Ireland it is technically illegal to carry any sort of knife of any kind in any public place, but in practice there is a concept of “reasonable use” and the Gardaí (our police force) use their discretion. For a great many people a knife of some sort will be a necessary tool of their trade. Similarly, it is normal to expect back-packers, tourists, birdwatchers, anglers and hunters to carry knives for outdoor purposes. There is no doubt a penknife is a vital tool to have in the countryside, but do not carry one when visiting bars or nightclubs.
A good tough notebook is one of the most useful item of all you should carry in the countryside. For the naturalist and archaeologist they are a must-have, and for the average tourist they are incredibly useful, to say the least. The best kinds are usually found for sale in art-supply shops, and can be a little expensive. However, they can survive submersion in water, and take a beating without losing pages. Those with unlined pages are best, such as the Windsor Newton journal pictured.
A crushable hat can be either rolled up, or have its crown flattened. In my opinion the second type is better (some hats allow you to do both), as a rigid brim will protect the face from sun and much more importantly, driving rain or hail stones, which often accompany thunderstorms in even the hottest weather of summer. Coats with hoods are not as good, as they don’t adequately protect the face, and limits your field of view, often causing the wearer to face into the hood if he/she attempts to look over his/her shoulder. The advantage of a brimmed hat is that the brim protects the face, head and neck, and will even protect your camera, allowing you to take photos in inclement weather. And there’s no need to wear it everywhere, as it can be easily kept in the messenger bag. A draw string to prevent it blowing away might be useful in cliff or hill areas. A water-resistant outdoor hat is ideal.
One of the commonest plants in Wicklow is Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as furze or whin. Gorse is a beautiful and large bush, growing in dense thickets, and producing gently fragrant yellow blossoms. But it is also extremely spiny and easily punctures clothing and skin. The average person will not find any need to wander through gorse thickets, but because of this reason these areas are incredible havens for wildlife, so the wildlife tourist will want to wear clothes that allow him or her to move as painlessly as possible off the beaten track in order to encounter the more remarkable wildlife. Archaeology tourists will also find many ancient walls, buildings and artefacts lie hidden beneath gorse…the bushes take advantage of manmade structures under the soil to anchor themselves. If you see an archaeological structure marked on a map it will almost invariably be surrounded by or covered in gorse, although there will also normally be an unofficial path through the bushes.
If you are an archaeologist you might be tempted to take a waterproof plastic-shelled padded jacket: if you are a wildlife enthusiast don’t even think of it. These jackets will mostly keep the spines off, but are extremely noisy and will alert wild animal to your presence long before you get near them. Volunteers on wildlife studies are usually banned from wearing such coats, even in heavy rain, as they make far too much noise. But even so, gorse needles will eventually puncture such coats.
Although not nearly as waterproof, and a bit heavier, a cotton military-type tunic will protect you from gorse needles and allow the careful naturalist to move silently along paths through gorse thickets. Most also have good secure button-fasten pockets and epaulettes that reinforce and take some of the strain off the shoulders, and allow a messenger bag strap to be held securely over the shoulder. They can be treated to make them more water-resistant, but even this will be worn off by exposure to gorse over a period of time. But these are the best choice for the naturalist.
In May, as the undergrowth thickens, the heat increases and brief rain showers moisten and feed the plant life, there is a crescendo of wildlife activity. Keep your eyes open when walking along lanes or through meadows in Wicklow, and you could be rewarded with amazing encounters, such as a family of Irish Stoats moving to a new lair. The mother leads, usually with the father nearby, and the babies moving along tracks at intervals, piping loudly in communication with their parent/s, sounding like exotic little birds.
Irish Stoats are remarkable little animals. Genetics studies suggest that these rarely seen predators may be Ireland’s oldest indigenous mammals. The Irish Stoat subspecies (Mustela erminea hibernica) differs from its British and coninental relatives in that it does not turn into the snow white Ermine in winter, and an irregular line between the creamy-white underside and upper brown fur, which is a regular line in most stoats. The Irish Stoat is often known as a “weasel” in Ireland, but there are actually no weasels found on the island.
Irish Stoats have traditionally been regarded as almost supernatural creatures in Ireland. They are known to dance, and in full view of rabbits, seemingly mesmerising them, before suddenly attacking. Although a large Irish Stoat will reach only 40cm at maximum from nose-tip to tail-tip, they voraciously pursue and kill even the very largest rabbits, and have even been seen dragging them up vertical walls and tree trunks. In the countryside they have long been feared: it is said that if a young Stoat is harmed by a person, the whole family will track the offender down and kill them. Needless to say, these amazing little monsters have never been persecuted in Ireland. Bravery, daring, intelligence and ferocity are always respected!
Ireland’s largest carnivores are all members of the Stoat family, but very different to the wily little hunters. It is still a much-debated topic as to which is the larger animal, the Badger (Meles meles) or the Otter (Lutra lutra). Both are credited with phenomenal strength. You might not see them around, but they are always there in the Wicklow countryside. Look along the edges of walls and fences in meadows for the tell-tale territorial markings made by Badgers: latrines. They are not the most pleasant looking things, being small open holes dug in the earth and filled with Badger dung, but they certainly get the message across! And then you know to come back after dark, with a camera.
All this dung, especially cowdung, horse dung and sheep dung, will give you a good chance of seeing a wonderful little animal which has been portrayed in some adventure movies as an insane supernatural killing-machine. Anyone who has seen Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy will probably have unpleasant recollections of swarms of large black scarab beetles pursuing the adventurers, burrowing into skin, and eating people alive. In Wicklow we have a number of members of the Scarabidae, better known as “dung beetles”. The most commonly found is the large, muscular-looking and armour-plated Common Dor Beetle (Geotrupes stercorarius). You will imediately notice that it is an extremely slow-moving animal and clumsy insect, finding it very difficult to right itself if it gets turned over. The immense, blade-like digging claws of the front legs are powerful. Hold a beetle in your hands and you will feel them prize your fingers apart with the kind of strength that is barely imaginable in such a small creature. There are always parasitic mites clinging to Dor Beetles, so don’t be too alarmed if you see any.
However, even these big beetles have their mammalian predators, with bats in the sky, and badgers and Pygmy Shrews on the ground. Watch out for Pygmy Shrews (Sorex minutus) running along carefully maintained trackways beneath the undergrowth. They move fast, so watch closely!