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Messages from Samuel Connolly

The Greatest Show in town…

In Wicklow Town, that is. And this show might not last all summer long, so get down to the Murrough in Wicklow as fast as you can on a sunny day. A beauiful little accident has occurred. An area by the coast that was off-limits due to some public works taking place was supposed to be ploughed and then rolled so that the area would return to grassland. Instead it was ploughed, but due to an oversight it was not rolled. Instead of grass growing “weeds” began to appear, and many local people were very angry about it. But now the weeds have blossomed and this small area of Wicklow has turned into a little piece of heaven on earth.

The incredible wild flower meadow on Wicklow Town's seafront.

It is brimful of fantastic meadow flowers as only newly ploughed ground can be. This is their rare window of opportunity and so they don’t hesitate to take advantage of it, with seeds that have lain dormant for years bursting into life, and plants bursting into blossom. Sun yellow flowers of Corn Marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum) and bright white Corn Chamomile (Anthemis arvensis) dominate, but their colours are speckled by the bold red of the Common Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), stunning blue of the Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and the purple and pink flowers of Common Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis).

A wall of colour, prepare to be stunned.

Stunners in the Undergrowth

One of the most beautiful creatures in the Wicklow countryside is the male Ring-necked Pheasant. It is as beautiful as the most exotic birds of the most far-distant jungles, and more gaudy than even the Resplendent Quetzel. The territorial call of the male pheasant is now a fundamental part of the background noise of Ireland, but it wasn’t always the case. These birds genuinely are exotic, having been introduced into Europe from southern Asia in the 18th century by hunters. And those poor creatures certainly were hunted, to the point where it’s hard to understand how it could be considered a “sport”. For example, most hunters kept copious notebooks recording the amount of pheasants they shot during their careers. Lord Carnarvon, who famously financed Howard Carter’s archaeological excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, is said to have personally killed almost 23 million (23,000,000) pheasants! It boggles the mind. Clearly a man with too much time on his hands.

A male Ring-neck Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) at the edge of some rushes on the East Coast Nature Reserve near the village of Newcastle.

Anyhow, at this time of year the pheasants comprising the wild (naturalised) populations in Ireland can be found hiding in the long grasses of meadows, woodland and roadside verges and in the rushes around lakes and rivers in Ireland. The magnificent males are now usually accompanied by small hareems of superbly-camouflaged females. They are so well camouflaged that they can simply stand still in a field and disappear.

A hen Pheasant cautiously stalking across a field recently cut for sileage.

Botanical Adventures

As I’ve said before, any time I’m out in the countryside and I see people dressed for the outdoors, with binoculars and cameras, I suspect they are naturalists, and I ask them if there is anything interesting around at the moment. That’s how I found myself talking to Zoë and Pete Devlin. They were out looking for a plant that is very important and has become very rare, the Sea Kale – Crambe maritima. Unfortunately it is now so scarce that I have no photo of it to show you. But imagine a fleshy-leaved plant with tall flower spikes of white flowers or yellow seed pods and you’ve got the idea. Wicklow is one of the last places in the British Isles where it can be found growing on it’s natural shingle beach habitat. So why is it important? Sea Kale is the original cabbage plant. All cabbages we have today were bred from this wild plant. It is a very important part of European, if not global natural and cultural heritage, particularly in Ireland where boiled bacon, potatoes and cabbage were especially reserved for Sunday dinners. If you want to really have an Irish meal then you will still find this (my favourite dish) in Wicklow restaurants, and it is simply delicious!

Adventuring botanists, Zoë and Pete Devlin. (Pete's binoculars are actually for birds...he's a dedicated birder.)

Zoë  has a wonderful website dedicated to wild flowers and filled with incredibly useful information and superb photos. Check it out at: www.wildflowersofireland.net

She also has a book due out in autumn this year, Wild Flowers of Ireland – A Personal Record, published by the Collins Press, so be sure to watch out for it. Undoubtedly a perfect Christmas present, and a nice reminder of the warmth, sun, long days and infinite variety of colours of spring and summer, in case any of us forget how wonderful it can be as we sit by our firesides in the dark depths of winter.

You never know who you’ll meet, or what adventures are being had, unless you take the trouble to go for a stroll into Wicklow’s landscape. Anyone who does find Sea Kale should contact Zoë through her website.