The wildlife and plants of County Cork in Ireland
We exchanged the hot, dry weather of East Anglia for the mild west of County Cork in Ireland.
Here the climate is equable and gentle (except for the occasional storm) with winter frosts infrequent and summer maximum temperatures rarely rising above the mid-20s. The region is a paradise for gardeners, who can grow a huge range of species, including palms and other exotic plants, some of which, fuchsias for example, are now well established in the wild.
The moist, unpolluted air and regular rains create perfect conditions for ferns, which clothe old walls and the banks of the narrow country lanes, many of which also feature the strange Navelwort (Umbilicus rupestris) with its fleshy round leaves, and glorious tall stands of foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea).
Among the many fern species there was one I especially admired; the royal fern (Osmunda regalis).
This, our largest fern, grows locally mainly in the west of Britain, but is much more widespread in Ireland, and in County Cork is quite common in damp places such as pond margins and on the banks of streams and rivers.
One pretty shrub with clusters of white daisy-like flowers growing among the native trees had me stumped. I knew it could not be native, yet it seemed perfectly at home and far from any garden. Eventually I identified it as New Zealand holly (Olearia macrodonta), a composite, escaped from gardens and now naturalised in this area.
A highlight of our trip was a visit to Mizen Head, Ireland’s most south-westerly point - the next stop due west is Canada! Here the rugged cliffs are constantly pounded by the waves of the open Atlantic.
Seals swim and fish in the more sheltered bays and gannets soar and dive further from the shore. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, and shags breed here on the ledges of the cliffs and rocky islets. A sudden loud screaming from high on a cliff alerted us to a young peregrine, perched here in the original habitat of this powerful falcon. Soon an adult appeared and swooped up to feed the young bird.
But there was another special bird that I was hoping to spot, and we were not disappointed. On a rocky slope, partly covered with short grass and tufts of thrift, we spotted a group of black birds, about the size of jackdaws, but with bright red bills and legs.
Choughs are still frequent here, especially on grassy hillsides and cliffs near the coast where they probe for worms and grubs in the turf.
Like jackdaws, choughs are vocal, sociable birds, with a similar range of calls, but with additional cat-like mewing sounds.
The crow family is well represented in Ireland. Rooks and jackdaws were ever-present in the pastures, magpies and jays in hedges and woods, and ravens in the wilder sites of the higher hills. Absent only are carrion crows, so here any ‘crow’ is a rook.
Our familiar carrion crows are replaced by hooded crows that look quite different with their grey and black plumage.
Later we headed north to Glengarriff to take the ferry across to Garnish Island to search for another even rarer bird. Following the successful reintroduction of sea eagles to Scotland, these magnificent huge raptors have also been introduced to a few sites in Ireland and a pair has nested on this small island since 2014, with varying success.
After gazing at an abandoned nest in the north of the island we climbed a Martello tower from which an active nest could be spotted in a tall pine to the east. As we watched, an adult eagle arrived with food for one or more juveniles in the massive nest - a fabulous and unforgettable sight!
Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based nature writer and conservationist.