THE UNDERWATER BALLET DANCER

Diarmuid Breatnach

The first time I saw a live octopus, we were both underwater and I will never forget it.

On a holiday in the Balearic Islands I had booked a sub-aqua dive with one of those diving schools one finds in those kinds of places. After safety instruction on the sub-aqua gear and rules of conduct, I went out in a boat with another novice and the instructor. It was only my second dive and I was very nervous; the first had been terrifying at first and some echo of that remained.

Once down below and looking at the plants, fish and other life down there, I forgot about my fear and, dallying, began to lag behind the other novice, who was swimming close to the instructor ahead. Then I passed a black rock from which a golden eye looked at me.

Stopping in amazement, I saw that it was indeed an eye. And the black “rock” resolved itself into a dark octopus, draped over a dark rock. It looked at me and I back at it. With its body less than the size of a football, I was startled but not at all frightened. After a few seconds I shot off fast after the instructor, to bring him back and show him.

Almost as bad as the initial fear of going down, I had found the frustration of being unable to speak underwater. But I quickly managed to convey that there was something of interest back there and that I wished him to come and look. When they both swam back to the rock, I showed them the octopus, which had remained in place.

Wait. Watch this, the instructor signalled and gently pulled the animal away from its resting place. Knowing something about the power of its tentacles and suckers, I did wonder briefly how he had accomplished this. But a few seconds later I was enthralled and so was the other novice.

The instructor began to lob the animal gently from one outstretched hand to another, guiding it in a ballet through the water, the tentacles now flaring open like a flower, then trailing behind like a mane. The octopus appeared to be more than enduring the experience passively – it seemed to be cooperating. We were spellbound.

After I don’t know how long, the octopus decided it wished to leave the dance and, finding itself still being tossed by its ballet partner, released a plume of ink and departed.

The instructor, clearly pleased, looked at us, we at him and at one another. The inability to speak, to express the wonder at what we had seen, was for me intense.

(Image sourced: Internet)

I don’t remember now much more about that dive. I have learned a lot more about octopuses over the years. Their group is called cephalopods and there are around 300 different known species of octopus in the world, inhabiting all seas. They display behaviour associated with intelligence, can distinguish between some different humans and learn some skills quite quickly (watch videos of them unscrewing the lid off a glass jar to get at the crab inside or see the My Octopus Teacher documentary on netflix).

Wikipedia tells me that the species vary in adult size from “The giant Pacific Octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) (which) is often cited as the largest known octopus species. Adults usually weigh around 15kg (33lb), with an arm span of up to 4.3m (14ft). The largest specimen of this species to be scientifically documented was an animal with a live mass of 71kg (156.5lb). Much larger sizes have been claimed for the giant Pacific octopus: one specimen was recorded as 272kg (600lb) with an arm span of 9m (30ft). A carcass of the seven-arm octopus, Haliphron atlanticus, weighed 61kg (134lb) and was estimated to have had a live mass of 75kg (165lb). The smallest species is Octopus wolfi, which is around 2.5cm (1in) and weighs less than 1g (0.035oz).

(Image sourced: Internet)

Many of the species are highly-appreciated items in the seafood cuisine of many countries on all the inhabited continents of the Earth.

But I have never been able to eat octopus since watching that underwater ballet.

End.

CLIMBING EVERY TREE IN KIMMAGE

Artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn goes looking of oak galls (“oak apples”) to make the brown ink used by the Irish monastic scribes.

photo by eoin mac lochlainn of oak galls in harold's cross

Sometimes it’s right there under you nose but you don’t see it.  I’ve been looking all over for oak galls this last while, oak galls for making ink but no, any oak tree that I checked, I couldn’t find a single one. Until yesterday – and believe it or not, I found them here on the street where I live.

The dark brown ink used in the Book of Kells was made from oak galls. The monks used this ink in the 9th Century and it is still as clear and dark today as it ever was – so I thought to myself:  I could use some of that!

Page from Book of Kells showing brown ink.

These galls form on the branches of oak trees when a Cynipid wasp lays its eggs there.  The tree responds by forming a woody shell around the egg but inside, the larva continues to develop. If you see a little hole in the gall (like in the one above), you know that by now, the occupant has grown up and flown away – leaving the little gall behind for scribes (and artists like me) to collect and use to make pigment.

One recipe I found says that, along with the oak galls, you need rainwater, gum Arabic, some vitriol and 3 table-spoons of red wine.  I’m not sure about the vitriol, I try to avoid the internet trolls but everything else seems manageable.  I’ll let you know how I get on.

PS:  someone suggested since that ‘vitriol’ might be the medieval term for iron sulphate

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH WOLVES?

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)

The wolf was hunted to extinction in Ireland during English occupation1 – in fact, a similar bounty was paid by the colonial administration on delivery of Catholic priests and resistance fighters as was paid on a wolfskin2. They were extirpated in most of western Europe and in large parts of the USA and plans to reintroduce them run into lots of opposition. But really, what is the problem with wolves?

The canine with closest ancestry to our domestic dog is the wolf, the Eurasian and American subspecies – close enough to our dog to mate and produce viable offspring – and the divergence from a common ancestor is estimated to have occurred 11,00 to 16,00 years ago.3 The wolf is an apex predator usually in a pack ruled by an alpha male and alpha female, the only ones permitted to mate and their offspring are cared for by the whole pack.

Highly social, adaptable to different terrain and weather, the wolf is a highly-intelligent animal able to travel long distances and fierce in defence or attack. Many people might fear wolves through imagining they or their children being attacked by them – and certainly there are enough childhood stories to feed that fear — but the main opposition to their conservation or reintroduction does not come from that source. Nor is the source those pet owners, particularly of weak or diminutive descendants of the ancient canine stock, like those for example in Los Angeles who complain that a coyote ate their toy poodle.

Wolves playing among themselves in juxtaposition to humans in Gorbeia, the largest natural park in the south-western Basque Country. The presence of wolves there is mentioned in only some of the tourist promotional literature and no explanation was provided with the youtube posting of this remarkable video.

The main opposition, and by far the most powerful, are the livestock farmers4. And their fears are far from irrational. Wolves are top-range predators easily capable of killing a sheep, pig or goat and, as a pack, of killing cows and even horses too5. Most livestock farmers are not going to be convinced by arguments in favour of biodiversity when they largely favour one or two breeds of meat or dairy animal, selectively-bred for high production relative to maintenance cost.

And the bigger the livestock farmer, the more realistic his problem with wolf conservation — or worse, wolf reintroduction. The bigger the herd, the more widely it is dispersed for grazing, the more difficult to protect. Paid guards with high-powered rifles are only effective by day. Corralling by night requires electrified fencing and even they are not infallible.6

So how did people manage before? In some parts of Western Europe, there have been wolves in living memory and people raising livestock in those areas made a reasonable living. How did they do it?

The answer is dogs7. Not the poodle or spaniel or terrier type but big strong dogs capable of fighting wolves and, in the case of some breeds, more than a match in a one-on-one contest. The studded or spiked collar was invented to shield the dog’s vulnerable neck and throat.

PROTECTION FROM WOLVES BY DOG

In a video from the Basque Country I viewed some years ago, some villagers talked about wolves and the mastiff dogs they had and these are discussed also in a video in Spanish included here with shepherds from the Zamora region, in Castille and León, in central Spain. This type of dog is not a sheep or cattle herder8 but rather a livestock guard; living around the livestock, it knows them and does not permit predators of any size to approach them. In some parts of the world and in the case of some breeds, nor will they permit the approach of any humans, other than their masters and their known associates. Livestock guardian dogs are not all mastiffs but all are typically big and strong breeds, hardy to the prevalent weather conditions typical to their area, socialised to the herd animals and therefore at ease with them (and vice versa), protective of the livestock and inhibited from injuring or killing them, even when hungry. They are comfortable enough with their owners (although reputedly some do not enjoy petting) and his or her close associates, with some breeds also very protective of their owners.

Vikham LGD from Pakistan (Image sourced: Internet)

There are around fifty currently known breeds around the world to fill this role9 including: Akbash and Aksaray Malaklisi of Turkey, Bakharawal of India, Beauceron of France, Cane di Manara of Sicily, Estrella Mountain dog of Portugal, Georgian Mountain Dog, Great Pyrenees and Pyrenean Mastiff, Greek Shepherd, Himalayan Sheepdog, Karakachan of Bulgaria, Mazandrani of Iran, Mucuchies of Venezuela, Slovak Cuvac, Vikhan Sheepdog of Pakistan. The Irish Wolfhound was probably not one, it seems to have been primarily a hunting chase dog, though its name suggests it might have been used to hunt wolves too.10

2019 interviews in Castillian Spanish with shepherds who use Mastiffs livestock guard dogs in Zamora region, central Spain.

It should be born in mind that in many parts of the world, wolves are not the only mammalian apex predators; big cats and bears compete with them; in those regions guard dogs have to be and are willing and able to confront those species too. Despite the size and armament differential, a good guard dog will confront such predators displaying extreme threat in appearance and sound (and possibly also summoning assistance). Livestock guard dogs have been known to fight to the death but bear or even lions will usually back off to seek easier prey. Besides, a flock needs a minimum of two livestock guard dogs and and there might be more.11

These breeds are mostly comparatively rare now in many parts of the world, where apex predators have been extirpated, since their function has largely been dispensed with, or they are maintained as pets or competition show dogs.

Carpathian LGD (Image sourced: Internet)

None of the Basque villagers interviewed had mastiffs any longer, although one Basque livestock farmer informed the interviewer that his father had two. However, in some other parts of Iberia, the mastiff breed is still active as a working dog and a shepherd in Zamora (Castille and León autonomous community, central Spain) with a flock of 450 sheep has five mastiffs; all five might not be necessary but as he explains, one must have a working reserve in case of injury, sickness etc among the guard dogs. He spends €5,000 p.a on the dogs. The shepherds there have no interest in the show specimens of the breed saying that they are not being judged by their working ability. “If a wolf sees a show dog, it laughs,” says another shepherd. “If our dogs see one, they’d laugh too.” “It is impossible for the necessary qualities of a working dog to be judged in show environment”, says another shepherd, pointing out too that a mastiff that is too heavy cannot run, thereby rendering it it useless for guarding the flock.12 The dogs also need to learn from experience how to respond not just to an individual wolf but to a pack, where individual members of the pack will seek to lure the dog away towards others in ambush, or to detach it from the prey which others will then attack.

Iberian Mastiffs LGD with sheep (Image sourced: Internet)

A wikipedia entry on Livestock Guard Dogs links their use with wolf coexistence: “With the reintroduction of predators into natural habitats in Europe and North America, environmentalists have come to appreciate Livestock Guard Dogs because they allow sheep and cattle farming to coexist with predators in the same or nearby habitats. Unlike trapping and poisoning, LGDs seldom kill predators; instead, their aggressive behaviors tend to condition predators to seek unguarded (thus, non-farm animal) prey. For instance, in Italy’s Gran Sasso National Park, where LGDs and wolves have coexisted for centuries, older, more experienced wolves seem to “know” the LGDs and leave their flocks alone.”13

Adult Akbash LGD & juvenile Central Asian Ovcharkas guarding beef calves, Sublette County, Wyoming, USA. (Photo sourced: Internet)

Some Basque and Spanish shepherds seem to agree and are prepared to coexist with the wolf, using more traditional methods of livestock farming, corralling their stock by night with dogs to protect on duty as they are also by day.14 With a different apex predator in Australia, the widely-hated by farmers dingo, a few farmers are seeking to coexist with the predator against the opposition of the majority of their colleagues, in areas where dead dingoes may be seen suspended from trees or even roadside structures.

Dingoes are pack animals in which only the alpha pair breed (like wolves) and one of the cattle farmers states that dingo extermination attempts break up the pack, resulting in more individuals breeding. He also relates that kangaroos eat down the vegetation which competes with his cattle but also contributes to drying out of the land. When he stopped trying to eliminate the dingo, he says, they preyed on the kangaroo which in turn resulted in more surviving vegetation and land in better condition.15

Dingoes (Canis familiaris dingo), Apex wild predator, Australia (Photo credit: Jurgen & Christine Sohns/Alamy)

A shepherd in the Zamora range states too that the wolf keeps down the numbers of wild boar and deer and generally across Europe these ungulates are reported to be on the increase (the white-tailed deer also in the USA). Boar are well-known in some regions for raiding cultivated fields, trampling growing plants to reach what they find edible, well able to knock down types of fencing, squeeze through gaps and so on. Increasingly on the Internet one can find videos of wild boar, often accompanied by their litter, foraging in villages and towns (in one video, even successfully overturning a trash dumper to feed on the contents). These types of ungulates contribute their own kind of environmental damage in addition in some cases to nuisance to humans16.

The Zamoran shepherd comments also that deer, a natural prey of wolves, often carry brucelosis and infect cattle, which in turn is is transmissible to humans and treated as a serious disease. In cattle it results in loss of weight, abortion of fetuses and lower milk production and as the shepherd says, state control procedures require the destruction of the whole herd upon finding of some infected animals. Apart from anything else, clearly this measure can have serious economic consequences for the farmer and for the whole state in question.17

If wolf conservation and reintroduction is be successful in the long-term, it will require livestock farmers to have smaller herds and a partnership with herd guard dogs, as well as other defensive means. This entails the irony that the expansion in herd protector dogs results in protection for wolves, in preventing their cousins from causing depredation in the herds, which would entail reprisals from humans.

It may be that farmers will occasionally lose a lamb or a calf or a pig from their ranges to a predator – but they lose occasional animals anyway, to pests, disease and mishap. Their stock animals will probably be healthier and tend towards the sturdier types.

Yes, but smaller herds? Well, is it not widely accepted (except by big farmers and banks) that we breed too many meat animals, with huge emission of greenhouse gasses and lots of waste? Smaller herds would surely be environmentally welcome.

Map of Grey Wolf distribution in the present (green) and past (red). (Source: Wikipedia, Grey Wolf distribution by Country)

CONSERVATION AND REINTRODUCTION PROGRAMS

Reintroduction methods for wolves vary from releasing adult animals from captivity, whether alone or as a pair, to placing captive-bred pups within a wild litter, when according to reports they are fostered without difficulty by the wolf bitch.

The problems involved in projects of conservation and reintroduction are not small. The wild mammalian apex predators can compete with and threaten the other mammalian apex predator – the human. Direct predation on humans by the other land-based predators is statistically low; fatal encounters for humans are much, much rarer than those for the other mammal involved and, when occurring, usually arise from self-defence by the animal or defence of kind (especially of the young), along with rabid animals. So, in general, leave them alone and they’ll leave us alone.

Still of a Mexican Wolf Reintroduction from video (Video credit: Arizona Game & Fish Dept. 2018)

OPPOSITION

But leaving our livestock alone is a different proposition entirely and even more so if our livestock and livestock management systems have reduced the wolves’ natural prey, both in number and variety. And we tend to do that. Our systems tend to reduce forest to favour grassland for our domesticated grazers, which reduces or wipes out forest prey. Then we set out to reduce or even eliminate the wild grazers competing with our domesticated ones. Even when we develop forests we tend to favour monoculture or restrict to a few species of commercial timber with high turnover in comparatively shorter time.

Hunting and fishing reserve managers kill predators ranging from hawks, eagles, and owls to stoats, badgers, wolverines, foxes, otters, bears, felines and wolves; legal and illegal means of killing predators include shooting, trapping and poisoning. But those practices also favour only those particular wild species valued for hunting, often edging out a diversity of other species which are now faced with “unfair competition” from the “sport” species, resulting in damage to diversity and to the particular eco-system.

Large-scale elimination of prey animals in order, for example, to protect crops, also reduces the natural prey available to predators. Growing only particular kinds of trees will result in quicker turnover and or greater profits but also in monoculture forests giving little shelter to diverse wild life.

For good reasons as explained by their supporters, the presence of apex predators affects not only their prey and other predators but also vegetation, which in turn affects other animals, birds and fish (through their effect on water courses) – in fact, a top-down effect on the whole local environment which has been shown to beneficial.

The objectors argue that large mammalian predators can cause significant problems to humans and most significant among those humans are the livestock farmers. They, ranging from rancher livestock operations of thousands of animals, down through the medium enterprises of some hundred head, to small farmers with up to a sore or so, are the main source of opposition to wolf conservation or – what are we thinking of? — reintroduction.

The opposition based on fear of attack on person, largely without contemporary logic but relying on ignorance and some folklore, can be educated and managed by conservationists but the livestock farmers are a different proposition. Those who rely on livestock to make a decent living and those companies for which it is big business, along with their shareholders and banks, are not going to be easily persuaded. The smaller or even medium-sized concerns are potentially more amenable to convincing, especially if aided by state grants to offset losses to predation18. The evidence is that for them a change to investing in livestock guard dogs would be manageable and very possibly more emotionally rewarding19.

Big business is another matter. Grants would have to be substantial to convince them and, in any case, ecological grants to big business have not turned out to be of benefit to the environment overall. Quite crudely, big business will need to be forced to reduce the size of its operations or be put out of business one way or another; how that may be achieved is another day’s discussion. Meanwhile, progressing with smaller and medium-sized livestock farmers will make some difference and play an important educational role in what is good for the environment and for us.

NATURAL REINTRODUCTION AND VIABILITY

Not all reintroduction is human-initiated. In the Pyrenean region of the Iberian peninsula, in areas devoid for years of the native wolf, they speak of the appearance of the Italian wolf (sub-species) slightly divergent from its Iberian cousin), though none of those migrants having yet bred and thereby established a pack. This situation is leading to increased discussion around the pros and cons of wolf conservation and herd protection there.

The wolf is protected in Iberia and though classified as game species in the northern part of the Spanish state20 a ban on hunting wolf was introduced even there in February of this year (2021). This had been agreed some years earlier by the Euskadi regional Government but not implemented, until conservationists (with the support of some traditional shepherds took a successful court case to force the implementation.21 Compensation is paid for livestock killed by wolf or bear but in uneven amounts and by different systems across the state.

In the case of achieving general agreement and support for reintroduction, there remains the problem of viability of the reintroduced animals. Although the White-Tailed Eagle reintroduction to Ireland has been successful, reintroduced Golden Eagles struggle to survive and expand on the amount of suitable prey available to them. Wolves might not fare much better, once they had reduced the red and roe deer populations in the country.

However, a puzzle for us is that the earlier well-referenced wolf existence in Ireland predates that of the deer, raising questions on what were its main prey animals at that time. Perhaps it was the wild boar and certainly the presence of the torc is attested to in many Irish place-names.

In a number of other European countries, wolves could probably build sustainable populations preying on deer and boar, in addition to rodents and lagomorphs, along with some waterfowl (in particular ground-nesting ones such as the mallard). Swans in Ireland for example would presumably have to change their nesting habits to more isolated reed-beds and islands (though wolves are good swimmers).

In countries with large wild areas the problems of wolf and human interaction are reduced but Ireland is not such a country. The success of such a project in Ireland would require substantial areas apart from bogland being given over to wildness, with substantial forest coverage (the benefits of the latter are discussed below). Sheep flocks and cattle herds would need to be smaller and require guarding by day and night; the benefits of smaller livestock herds and a mechanism for their protection has been discussed earlier here.

Also required would be a rigorous enforcement of predator protection legislation which does not have a good record in Ireland (see http://trinitynews.ie/2016/10/farmers-wildlife-freak-outs-and-facts/) and and a compensation scheme for farmers in case of livestock loss (or indeed cultivated land loss to wilding habitat, multi-species deciduous forest planting, etc).

SUPPORT — WHY BOTHER?

The financial and educational benefits of eco-tourism are often quoted in defence of reintroduction of wolves and other terrestrial apex predators and, for some, those are sufficient justification. Eco-tourists are particularly interested in seeing apex predators and even hearing them, especially in the case of wolves. Certainly providing for such tourism is a niche which can permit a living to be made from management of low livestock numbers or even land without any livestock at all. As such it can be a convincing argument for small herding communities or for individual farms in livestock country.

Another reason quoted is the psychological and scientific benefits of living more in tune with the natural world and, though hard to quantify, in a world heading for ecological disaster such potential benefit should not be ignored. Which is what it is likely to be, however, in communities and enterprises focused on surviving in the present (not to mention those for whom extracting maximum profits is the only viable reason for any undertaking).

Another and more tangible benefit of encouraging mammalian apex predator conservation or reintroduction is the early and visible environmental improvement resulting in places where it has been tried. Wild grazers compete with livestock grazers, often more efficiently than livestock can manage. Not only that but they will graze areas being left for regrowth by the farmer. Such overgrazing results in arid ground, retaining little moisture, soil erosion and can even end in desertification. What long-term benefit to the environment if reducing domestic herds results in more and more land being overgrazed?

In addition, there are the problems of infection of livestock and in turn humans by diseases carried by wild ungulates (e.g. deer, bison, antelope, boar, wild goats, mountain sheep22).

The large predator can be the solution. Wolves and other apex predators keep down the numbers of wild ungulates, keeping them also on the move (in fear of predators), allowing vegetation to recover from grazing, in turn assisting moisture retention in the soil. These changes in turn benefit many other animals and plants, from invertebrates up to birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Previously to wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, the moose had only the occasional bear to worry about and they chewed their way through branch and leaf; rangers had to cull large numbers every year and even so there was substantial deforestation and large numbers of moose would die during severe winters, only to be quickly replenished the following year. Only one family of beavers was seen at work (their food of shrubs and low trees by the water margins was being eaten by the moose).

Twenty-five years after the reintroduction of wolves, willow and aspen had recovered in some areas of Yellowstone, beaver colonies had increased 14-fold, song-birds had recovered and some new species were being seen. The soil is retaining greater moisture. There are arguments about how much these changes are due to the action of the wolves but most experts grant the wolves at least some credit while some others give them a lot.23

Yellowstone Park protected wolf pack (Photo credit: Doug Smith, via National Park Service)

So that’s good news for the environment and the wolf, not so good for the moose, right? Actually, it seems to be good news for the moose too, with lower die-off for moose in winter,24 signalling a general improvement in health of the stock surviving predation.

When the numbers of grazers is controlled, tree seedlings of willow and alder get a chance to grow on the edges and banks of bodies of freshwater, which tends to control soil erosion on banks and reduce flooding. When grazers are prevented or restricted from eating seedlings, new trees survive to extend the woods and forests or to replace fallen trees and harvested timber.

Beaver in Yellowstone National Park (Photo crdt: Neal Herbert, National Park Service). Although wolves will kill and eat beaver if they can, the wolves also control Moose which were a greater threat to the beaver, eating the woody waterside vegetation upon which the beaver depends for food.

Many ecologists and forestry experts blame the white-tailed deer for changes across large parts of the USA, involving reductions in canopy-cover, reductions in diversity of tree species and general forestry maintenance (to say nothing of failure to extend)25.

For the ecology of the world, the thinning out of wild grazers is perhaps the most valuable service rendered by large mammalian predators although other factors need to be taken into account, including pattern and variety of planting and management, domestic herd sizes, along with of course responses to insect and fungal pests.26

It has long been known too that many species of trees prevent or restrict soil erosion and restrict flooding by holding water margins and, in some cases such as mangroves, sap the effects of hurricanes coming from the seaward side, along with tidal waves.

More crucially, trees produce oxygen and consume or hoard carbon. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen”.

We all know that we need oxygen to breathe and also to combine with other elements, such as carbon dioxide, to produce water.27 But the problem of excess loose carbon dioxide is recognised as one of the most serious confronting the eco-system at this moment, with carbon dioxide emissions creating part of the “greenhouse” cover over the earth, contributing hugely to global warming. This process in return is causing sea-levels to rise and also to warm, causing mass deaths in seas, along with big changes in weather systems with devastating effects for human and animal populations.

The wolf can also play a role in mediating the effect of other predators and has done so in part of the USA with regard to the coyote, similar to what the dingo has done to the European-introduced red fox, which has become a problem in Australia.

American mink in Ireland, an invasive versatile semi-aquatic predator (Photo sourced: Irish News). Could the wolf help control this pest?

In Ireland another introduced species, more likely through escape from fur farms, the american mink, is also a problem and is spreading.28 It may be that the wolf can play a helpful role there too, along with having some effect in controlling that other american, the grey squirrel which, in turn, might assist the red squirrel’s return to areas from which it has long been absent.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1Though indications exist of some hunting of wolves by humans in Ireland, in England, wolf persecution was enforced by legislation and the last wolf was killed in the early 16th century during the reign of Henry VII (see Wikipedia on the Eurasian Wolf). Ireland was invaded by British-based forces in 1169 and over time native forces were defeated and the whole country came under English rule until partly independent in 1921.

2For priests: “An 1709 Penal Act demanded that Catholic priests take the Oath of Abjuration and recognise the Protestant Queen Anne as Supreme Head of the Church of England and, by implication, in Ireland. Priests who refused to conform were arrested and executed. ……….The reward rates for capture varied from £50–100 for a bishop, to £10–20 for the capture of an unregistered priest; substantial amounts of money at the time. The work was dangerous, and some priests fought in self-defence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priest_hunter

For Wolves: “In AD 1652 the Commissioners of the Revenue of Cromwell’s Irish Government set substantial bounties on wolves, £6 for a female, £5 for a male, £2 for a subadult and 10 shillings for a cub”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolves_in_Ireland

For Resistance fighters: https://www.historyireland.com/early-modern-history-1500-1700/some-days-two-heads-and-some-days-four/

3This estimate relies on assumptions on the mutation rate, which has not been directly estimated for domestic dogs (see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982215004327#:~:text=The%20divergence%20between%20the%20wolf,directly%20estimated%20for%20domestic%20dogs). As the paper discusses, this is a highly-contentious area of study with some theories proposing the existence of domestic canids as early as 36,000 years ago and the appearance of the domestic canid predating that of the current grey wolf.

4In some parts of the USA and Western Europe, where hunting big game is a widespread activity, fear of competition with the wolf in hunting season is also an important factor and one where “the common man” may come into conflict with those wishing to protect or reintroduce the wolf.

5It is worth noting that wild grazing mammals are capable of defence against hunting canines by outrunning them and, usually as a last resort, by fighting them with horn, antler, tusk, teeth or hoof. In turn, wolves have to plan, ambush, select targets and coordinate attacks. Old and very young grazers are vulnerable but calves and foals are pushed by their mothers to stand minutes after birth; in an hour or two, they can run. A wolf injured in attack cannot travel with the pack and will miss out on most food and, if failing to heal rapidly enough, will die. There is a constantly flexing relationship between the survival mechanisms of both prey and predator.

6In the first place they need to be high enough to prevent wolves leaping or scrambling over them, also proof against digging under. And since anecdotal evidence relates livestock guard dogs being willing to stand the pain of electric shock if sufficient stimulus is provided to get out of an electrified enclosure, one must assume that wolves will develop that same resolution at some point. Finally, there is the issue of possible weather damage and failure of the power supply to the barrier.

7In some situations donkeys and alpacas have also been used with success as livestock guard dogs, though a Spanish shepherd commented that the donkey only functions with cattle, since they respond to its warning, while sheep ignore it. (See also https://www.jandohner.com/single-post/2016/05/01/the-other-livestock-guardians-llamas-and-donkeys and https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/guard-donkey-zbcz1310). None of these are capable of physically defending against a canine pack, however.

8There are a few types that can combine the characteristics of herding and guard, such as the Beauceron but in general livestock dog breeds specialise in either guarding or herding. In Australia, where the apex land predator is not the wolf but the smaller and lighter Dingo, some herding breeds also act as livestock guard dogs.

9Two are known to be extinct: The Alpine Mastiff and the Molossus.

10It seems that this breed was so valued abroad that Irish chieftains and English occupiers exported them, so that no originals of the breed remain. The current breed that goes by that name, a gentle attractive dog of high stature, is derived by cross-breeding. Wikipedia: “Based on the writings of others, Graham had formed the opinion that a dog resembling the original wolfhound could be recreated through using the biggest and best examples of the Scottish Deerhound and the Great Dane, two breeds which he believed had been derived earlier from the wolfhound. Into the mix went a Borzoi (“Korotai”), who had proved his wolf hunting abilities earlier in his native Russia. For an outbreed a “huge shaggy dog” was added, which may have possibly been a Tibetan Mastiff.

11https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livestock_guardian_dog

12https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GScuF2ZEGOA

13https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livestock_guardian_dog

14See videos in Spanish from Zamora and the Basque Government region (latter in References & Resources)

15See Sources and References at article end for items in relation to dingo conservation,

16Apart from upending trash containers and raiding farms, boar may also attack humans, especially in the case of a sow accompanied by her litter and is capable of inflicting mortal wounds. Should boar become widespread in very close contact with humans, children might be attacked too.

17https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/brucellosis/downloads/bruc-facts.pdf

18A Zamoran shepherd says he receives no grant and though not asking for one, says he should be supplied free of charge the ID chip he is required by law to embed in his dogs. On the other hand the Euskadi regional Government agreed to pay a grant and other regions have done so too, in areas where the wolf and bear are known to be in residence, without having to prove or even claim a kill of any of their stock.

19Partnership with working dogs is likely to be therapeutic in itself and surely wholly preferable to setting out traps, poison bait (which kills other predators and scavengers too) and shooting, including even killing cubs. Besides, break up the pack and more wolves will mate and bear litters.

20Ironically that status can serve to protect predators from extermination and since it was given that status in Poland, the wolf population increased substantially (see Wikipedia the Eurasian Wolf).

21https://www.eitb.eus/es/noticias/sociedad/videos/detalle/5937840/video-el-gobierno-vasco-incluira-al-lobo-catalogo-especies-amenazadas/

22In some parts of the world these would also included wild horses, camels, llamas, alpaca …. See earlier mention of brucellosis

23https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/csp2.413

24Ibid.

25https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/08/22/too-many-deer/

26https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10342-011-0523-3

27https://www.savatree.com/whytrees.html

28p.4, Mink distribution and populations, https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/IWM40.pdf

SOURCES & REFERENCES:

The Eurasian wolf: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eurasian_wolf

Grey Wolf previous and current population around the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_gray_wolf_populations_by_country

Dogs bred for guarding livestock: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Livestock_guardian_dog

Introducing wolves in northern Europe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf_reintroduction#Northern_Europe

Wolf repopulation and conservation in southern Europe: https://www.lavanguardia.com/local/girona/20190220/454285446272/lobo-pirineos-abre-debate-proteccion-projecte-llop.html

Catalonia: https://www.lavanguardia.com/natural/20200212/473446529246/lobos-catalunya-fotografias-camara-oculta-dos-ejemplares-localizados.html

Aragon: https://www.heraldo.es/noticias/aragon/huesca/2018/02/25/tras-las-huellas-del-lobo-pirineo-1226897-2261127.html

Basque Country: https://www.eitb.eus/es/noticias/sociedad/videos/detalle/5937840/video-el-gobierno-vasco-incluira-al-lobo-catalogo-especies-amenazadas/

EU: https://blog.humanesociety.org/2019/10/breaking-news-european-court-upholds-strong-protections-for-wolves.html

Issues and effects of reintroduction in Yellowstone USA: https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/csp2.413

Issues in reintroduction of the American Red Wolf: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/10/can-red-wolves-come-back-from-the-brink-of-extinction-again-aoe

Protection and reintroduction of the American Grey Wolf: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/gray_wolves/

Not wolves but related subject — conservation of dingoes in Australia: https://theconversation.com/why-do-some-graziers-want-to-retain-not-kill-dingoes-77457

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-06-25/farmers-suggest-changing-regional-australia-approach-to-dingoes/100147468

Protection of forests by predation on grazers and other issues: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/275na4_en.pdf

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10342-011-0523-3

Importance of trees and grazing damage: https://www.savatree.com/whytrees.html

Adverse effect of present levels of loose carbon dioxide: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/greenhouse-gases

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/greenhouse-gases

Mexican Wolf: https://www.breakingnews.ie/world/mexican-wolf-breeding-programme-gets-boost-from-zoo-1160719.html

Suggestion of reintroduction of grey wolves to Scotland: https://www.conservationjobs.co.uk/articles/wolf-reintroduction-in-scotland/

Ireland: https://greennews.ie/why-we-need-to-plan-for-the-reintroduction-of-wolves/

https://www.thejournal.ie/is-ireland-ready-to-reintroduce-wolves-ireland-2029-podcast-4761981-Oct2019/

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-return-of-the-large-predator-to-mainland-europe-1.3727602

Related — Issues of reintroduction of raptors to Ireland: https://www.goldeneagle.ie/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&layout=item&id=660&Itemid=195

https://www.tobinconsultingengineers.com/blog/a-brief-overview-of-the-reintroduction-of-raptor-species-in-ireland/

https://www.jstor.org/stable/24394182

Survival of reintroduced raptors, hostile propaganda, illegal poisoning and low number of prosecutions: http://trinitynews.ie/2016/10/farmers-wildlife-freak-outs-and-facts/

Wild mink control: https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/IWM40.pdf

FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS AND HITCHHIKERS

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 mins)

          In a couple of previous posts I remarked that plants have developed amazing innovations in order to grow, adapt to conditions, colonise strange ground and to propagate their species. I commented also that their variety of methods outnumbered those of our section of life on Earth, the animals; this month of June is a good time to see some of them at work.

Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation and in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind and plants developed early “flowers” like grass “heads” or catkins to catch the passing pollen. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising the female counterparts. And the plants developed different ways of dispersing their offspring too.

Flowering plants, angiosperms, are now the overwhelming majority of plant type on Earth not only in variety but in total bio-mass – but they are latecomers in the evolution of plants. Once arrived, in order to attract pollinators, flowers produced nectar and were developed in a huge variety of shapes (some we would not even normally describe as flowers) and colour.

Probably smell came later. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time of low visibility for flowers, when presumably they are visited by moths.

A hive honey-been, one of the most common pollinators, approaching a flower (perhaps a dandelion’s) intending to collect nectar and perhaps pollen but will certainly collect the latter inadvertently. Note the collection bag on its legs. (Photo source: Internet)

Early plants did not have seeds or flowers (some still don’t) so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally completely different functions, an impressive feat of adaptive engineering (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….).

The petal seems to have been the key development which spurred huge flower diversity to outcompete others in attracting pollinators and it is known now that some carry identifying patterns in ultraviolet, invisible to us but advertising like neon lights to bees. Some, like the dandelion, group many single-petal florets together to make what appears to us as one flower, each floret capable of individual survival.

USING OTHERS TO SPREAD THE SPECIES

Just behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of some species, the Prunus plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure.

On the grassy plains of the South American Pampas there are isolated copses of trees whose occurrence seems mysterious. An investigating botanist concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces resulting in some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses (or their riders) might also seek the groves out for shade and, while there, drop a few more nuts. Horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers are not overly-fond of saplings (or not of those tree species).

Nuts and seeds are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them are – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.

Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal.

WIND-SAILERS AND BOMBARDIERS

Immature lime tree seeds with their “kite”, Drumcondra roadside, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Seed-carrying parachute downy ball of the Meadow Salsify (I’m guessing) Dublin Botanic Gardens, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Some plants scorn to use animal helpers to disperse their young and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. And some of those wind-sailers are tiny seeds of very large trees, like poplars and cottonwoods, using cotton tufts to carry their offspring off into the world, which is happening right now in June in Ireland. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry in the autumn and winter, spin away on the wind; not only that but when they strike mud they are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.

The catkins of a poplar in June 2021 on Tolka banks as the river flows through Griffiths Park, north Dublin city; tufts of cotton carrying tiny seeds float away this time of year. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil, or some might shake loose and fall as the rest are eaten by birds and mammals. That is all a bit pedestrian for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such afternoon I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.

HITCHHIKERS

With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woollen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in fabrics. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp, as we learn when we walk through meadows in late summer or autumn. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.

All aspects of the Cleaver plant (“Stickyback”), another hitchhiker for its seeds. (Photo source: Wikipedia)
Hitchhiker seeds — the ‘fruits’ of the burdock after flowering become a bur to attach to passing traffic. (Photo source: Internet)

At some point in the future, these clingers will be brushed off or fall away, ready to sprout, if conditions favour them, in their new home.

Even the hot winds of forest fires are used by some conifers (which are of the non-flowering gymnosperms) to spread seeds from inside their cones – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.

SURFERS

The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it was not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first (bouncing and rolling of heavier seeds, though not normally described as a seed dispersal method, clearly plays a role).

Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.

UNDERGROUND EXPANSION

Floating colonisation is carried out by some seeds but there are other surfing colonisers too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.

An unusually solitary Yellow Flag Iris on Tolka banks as it flows through Griffiths Park, north Dublin city in June 2021 (they can be seen in clumps along the nearby Royal Canal). The Yellow Flag uses both seeds — fertilised by pollinators in the flower — and underground rhizomes to propagate the species. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

RUNNERS

A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use strawberry overground runners to grow new fruiting plants.

Grasses are an evolutionary late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year and as we saw earlier, wind and hitchhiking are their special seed dispersers. Grass provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves, stems and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens.

She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration. Plants are the innovators par excellence of visible life on Earth.

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration. Plants are the innovators par excellence of visible life on Earth.

End.

Stray immature barley (maybe) seed heads, Drumcondra roadside, June 2021. Cereals such as these use hitchhiking inside grazers as well as hitchhiking by snagging passing wool and fur with spikes on the “ears” (Photo: D.Breatnach)

A mixed group of seed-spreaders: wind parachutes (dandelion or salsify maybe), pod-rupture (red clover), hitchhikers and wind-sailers (grasses), (scatter by movement and wind) broad-leaf plantain and one of the umbellifers, probably cow parsley (by the leaves). Drumcondra uncultivated garden, June 2021. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

SOURCES

Flower production:http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141017-how-flowers-conquered-the-world

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowering_plant#Reproduction

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/big-bloom

Pollination by bees and what they see: https://www.beeculture.com/bees-see-matters/

Seed dispersal methods: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/103-seed-dispersal

https://www.britannica.com/list/falling-far-from-the-tree-7-brilliant-ways-seeds-and-fruits-are-dispersed

Identification: https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/crops/horticulture/vegetables/Illustrated_Guide_to_Horticultural_Weeds_2020.pdf

Dawdling in Dalkey & Dún Laoire

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time text: 5 mins.)

Farewell, sweet Dublin’s hills and braes
To Killiney’s Hill and silvery seas,
Where many’s the fine long summer’s day
We loitered hours of joy away.

(The lyrics I see have “silvery streams” whereas I somehow learned “silvery seas” but in any case the latter lines seem more appropriate to me).

Near Killiney is Dalkey in south County Dublin and above both is Killiney Hill, a mostly public hilly woodland with some great views of the Mediterranean-like bay below. Dalkey might be a Viking translation of an Irish place-name, Deilg-Inis, meaning “Thorn Island”. Of course it is just possible too that the Irish translated the Viking name but not likely. The Vikings were here of course, a place of small coves between their towns of Wicklow and Dyflin.

VIEWS FROM THE HILL

Dalkey Island (Deilg Inis) in the distance from Killiney Hill, gorse (furze – aiteann) in bloom in the foreground (Photo: D. Breatnach)
Closer view, showing the Martello Tower in the centre of the island. Ireland has a number of these, built to give warning of Napoleonic invasion or raid on the UK (in which all of Ireland was at the time). (Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view from a somewhat different point, showing also a strange stone tor to the left (which I don’t recall from before) and the stone underneath me of which much of the Hill is made. On a hot day in late summer in my teens, I heard small pistol-like shots erupting over the hillside — the pods of the gorse were exploding and shooting out their seeds. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The path and slope up to the woodland and hilltop. For a few weeks I used to meet lads from the ‘Noggin (Sallynoggin) and we’d go hunting rabbits with our dogs, through common and private land, up to Killiney Hill (where the dogs always claimed they could smell rabbits but all we could see was their shit), then down to the sea and encourage the dogs to go for a swim to clean them. And throw in the ones who declined. Of course, they got their revenge shake-drying themselves all over us. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
A great view of the bay from the path, the pronounced peak of the Sugarloaf in the distance. County Wicklow begins just a little down below to the right. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

It’s now I must bid a long adieu
To Wicklow and its beauties, too
…..

Not the Mediterranean, Killiney in south County Dublin and the rest of the coast line on towards Wicklow: Bray, Greystones and beyond, seen from the open space at the top of Killiney Hill. The obelisk at the summit was behind me as I took the photo. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

IN THE WOODLAND

The woodland is above the path beyond where a stone wall runs along part of it and the woodland continue curving around the northern slope of the Hill. Here one takes the left fork to follow the tarmacadamed bath with steps at intervals. One winter I mitched (truanted) school up here for a few weeks in a little “camp” we had made of branches and we cooked potatoes and fried bread over a managed fire. It was cold, though. Had to face the music eventually of course ….

This tree is just tensing before it takes off running! (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Hard to say whether the steep downward path here was carved out by rain streams or whether the excess rain just flows down here off the path, widening an existing fault or dip. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The top of the steep path/ rainwater runoff channel, with a tree growing rampant at the lip of the slope. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
On the way down the other side of Killiney Hill, a view westward towards where the Dublin Hills run southward into the Wicklow Mountains. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
“Thus Daedelus flew” says the inscription on the bronze statue on the way down, which I do not recall from boyhood, nor the cafe it is facing. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

DÚN LAOIRE — THE WEST PIER

Dún Laoire Harbour was surveyed by a team led by Lieutenant Bligh, before he set off in command of the Bounty, where he fell foul of Fletcher Christian and a mutiny. Bligh might not have been a great people manager but he was an excellent seaman — he navigated a launch 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) to safety, leading his 18 loyal crew members.

Both piers of the harbour are built from granite quarried from the side of the Killiney Hill next to Dalkey and from the top of Killiney Hill itself, so that it is now lower than it was before. A lot of the Hill is also limestone, the most common stone in Ireland (and indeed in Europe) and that has been quarried too, for road and house-building.

As a boy and teenager I spent hours fishing from the West Pier, losing more weights and line than I caught fish. One time I fished the incoming tide, the outgoing tide and the incoming tide again (a full tide cycle takes a little over 12 hours). Beyond the level crossing at the start of the West Pier is where it is thought the original Irish fishing village was, where there was a small inlet, the only storm shelter for boats between Dublin river-mouth and Wicklow, someone told me once. About 100 meters south-eastward along the harbour there is a plaque marking some stones believed to be all that remains of King Laoghaire’s fort, which is what the name of the place means in Irish.

Common Tern, one of a mated pair, perched on the pier’s edge. These normally nest in sand-dunes and that type of terrain on the coast, so not sure what they were doing here. They have very forked tails and hover before diving into the water to catch small fish or sprats. Wherever they were diving I would expect to find mackerel below, forcing the sprats up to the surface to catch them there. Terns dive at people or animals approaching near their nests and can be quite disconcerting even is one is not stabbed by a beak, which is said to occur on occasion. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The East Pier is the one that decades ago had deckchairs for hire by day and a bandstand where brass bands would play in the evening, a place where many like to promenade still today. The ship from Britain was alighted here, or boarded with the next stop being Holyhead (Caergybi) in Wales, to catch the train to other cities or all the way to London, which I did myself at 19 years of age, like many before and after me.

But after the English colonist town of “Kingstown” grew up around the constructed harbour, the Young Irelander captives were sent to prisoner exile in Tasmania; Queen Victoria came through here on her two visits to Ireland; most of the troops brought in to suppress the 1916 Rising came in here too. Some of those, the Sherwood Foresters, had little idea of the slaughter that was awaiting them at Mount Street Bridge from much less than a score of Irish Volunteers, without even a machine-gun between them but extremely well-placed. Blind, arrogant British officers persisted in sending their men in waves against the insurgent positions, although there were much safer ways to reach the Dublin city centre, since only about one-third of expected insurgent forces were in the field, due to confusions and countermanding; 240 dead or wounded was the toll they paid to pass.

Grey Heron (Corr éisc) on top of the wall at the end of the West Pier — first time I have ever seen one there. He wasn’t too worried about me but was keeping an eye on a couple of dogs wandering around below. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

REFERENCES:

The Emigrant’s Farewell song lyrics: https://www.norbeck.nu/abc/lyrics.asp?rhythm=song&ref=109

DUBLIN BOTANIC AFTERNOON – NATURE AND HISTORY

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)

Garraithe na Lus/ Botanic Gardens is one of the jewels in Dublin, either in the city centre or just beyond, depending on how one calculates it.1 It is free to enter and open all days of the week, though there have been closures and reduced hours during the current Covid19 pandemic. It contains over 5,000 living species and cultivars2 and also accidental fauna, most but not all of which is indigenous and the Tolka, one of the few uncovered rivers of Dublin, flows along its border and through part of it. Walking through the garden is relaxing but one is walking not only through nature but history too.

Text on the official website proclaims truthfully that “the National Botanic Gardens are an oasis of calm and beauty” and goes to state that the whole is “A premier scientific institution … and that “the gardens also contain the National Herbarium and several historic wrought iron glasshouses.” All of the glasshouses are closed currently as an infection protection measure but one that had fallen into disrepair will hopefully be restored to working order and will be available when the rest can be safely reopened.

In defence of its status as a “scientific institution” the website states thatwe do not allow dogs, picnics, bicycles, fishing, ball games, jogging or running, nor the playing of musical instruments or recorded music”, however this prohibition adds considerably to its calmness and the ability for visitors to take in the natural atmosphere, sound, views and smells without being jarred by those other features so common in many public spaces.

The gardens, at 19.5 hectares are not very large and certainly nowhere near the size of those at Kew, London, which are over 132 hectares in size but the smaller acreage of the Dublin site is arguably part of its charm. It is bordered on the west and south by Glasnevin Cemetery (well worth visiting too) and connected by a gate, while the Tolka (an Tulcadh) borders it to the north and cuts off the rose garden, which can be accessed by a short bridge. A road called Glasnevin Hill borders the eastern side of the Gardens and the Tolka runs under a bridge there on its way to the sea.

A bluebell glade (with a white variant) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Gardens were a project of the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society), founded in 1731, the Gardens themselves being opened in their current location in 17953 and are now owned and managed by the Office of Public Works, a State body.

WALK LATE APRIL

IRISH YEW AND NORTH AMERICAN SQUIRRELS

At this time of year, some of the trees are in full leaf, some in early stages and some still bare or just in bud. It is a good time to note the shapes of branches, some seemingly fantastic and also the effect of the emerging leaves against them. The clumps of the parasitic mistletoe (Sú darach) can be seen high in the branches of many species in the Gardens and having spread also to some trees in the Cemetery.

Some strange branch shapes seen here surrounded (and contrasted) by early leaf and sky, April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Close-up of the contorted shapes, with some of the contrasts lost but more play on shadow. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The dark clumps are mistletoe, a photo taken in June (2020), when they are less obvious among the leaves of the tree. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

We would not expect the Gardens to be restricted to native species and although there are examples of those present, there are species of plants present from at least six continents, varying from tall trees to low cacti or succulents. But among the native flora there is a surprise for many: the Irish (compact) yew.

Many places in Ireland are named in connection with trees and the yew (Iúir) figures in a number of those, the most prominent perhaps being Iúr Chinn Trá or its more modern name An tIúir (Newry). The heartwood of yew was used to make the English longbow, from which the “cloth yard” (about 37 inches, or 94 cm) arrows played such a decisive role in the defeat of the flower of the French knighthood and cavalry at Agincourt in 1415. Because the yew is slow-growing it was policy in England to plant them in order to ensure a supply and yeomanry were required to practice at weekends. No doubt the English took their toll on the yew in Ireland as they did on other trees such as the oak.

The European Yew typically had a spreading growth but in County Fermanagh in 1767 George Willis, a local farmer, discovered two freak seedling specimens that grew in a tight, compact shape. Of those original two, one is still living4 in the grounds of Florence Court Estate demesne and it estimated that over five million offspring have been propagated from that one tree, typically seen in churchyards, graveyards and parks, not only in Ireland but in many parts of the world.

Four Irish Yew in the Dublin Botanical Gardens early April 2021 (Photo: D.Breatnach)
An Irish Yew specimen at close quarters in Dublin’s Botanic Gardens. Millions of these around the world were propagated from two ‘freak’ types found in Fermanagh, Ireland in 1767. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

From export to the world let’s turn to an import ubiquitous in the Gardens – the grey squirrel (Iora liath). This is an invasive species to Ireland originally from North America and is blamed for helping to greatly reduce our own native species, the red squirrel (Iora rua) which, to my mind, is a much more attractive animal.

Research on Irish wildlife a few years ago showed the red squirrel making a comeback in some areas and that is associated with the slow increase in the presence of the pine marten (I prefer its traditional if inaccurate name “Cat chrainn” to “Marten péine”) which had been recently nearing extinction in Ireland. It is a predator on squirrels but apparently finds the grey species easier to catch since the latter spends longer on the ground.

Strangely, I have not noted grey squirrels in the nearby Griffiths Park so they do not seem to be expanding in that direction – at least, not yet.

Grey Squirrel (Iora Liath) in Dublin’s Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach))

HISTORY

BATTLE OF CLONTARF

The Battle of Clontarf, which was fought in this area on 23rd April 1014, was between Brian Boróimhe’s (Boru) forces of mainly Munster and Connacht forces, along with some Viking allies, against the forces of the Viking King of Dublin and the King of Leinster, aided by a substantial force of Viking mercenaries from the Orkneys and Manx. It was of great consequence since the High King of Ireland and many petty kings were killed in it but it also put a definitive stop to any further expansion of Viking power in Ireland (though their Dublin kingdom was tolerated but required to pay tribute).

The available history tells us that Brian’s headquarters camp for the Battle of Clontarf (Cluain Tairbh) was in Glasnevin (Glas Naíonn). Brian’s camp may have been where the Cemetery is now, since the highest point there is higher than the Gardens’, or even a little further north around where St. Mobhi’s Church is today, higher still. Wherever it was is where he was slain too, in a sneak attack by one of the Viking mercenaries from the Isle of Man, according to one of the accounts.

The Battle was certainly not fought at Clontarf but is where one part of it ended, as defeated Viking mercenaries ran for their ships there, many being killed at a bottleneck at a salmon weir (round about where Ballybough is now), only some surviving to reach their longships.

Some boys brave a small weir on the Tolka just east of the Botanical Gardens. There is little sign on this day in late April 2021 of the surging flood of which the river is capable and from which it takes its name. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The name of the river is an old Irish word for “flood” and had there been heavy rains in the Dublin hills, the river level might have been high generally but would certainly be so anyway in the estuary at high tide. Since the record tells us that the battle started at high tide and was still high tide when it finished, it means the battle lasted 12 hours. Twelve hours of fighting in any kind of battle is hard enough but with hand-operated kinetic weapons, along with shields and armour, impossible without taking rest breaks. So the fighting waned at times by agreement or by mutual exhaustion but was engaged again. The actual battle site has never been found5 but was probably fought along the Tolka (Tulcadh) for some of its length.

Unlike battles today, all the commanders of high rank in it on both sides were killed, including Brian (though not in the actual battle) and the King of Leinster, Maél (‘Maol’ in modern Irish) Mórda Mac Murchada, the latter killed along with many of his troops and Dublin Vikings at the other bottle-neck, the only bridge then in existence across an Life (the Liffey), perhaps around Islandbridge (Droichead na hInse). This was probably at the delayed intervention in the battle of the forces of the King of Meath, Maél Sechneill Mac Domnaill (though one of the annals has his actual death at the hands of a relative of Brian’s who himself received mortal wounds from Maél Mórda).

1916 RISING

The cancellation of the Rising by Mac Néill for Easter Sunday (23rd April that year) and its reinstatement by the IRB’s Military Council was resolved by going ahead on Easter Monday (24th April). When news of that reached the area around Maynooth, a group of Irish Volunteers who had gathered the day before but stood down, set off for Dublin along the banks of the Royal Canal, arriving in Dublin city late on Easter Monday. They found two Volunteers guarding the Cross Guns Bridge over the canal and were advised that proceeding into Dublin city centre might not be advisable in that evening.

The men spent the night in Glasnevin cemetery and set off again the following morning, crossing the now unguarded bridge and making their way, hungry and footsore, down to the very centre and the GPO on the Tuesday of Easter Week, where they remained in action until the evacuation of the burning building on the 28th. One of their number, Tom “Boer” O’Byrne, who had served in the Irish Brigade against the English in the Boer War, had his sore feet bathed there by Cumann na mBan Volunteer Lucy Agnes Smyth, whom he escorted with most of the other women Volunteers from the GPO and wounded prisoners to Jervis Street Hospital on Friday 28th and whom he would later marry.

End.

Missel Thrush (Smólach Mór), if I’m not mistaken. This one seemed quite unafraid, going about its hunting a few yards from me. The caterpillar-seeming forms on the ground are catkins from the poplars in Griffiths Park, which follows the Tolka eastward from the Botanical Gardens (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Hooded Crow (Caróg Liath), the Irish (also Scottish, Icelandic) species closely related to the all-black carrion crow, seen here on a field of grass and daisies, late April 2021, Dublin Botanical Gardens. They are wary and difficult to get close-ups of without a tele-lens. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Mostly dandelion (caisearbhán) on a grassy slope above a stretch of the Tolka between Botanical Gardens and Griffiths Park. The dandelion is a plant with a cheery flower which would be highly prized were it not so common (it also has a startling nature which is not discussed here). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

FOOTNOTES

1One of the ways in which people locate Dublin’s city centre is “between the canals”, i.e between the Royal Canal on the south side (of the Liffey) and the Grand Canals on the north side. However, the location of the Botanic Gardens is only a little past the Royal Canal, a matter of five minutes’ walk.

2A cultivar is an artificially developed variety of a plant through selection or the result of cross-breeding (eg the Loganberry or the Nectarine). As to the numbers, Wikipedia claims “approximately 20,000 living plants” for the site while the figure given here is from the Botanical Gardens’ own web page.

3That century was one in which Dublin rose in status as a city of the British Empire and many of its prominent residents took civic pride in the city and strove for improvements in a number of fields for the city and for Ireland in general. The Botanical Gardens were opened three years before the United Irishmen uprising but when the organisation was already in existence and pushing, along with more liberal constitutional elements, for Catholics and Presbyterians to have the vote and to be permitted to stand for election for the Irish Parliament, which was being blocked by the Crown administration and some vested interests. After the Rising, the Irish Parliament was abolished and so began the decline in importance of Dublin from what had been considered the second city of the British Empire.

4The other was recorded as having died in Willis’ garden in 1865, almost a hundred years later.

5I did hear years ago that some artifacts had been found in excavations for the site of the current meteorological station building near Mobhi Road but I have not seen any documentation of that. There was mention in one account of the battle of tired fighters slaking their thirst at a well and the location of that was thought to be in Phibsboro/ Glasnevin, at the junction of the southward part of the one-way system. And a housing development I noted there is called “Danewell”.

SOURCES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Botanic_Gardens_(Ireland)

The Irish Yew: https://futureforests.ie/products/taxus-baccata-fastigiata

Grey & Red Squirrels in Ireland and the Pine Marten: https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2020/0616/1147681-red-squirrels-comback-ireland-pine-martens-grey-squirrels/

Battle of Clontarf: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-Clontarf/Showdown-at-Clontarf

The Battle of Clontarf in Irish history and legend


Maynooth Volunteers traveling to Dublin for the Easter Rising http://www.kildare2016.ie/history/maynooth-company-irish-volunteers-and-the-easter-rising/

https://www.irishlifeandlore.com/product/sheila-oleary-b-1921-her-daughters-emer-oleary-and-maeve-oleary-and-her-niece-margaret-sheeran/

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/love-and-war-one-family-s-incredible-connection-to-the-1916-rising-1.2281929

COLONISERS AND INNOVATORS PART II

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

In Part I, we remarked that “Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and …. with a superior record.” We followed their emergence from the waters and their colonising of land, along with various strategies they developed for their new environment. Now we watch them constructing their very own environments and adapting to some of the most challenging climes of the earth.

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and although it is within them that photosynthesis takes place, strangely they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons, even in perennial plants, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate or cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Inside a tropical rainforest.
(Photo source: Internet)

Temperate Rainforest — parts of the Wicklow hills and valleys would almost qualify.
(Photo source: Wikipeda)

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Creating one’s climate isn’t always possible and, when it’s not, adaptation is the other option. Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and also sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

Arid-adapted plants, SW USA (Photo source: Internet)

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lillies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, reeds with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Reeds and two different species of willow on the Royal Canal, Dublin. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Close view of alder cones and leaves from tree on the Royal Canal, Dublin north city centre. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

The “needles” on pine twigs. (Photo sourced: Internet)

The downward direction of the branches of many conifers ensures slide off by snow when it reaches a certain weight — but long before the branch might break. (Photo source: Internet)

Red and white spruce in snow. Though the branches incline slightly upward, they are very flexible and will bend and dislodge the snow overlaying them long before the branch is in danger of snapping.
(Photo source: Internet)

THE YOUNG TAKE TO THE WATER AND THE AIR

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 minutes)

Some young take to the water, others to the air …..

          The last weeks of May and first half of June saw the young of many species take to air or water. On my walks in the Drumcondra area of Dublin where I live, although Glasnevin Cemetery and the Botanic Gardens were unreasonably closed (the Botanic is now open but on restricted hours, again unreasonably), the banks of the Tolka river in Griffith Park and the banks of the Royal Canal were open to the public.

A pair of mute swans (ealaí) nested on the stretch of Royal Canal east of Cross Guns Bridge but quite near to it. Well, the female, the pen, at least did, while the cob (male) was usually swimming nearby. So how did the pen feed during the long hatching period? Unlike some bird species, this male does not feed the broody female. Well, the male may take a turn, spelling her to go off and feed herself and difficult to know when that happens, as both genders look so much alike. Fumbling with my phone once I failed to catch a photo of the large grey eggs beneath the shifting body of the sitting bird – three, an East Asian woman told me, using her fingers. Later, I saw both parents with just one cygnet – whether some of the eggs were infertile or two of its siblings died I don’t know.

Mute Swan cygnet in ‘duvet’ on land
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Mute Swan parents and lone cygnet, Royal Canal, Glasnevin.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Predators can take cygnets but the parents are very good at protecting them and eggs in the nest will not be left untended until the cygnets are hatched – and then it’s straight into the water. When not swimming itself, the cygnet climbs on to a swimming parent’s back and sits there surrounded by a natural feather duvet. From then on, the nest is not needed except perhaps in stormy weather.

A few days later I was fortunate to see another pair of mute swans on the Tolka in Griffith Park, these with no less than seven cygnets! Their parents took them upstream, the cygnets swimming easily, even under the branches of a fallen tree-trunk. Until they came to a mini-weir which the parents simply walked over but their offspring were too small to do that. However, they maintained position for quite a while swimming against the mini-waterfall, their parents seemingly unable to understand why their young could not follow them and, eventually, having to turn back to them. Many mammals, confronted with a similar problem, would simply pick its young in its mouth and carry them over the obstacle and then go back for the rest. A small crowd of Homo Sapiens mammals gathered to watch the proceedings with interest and delight.

Some of the mute swan brood following their parent upriver on the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Can we go under this obstacle?
(Photo: D.Breatnach

Yes, we CAN go under that obstacle!
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Why aren’t you coming?
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Also out with their young were mallards (Lachain), the ducks and drakes (bardaill). Some had hatched their young as far back as April but most seemed to be doing so at this time period and then it’s straight into the water. I remember witnessing the unpleasant scene of a duck with a clutch of tiny ducklings on the Tolka being harassed by a couple of drakes, one in particular trying to mate with her, she quacking that she wanted no part of it. Contrary to comment by some writers, rape is not unknown in the animal world and though in most species it is rare, mallard drakes are known for it.

Delightful it was however on another day to see a newly-hatched clutch of ducklings zooming around on the water, in their fluffy chocolate brown-and-yellow down looking like aquatic bumblebees, both parents close by.

Duck and very young ducklings, Tolka, Griffith Park.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Walking past the high waterside vegetation of the canal one day I heard a kind of cheeping which I guessed to be the chicks of a moorhen (Cearc Uisce). These waterfowl are very shy and careful too not to reveal their nest locations which are constructed in waterside vegetation only inches above the water level and sometimes actually afloat on a kind of raft. Though egg-laying is in March-April and they will not fledge until about 50 days later, we should be seeing the chicks with their parents already. So where are they?

Moorhen, Royal Canal, Phibsboro, not hanging around to be photographed.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Grey herons (Corr Ghlas) fish the Tolka and the Royal but their nests are nowhere there. They prefer to nest in trees, somewhat incongrously for birds with such long legs. I have never seen their nests in Ireland myself, though I read that a colony is to be found in St. Anne’s Park, in County Dublin. Grey herons take turns on the nest and also in feeding their young – which require a lot of fish and frogs. They would take a duckling or cygnet too, given the chance …. Which is why herons often get mobbed by other birds. In Drumcondra I watched one on house rooftop being dived at by seagulls, no angels themselves but they have nests of their own in higher rooftops nearby.

Grey Heron, Royal Canal, Glasnevin.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

And one day, a Little Egret (Éigrit Beag) spent a little while looking for fish in the Tolka before departing. It’s a relatively new settler in Ireland but no longer rare along the east coast.

Not so much “taking to the water” as already in it are the tiny young of the three-spined stickleback (Garmachán), hatched out in underwater nests cared for only by the male. I have seen shoals of the fry of larger fish in the Tolka too, once heading downriver through the Botanic Gardens; what species they were I don’t know but a large stock of brown trout (Breac Donn/ Rua) lives in the river. Many sprats are at this moment concentrated in different parts of the Tolka.

However, on a number of occasions large numbers of fish have been killed by pollutants in the water. A few years ago it was reported that salmon (Bradán) had been seen making their way upriver and this year I saw some myself in the Tolka. These spawn in freshwater and after a few years their young make their way to the sea, the survivors returning years later to spawn in the river again. If the young are killed before making it into the sea obviously they won’t coming back to spawn in a few years’ time so a fishkill incident in one week can wipe out a species in the river for a number of years. I photographed the sprats of some species of fish a few weeks ago in the Tolka and again this week while walking through Griffith Park (I, not the fish).

Sprats, young of some fish species, Tolka, Griffith Park, 25 June 2020. Difficult to photograph with mobile phone even through not much more than a foot of water. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Among the young taking to the air now are those of the magpie (Snag Breac) and the distinctive and irritating high-pitched calls of the juveniles can be heard just about everywhere, usually from above in the trees. The call is “feed me” and is designed to be difficult to ignore. However, they need to learn not only to fly but to find their own food, so the parents will feed them only on occasion. This corvid is apparently an invader recorded arriving in Wexford in 1676, over two decades after that other invader, Oliver Cromwell. It has settled in well but is recognised as a predator by songbirds and sometimes attacked by them; on the other hand the magpies themselves will gang up on seagulls, hooded crows and cats, when they will give a frequent rattling kind of call.

The juveniles who are calling to be fed were in the egg for 20 days and fledging for nearly a month, which means the eggs were laid in April. The nests are large, a mass of twigs and can be seen in trees all over Dublin.

Some of the cottonwood seed-carrying medium on the banks of the Tolka, Griffith Park, end of May.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Bullrushes, Royal Canal, Drumcondra, shedding some cotton but not where the main cotton fall is coming from.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Bedstraw, perhaps, flowers mostly gone to seed.
Royal Canal, Drumcondra; Yellow Flag Iris nearby.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The young of plants have taken to air too and along the banks of both the Royal Canal and the Tolka the flowers have died and are turning to see-capsules or to pods, while other species are bursting into flower.

Some days the ground was covered in drifts of a kind of cotton and I assumed this was seed-carrying material. But from what? Along the Royal I might suspect the bullrush or reed-mace, with tattered tufts of cotton around the mace “head” …. or perhaps the pussy willow … but surely not in these quantities? However, in Griffith Park clumps of it were drifting across my path and I remembered reading about “cottonwood trees” in stories set in the “Wild West”. Yes, three species of cottonwood are part of the larger poplar family and have been around for 55 million years in North America, Eurasia and Asia and although not native they do grow in Ireland. And poplar-type trees have been planted along stretches of the Royal but in particular in Griffith Park, recognisable by their somewhat rounded leaves and the compact upright growth of their branches, so perhaps they are the source of the cotton? Their name in Irish is Poibleog Mheiriceá Thuaidh, translating as “North American Poplar”; that’s a bit of a long one and if they become more popular (forgive the pun) we might have to start calling them ‘Crann Chadáis’ (Cotton Tree).

But it wasn’t them either.  The culprit was, after all, the willow (Sail) tree; but not the pussy or weeping willow, but the giant willows.

End (A Chríoch)

EXPLORERS, COLONISTS AND INNOVATORS Part 1

Part I: Expedition to the Unknown

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.

          There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).

We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.

Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.

LAND HO!  

          Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were probably non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.

Rootless and low-growing, Irish liverworts and moss.
(Photo: irishwildflowers.ie)

But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.

First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.

We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:

It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”

Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”

I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”

Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”

Established seashore plants and lichen on the Saltee Islands, Co. Wexford.
(Photo: outsider.ie)

REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP

          In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.

The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.

But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right?

How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.

Buddlieia bush clinging to a wall in Dublin (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.

Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.

Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow and also bow to high wind. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”

If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are already up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.

Cultivated climbing plants, runner beans, winding around canes in a “teepee” frame.
(Photo source: Internet)

end.

Ivy making its way up a tree trunk.
(Photo source: Internet)

EXPLORERS, COLONISTS AND INNOVATORS

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 15 mins.)

When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.

          There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).

We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.

Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.

LAND HO!

          Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.

Brown & Green Algaes in shallow seawater (the brown uses floats to stay upright but the green doesn’t need it. Just almost out of view is a yellow lichen colonising the stone sea-wall. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.

First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.

We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:

It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”

Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”

I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”

Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”

REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP

          In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.

The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.

Buddleia bush clinging to a wall in Dublin (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right? How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.

Ivy making its way up a tree trunk.
(Photo source: Internet)

Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.

Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.

Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”

If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are reaching up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.

Runner Bean plants climbing a support structure (‘tower’) in a garden. (Photo source: Internet)

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and it is within them that photosynthesis takes place but strangely, they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons even in perennial plants, with a few exception, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate and cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Temperate Rainforest, Fraga do Eume park, Galicia, Spanish state. Despite the deforestation of Ireland during centuries of British occupation, areas such as parts of Wicklow arguably qualify for the description “rainforest”.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lilies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, rushes with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Selection of waterside plants, reeds and different types of willow tree, growing along the Royal Canal, Dublin, yesterday. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Immature cones of the alder showing among leaves of the tree.
(Photo source: Internet)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

AWARENESS

          Seeds know which way is “up” and which is “down”, which is quite an amazing thing; the tap root of a seed, germinating in the dark, goes downwards while its shoot grows upward.

In fact, the plant seed also knows the right time to germinate – too early in many climes and it will be killed by frost, too late and it will have insufficient time to develop before the next cold period or will be unable to compete with other seeds that sprouted earlier, depriving the late-comer of sunlight and possibly nutrients. The decision is made by a number of factors feeding into a small cluster in the seed tip, consisting of preventative and initiator command centres. When the initiator section’s hormones exceed that of the preventative, it is time to germinate. Not very different from our brains’ decision-making process, is it?

Also, cut a living branch and often the plant will mobilise to produce one or more shoots at the cut-site. But should that cut be enclosed within soil, the tree or bush will produce roots instead – it ‘knows’ the difference. This knowledge the gardener takes advantage of when she “air-layers” a shrub or tree by nicking a branch, then covers the cut with soil wrapped in a plastic bag, waiting for a root to develop and then cutting the cloned sapling free, ready to plant.

Air-layering a branch, possibly from a a peach tree. The branch inside the wrapping has been cut, packed around with soil, to fool the plant into sending out a root.
(Photo source: Internet)

Without eyes, plants are also capable of detecting where the light is; if one places a climbing plant seedling in a dark cellar with a small window high above, the plant will climb towards the window, striving to reach the light. The sunflower and the flowers of some other plants turn towards the sun, following its progress across the sky. Many flowers, including those of the dandelions and daisies all around us at this time of year, close when the day ends. A “Swiss Cheese Plant” I once had managed to slip one of its suckers — like a long surface root — down the back out of sight and when I eventually discovered it, the sucker had gone under the carpet and had extended around six feet towards the window.

Of course, it may have been searching for moisture.

Plants can sense moisture and do go looking for it, something at which eucalypts are particularly adept. Unfortunately, this can cause problems for other trees and shrubs growing in the same area, as the eucalypts suck up the water from greater depths (the eucalypt doesn’t care however nor do some of its planters). During the severe drought in parts of the USA last year, it was reported that trees were breaking open water pipes with their roots to get at the precious liquid. It appears that the reports were mistaken but instead the roots were extending towards the detected moisture from leaks in the pipework. Of course, then the roots might widen the gap ….

Some plants at least are also ‘aware’ of being attacked, for example by an infestation of caterpillars. Those that have reserves of a defensive poison at their disposal are not only able to deploy it but also to communicate to other nearby trees of the same species, so that they too deploy the poison – before the caterpillars have even reached them! It is thought that the trees communicate underground, through their roots.

Plants also know when their offspring have reached enough numbers and a sufficiently advanced stage so as to put their energy into maturing them, rather than producing more growth or even more seeds. Presumably they receive a chemical signal when enough roses have bloomed, been fertilised and the rose hips, the fruit containing the seeds, are swelling. Likewise when the beans inside a runner-bean pod have swollen and will shortly be ready to burst the pod and drop to earth. Gardeners know how to fool the plants into continuing to produce for a longer period by “dead-heading” dying flowers and picking runner-bean pods when they are still very young.

THORNS, SPINES, POISONS, GAS – AND HELPERS

           Among the many features that plants have developed are an impressive array of defences. Filamentous algae, with low mass investment and constantly renewing, probably did not need defences nor perhaps did the plants that first came ashore. Defence against what, after all? But later, as soon as animal life began to develop on land …..

Here in the north-west of Europe we are familiar with thorns and spines on the trunks and branches of the rose and briar, blackberry, gooseberry, gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. It is not always on the trunks and branches that the sharp spikes are to be found, as we are reminded by the prickly leaves of the thistles and holly. Thorny and spiny defences are repeated around the world on other plants from acacias to cacti and many others. Thorns stab, rip and tear but spines lodge in the skin and continue to irritate, some forming sites of infection.

Well at least you’re safe among grass, right? Not necessarily, for example the dune builder grasses, marram or beach grass, can cut the skin of mammals moving through it. In other parts of the world they have aptly-named ‘sword’ and ‘saw’ grasses. Some of these cut with a thin edge but many with tiny hair-like spines growing on the underside of grass blades, called trichomes, defend against herbivorous invertebrates but may also cause “grass itch” in some people.

Mostly, these are a defence against grazing animals or protection against the theft of the plants’ fruits. Other plants have developed poisons, which they employ not only against mammal and bird grazers but also against insects such as caterpillars (as commented earlier) and locusts; examples in Ireland are the foxglove and the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a relative of the tomato and potato. Another is the hemlock, a relative of the carrot, parsley and angelica plants – even its sap can burn your skin. An invasive shrub or small tree, the cherry laurel, carries arsenic within its wood, leaves and berries and can be seen in many gardens, parks and growing wild around much of Wicklow.

Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade plant in flower with some immature berries (ultimately rich purple colour).
(Photo source: Internet)

But trees have also been observed to emit chemical compounds that attract the enemies of parasites or grazers feeding on the trees.

Poisons can be employed against competing plants too, as does the hydrangea, a shrub with lovely luxuriant flowers in your garden (or indeed in a public park in Howth) but a seriously invasive plant in the wild as it eliminates its competition and grows unchecked. It does this by a relationship with a bacteria around its roots that produces a poison to kill competing vegetation. However, the native pine also produces an allelopathy in its discarded needles, inhibiting the germination of other plant seeds and growth – it is not only the blocking of sunlight that keeps pine forests so free of undergrowth.

The onion carries an aroma warning that rough handling of the bulb will produce a gas attack on eyes and nasal passages, as known to any who have handled them in food preparation.

Plants employ some poisons continually but others selectively, as in ripening seeds (for example in the seed pods of the laburnum) or in sensitive growing tips (for example the fiddleheads or curled growing tips of bracken, toxic to grazers). The daffodil is a lovely plant and safe to handle but digging up the bulbs and mistaking them for wild onions can have fatal consequences for the eater. And as we have seen elsewhere, leaves can become poisonous as trees mobilise chemicals from tree to tree when under attack by caterpillars.

Growing tips of the bracken fern, known as “fiddleheads” – poisonous to grazers.
(Photo source: Internet)

However, some plants welcome insects as protectors too, as for example with a species of ant that lives in some acacias and helps keep the tree free of pathogens.

When considering plant poisons we are reminded too of the stinging nettle, which introduces its defence to us in childhood, never to be forgotten. In North America, one would always remember a brush with its poison ivy. The Giant Hogweed, also a member of the carrot and parsley family but invasive to Ireland, causes a very painful rash following bare skin contact.

There are many localised wars going on out there.

FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS, ROLLERS AND HITCHHIKERS

          Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation, particularly in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, both insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising female flowers.

Flowers were developed in a huge variety of shapes and colours in order to attract pollinators — and then came smell. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time when flowers are hardly visible, when presumably they are visited by moths.

A hive honey-been, one of the most common pollinators, approaching a flower (perhaps a dandelion’s) intending to collect nectar and perhaps pollen but will certainly collect the latter inadvertently. Note the collection bag on its legs.
(Photo source: Internet)

Early plants did not have seeds so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally different functions (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….)

Behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of Prunus species, the plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure. A botanist investigating the occurrence of isolated copses of trees on the grassy plains of the South American Pampas concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces: some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers don’t eat saplings.

Nuts are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them were – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.

Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal. Some plants scorn to use them and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry, spin away on the wind and not only that but when they strike mud are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.

Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil. That is not good enough for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such day I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.

The casings of chestnuts, both edible and the ‘conker’ variety hit the ground, some cracking open as they do so and roll away from the tree. The casings of the edible ones are spiny, which no doubt afford the nuts inside some protection from being eaten (and trodden) until they are covered by fallen leaves or strike a root into the ground. Again, the lucky ones will become saplings and, enough sunlight (and goats) permitting, grow to become trees. The Mexican “jumping bean” rolls itself away from its parent, turning over and over, albeit slowly.

With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woolen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in clothes. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.

Hitchhiker seeds — the ‘fruits’ of the burdock after flowering become a bur to attach to passing traffic.
(Photo source: Internet)

All aspects of the Cleaver plant (“Stickyback”), another hitchhiker for its seeds.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

The pines even use forest fires to spread seeds from inside their cones on the hot wind – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.

The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it is not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first. Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.

The latter kind of colonisation may be by seeds but there are other methods too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration.

A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use runners of the strawberry to grow new fruiting plants.

Grasses are a late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year. This provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens. She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!

End.

NB: Thanks to Oisín Breatnach for editing work (all subsequent errors etc are mine) and Osgur Breatnach for reminding me of the onion in a separate discussion.

REFERENCES & SOURCES

Early appearance of plants: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/land-plants-arose-earlier-thought-and-may-have-had-bigger-impact-evolution-animals

Leaves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf

Native and invasive plants to Ireland: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/

Deciding when to germinate: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/seeds-use-tiny-brains-decide-when-germinate-180963625/

Tiny bristles in grass: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-grass-make-you-itchy

Ants protecting acacias from pathogens: http://www.messagetoeagle.com/acacia-tree-uses-ants-as-body-guards-and-rewards-them-with-shelter-and-food/

Plants inhibiting germination of competitors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allelopathy

Poisonous effects of bracken on ruminants: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00580-018-2636-2

Trees summoning the predators on caterpillars: https://lt.org/publication/how-do-forest-trees-defend-themselves-against-insects-under-natural-conditions-and

Features of the alder: https://books.google.ie/books?id=uvNgBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT46&lpg=PT46&dq=how+long+does+alder+timber+remain+waterproof&source=bl&ots=h-