They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually.
As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.
The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled.
It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens. Those who would land, that is. For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings.
Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up. Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes.
Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.
The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.
The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig.
Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs.
It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.
The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants.
They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest.
Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.
The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit.
They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny.
If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later.
A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one empty-jawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest.
The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs. As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers. Extensive tunnel networks were dug.
At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.
Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five millimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common).
They, and previous generations, are all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.
Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging.
Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat.
If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen.
A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.
One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world. She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself.
Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.
Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species.
Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food).
In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights.
Another indication is an unusual amount of seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison.
The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.
To an arachnophobe, the very idea of flying spiders must be a terrifying thought but they would reassure themselves that such a thing is only possible in horror movies. I am sorry to disabuse them but in fact many spiders do fly … and in fact, they’re flying in Ireland right now.
“Flying” might be a slight misnomer – “ballooning” might be more accurate, though they don’t use balloons. What they do is let out a line of silk – standard spider equipment – into rising warm air, or perhaps a breeze and …. up and away they go.
If it’s any consolation to the arachnophobes, the spider aeronauts are tiny – and probably need to be so for the airlift to work. On Wednesday in Dublin, at least three landed on me – one on my hand, one on my neck where I could feel the tickling (sorry, ararachnophobes!) and one on my bike, where it began to spin a web before I flicked it away to spin it somewhere else.
Traditionally, these have been called “money spiders” – apparently the folk belief or fancy was that if they landed on you, they meant good luck: as they symbolised a new suit being woven for you they were a prediction of an increase of wealth coming your way. They were landing on people all around Dublin on Thursday1 but wealth is coming sadly only to the same people as before: i.e native and foreign capitalists, property and finance speculators and landlords.
Looking up “money spiders” on the Internet, I find reference to Linyphidae which reminds me of Linyphia, that I recall2 spins those “hammock” webs in the hedges or bushes that you only really notice when they’re covered in dew.
But I had no ideal that “Linyphidae is a family of very small spiders comprising 4,706 described species in 620 genera3 worldwide.This makes Linyphiidae the second largest family of spiders after the Salticidae. The family is poorly understood due to their small body size and wide distribution, they are actually the most 3rd venomous spider worldwide4 after the black widow and Brazilian wandering spider; new genera and species are still being discovered throughout the world. The newest such genus is one from from Nepal …… Since it is so difficult to identify such tiny spiders, there are regular changes in taxonomy5 as species are combined or divided.”6
But wait a minute! No mention of our common wolf spider, which is small but not tiny except for its young, which I remember also take to the air. Was mine a false memory? Or was Crompton mistaken in Life of the Spider? So, I do a quick on-line check on the Wolf Spider into Wikipedia and yes, it mentions how the mother carries the tiny young on her back but …. no mention of them flying! However, a little more digging into the Internet (because it’s hard to believe I have been so mistaken about this for so long) and …. I find the reference! Yes, the young of Pardosa amentata, a species in the big family of wolf spiders, do also take to the air.
This is a small dark brown spider which you are most likely to see running over dry parched earth, especially when it cracks a bit, or over a stone or concrete path. It does not construct webs but runs its prey down, hence the “wolf” part of its name but unlike the wolf, Pardosa amentata hunts alone.
When she has been fertilised (whether her mate got away alive or not), she will weave a silk sheet into which she will lay her eggs and which she will then bind up into a round pill-shape, before strapping it on to her body underneath her abdomen. Since the egg-case is usually off-white, to a quick look it will appear that this is a brown spider with a white abdomen and most people who spend any time in a garden will have seen these7.
She carries this at all times, even when hunting or escaping from prey. She is very protective of that egg-case and if it is removed, Compton wrote, will try hard to retrieve it, even daring an ant-lion8 funnel to save it.
When she senses her young are are ready, she bites the egg-case open and tiny spiderlets come tumbling out, crawl up her legs and sit on her back, all linked legs, sometimes three layers deep.
Now when you see her, it looks like she is furry on the back or maybe has some kind of infestation. If the young are brushed off, she will try to wait for them to find her and climb back on. With egg-case or young, she can stil hunt and does but I don’t think anything is known of how the young receive alimentation – if indeed they do at all. Anyway, one day soon it’s goodbye Mam, goodbye back-travel mates and up they climb along stems and branches, let out the silk line …. wait …. wait …. wait …. YES! Up and up, soaring into the sky, to come down in …. somewhere. If they live that long.
Then they have to find prey that they can handle at their tiny size, avoid other predators, grow, moult, grow, moult until one day they will be a hopeful mature female or a hopeful and very cautious male. If the former, the cycle will begin again, all taking place in the space of only a couple of years.
But right now, all over Ireland, the little spider-nauts are flying …. and landing, somewhere near you.
2I read John Crompton’s Life of the Spider (Mentor, UK, 1954) as a child and remember a lot of what I read there.
3Genera is the plural of genus and means the overall group after the family which is then divided into species. For example the wolves, coyotes, hyenas, foxes and the domestic dog are all members of the overall family Canidae, but that itself is divided into 12 genera, of which Canis is the one to which the wolves Canis lupus and their descendants the domestic dog Canis (lupus) familiaris belong, while the foxes belong to the genus Vulpes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_canids
4Even should this be true, their tiny jaws are unable to pierce human skin; the spiderlet itself is no bigger than the head of an ordinary sewing pin.
5The branch of science concerned with classification, in particular of life-forms.
7I’ve also seen a yellowish spider in water margins carrying a similar egg-case.
8The ant-lion is something like the “sand-worms” in the fictional Dune series, except that they remain in their funnel in a tip in the sand, waiting for the unwary traveler when their head emerges with fearsome jaws and …. well, you can imagine the rest.
On my way to Griffiths Park in the Glasnevin-Drumcondra area on Monday I stopped to gape at a glitter-storm above the street. They were flies, dancing in the sunlight, the slanting light reflected off them. In the Park itself through which the Tolka flows, I saw many more clouds of them, always in patches of the early evening sunlight. These were the Mayfly or Cuil Bhealtaine. I took photos but my phone was unable to capture their true beauty, coming out in the photos more like snowflakes.
At one point I was able to observe a cloud of them at closer distance. They didn’t all just fly around haphazardly – every now and again individuals would dive down like a meteor – the sun making them seem as though they had a burning trail — and then zoom up again. On and on they went and it amazed me that no birds or bats seemed to be preying on them.
A poem or a piece of music might have done the sight justice.
The mayflies rise from their larval stages underwater only to procreate, to open their wings and fly, then to mate and to lay eggs into the water. They cannot eat as they no longer have mouthparts and individuals that are not seized and eaten by other life-forms have at most a couple of days to live.
A great many life-forms, especially invertebrates, spend their youth in the water and rise to mate. Dragonflies and damsel flies do so – a return to ancient mother water for some, perhaps. Long ago the cetaceans – whales and dolphins – ‘returned’ to sea and evolved to adopt to it, limbs converted to fins and tail. Penguins did the same, wings becoming flippers. And mayflies are quite an ancient life form too.
As a child and into my early teens I would spend hours by a pond or other stretches of water, looking at what I could see of the animal life there, also sweeping a long-handled net through the water and bringing my assorted catch home to examine in jars or basins of water.
The larvae or nymph stages of water-laying flies comprised a large part of the collection: midges, gnats, mosquitos, rat-tailed maggots, stoneflies, bloodworms and also the larvae of the dysticus beetle (handle with care!). These and more shared the murky waters with daphnia and rotifers, leeches and planarian worms, water-mites, frog and newt tadpoles while water-scorpions, water-measurers, pond-skaters and water-margin spiders prowled the surface above like pirates.
In clearer water such as streams and rivers, I caught sticklebacks while caddis fly larvae inside their home-made tubes imitated drowned twigs.
But I don’t recall ever seeing mayflies and certainly never saw a hatch like this. No doubt trout anglers have seen the like often for such mass ‘hatchings’ are a bonanza for them. From boat or land they cast out their lines with articifial flies attached, hoping the trout rising to snatch at the mayfly harvest will grab the false fly instead. These hooks with bits of feather or fibre tied around them don’t look like a fly to you or me but sitting on top of the water and seen from below, they must look good enough to eat.
ON THE WAY BACK
There was more to see, like the mallard duck with her clutch of chicks or ducklings but the intervening branches made a photograph impossible. In shape and colour the new ducklings remind one of bumblebees and they zip around on the water without difficulty and fearless. Alas, they have a high attrition rate as seagulls and herons will each take them as a snack.
Looping around on my walk I passed by the closed Botanic Gardens looking great in the sunset but I had to stalk the view from the side to get a shot clear of the scaffolding inside and signpost outside in front.
On the bank of the Royal Canal on the home stretch a heron was standing close to the path but I delayed too long getting my camera ready so it became uneasy and began to move off. Further along, a swan couple kept their cygnets close, just a couple of days old at most, balls of grey fluff – Anderson’s “ugly ducklings”.
But the day’s prize for me was undoubtedly the clouds of mayflies in their glittering dance in the sun.
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.
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).
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.
Artist Eoin Mac Lochlainn goes looking of oak galls (“oak apples”) to make the brown ink used by the Irish monastic scribes.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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 (Videocredit: Arizona Game & Fish Dept. 2018)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
It’s now I must bid a long adieu To Wicklow and its beauties, too …..
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 ….
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.
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.
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 that“we 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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) alsopermit 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 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.
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”.