An Irishman's Diary
Calling Wicklow the “Garden of Ireland” has always seemed a little silly to me. Culture keeps nature on a tight leash in gardens, and much of scenic Wicklow, at least in recent times, is definitely on the wild side of that divide.
But I have recently found a special place that remains remarkably “wild”, and yet offers such a remarkable profusion of flowers in spring and summer, and such rich, strange fruits in autumn, that the word “garden” inevitably comes to mind.
Buckroney Nature Reserve is certainly one of the county’s hidden jewels. This is odd, since it is next door to the very popular Brittas bay.
Buckroney is, in fact, part of the same sand dune system as Brittas, but has been, regrettably, fragmented from it since the development of a golf course in the 1990s. Happily, the surviving Buckroney dunes are still quite extensive, and much less eroded by recreational use than those at Brittas. So they are also much richer in native plants and animals.
The most special quality of Buckroney, aside from its extraordinary biodiversity, is its bewitching sense of calm. Once a single dune ridge separates you from the road, you are in a world apart, often silent but for the distant murmur of the sea, or the mewing of a buzzard high overhead.
As you move deeper into the reserve, a landscape opens up that is much more varied than the impoverished remnants that pass for dunes on most of our coastline. Each “slack” – the valleys between the dunes – has its own distinctive vegetation. Sometimes it is a patch of willow, sometimes hawthorn, sometimes both. Each one is a fairy grove, adorned with its own combination of purple or yellow loosestrife, ragged robin, or meadowsweet.
Elsewhere honeysuckle may dominate, and burnet rose and creeping willow are almost everywhere.
Closer to the sea, the slacks are saltier, and sometimes hold a colony of the majestic (and rare) sharp rush. Each clump is as tall as a tall person, and a couple of metres across. They sometimes form a wide and empty circle, so regularly spaced that you could be forgiven for thinking that they had, indeed, been planted by a gardener. Other slacks are bottomed with smooth patches of sward – you can see where links golf got its ideas from here. They can be briefly spangled with dozens of marsh or pyramidal orchids in a good year. Others again will be carpeted in purple thyme, pink centaury and storksbill, blue speedwell and yellow lady’s bedstraw. It is hard to exaggerate the sense of abundance that such explosions of diverse colour and scent can evoke. Add birdsong – skylarks, and several warblers, are common here – and a kaleidoscope of butterflies to the mix, and there are moments when the Elysian Fields seem sure to be just over the crest of the next dune.
In reality, of course, you simply reach the sea, and a sand and shingle shore that stretches out for several kilometres, but that’s hardly a let-down. Here, too, there are bands of wildflowers, with the vivid blue flowers and sculptural structure of sea holly especially striking. The strand is also home in spring to courting little terns and nesting ringed plover. It offers exhilarating walks in any season, with all the moods of the Irish Sea for company.
Heading homeward, you can choose a whole new set of habitats to explore. There are reed beds, a marsh, and an entire little wood where gnarled and stunted willow, birch and sycamore, like giant bonzai, have completely colonised the dune slacks. Prepare to meet a motley troop of piebald horses here – selective grazing is the only active management on the reserve.
I had thought that the best of Buckroney was past for this year. But its dunes are now cloaked in subtle rusts and golds that can rival the summer’s bright displays in a sudden flash of sunlight. And my wife’s new passion for mushroom-foraging has revealed yet another rich world, right beneath our feet. A single outing of less than an hour in late October revealed at least seven different species, often bizarrely beautiful, most of them unknown to us.
“Only eat what you know” is the golden rule of mushroom survivors. But we were confident enough about puffballs and parasols to pitch them into the frying pan with butter and pepper. That has left a rich taste of Buckroney with us, to keep us going until the spring flowers come back.