August sees life out of balance after wet summer takes a toll


ANOTHER LIFE:OUR WOODSHED swallows couldn’t wait to quit this Irish summer. On one day the whole family were out in the rain together, swooping up and down past the woodshed so low that to venture out was to duck through a flight of Red Arrows at play.

And on the next they were gone. Of the usual coastal passage of migrating swallows, begun in August, and with time for a leisurely gossip on the wires, there’s no sign. The sky, as I write, is unusually blue, but silent and quite empty.

There is another, perhaps associated vacancy. The beautiful, pink-flushed domes of angelica, towering now in the uncut grass beside the house, are normally thronged at this time with bluebottles and other glossy flesh-flies, along with platoons of little copper-clad soldier beetles, all sucking at the nectar of the flowers.

Throughout summer, indeed, the succession of umbelliferal plants – those spoked like umbrellas with fractal masses of florets – are the helicopter-pads or filling stations for a myriad insect world. But I think we must have missed whole generations of diptera, hemiptera and other small orders of life; even the midges have dwindled. Many of these, on the wing, might have nourished the swallows for longer.

Umbelliferae, on the other hand, have never enjoyed a summer more. Like the water mint, climbing up to flower among the meadowsweet and purple loosestrife, most of this big plant family (now the apiaceae, for botanical correctness) thrive in stream-banks, damp meadows and wayside ditches. Thus, in the vegetable garden, plants we only realise to be umbelliferae if we leave them to flower and seed in their second year – carrots, parsnips, celeriac, parsley – have been doubling up on their leaves, while lovage, fennel, coriander and dill have already spread umbrellas among the herbs.

Leaving the grass uncut beside one gable of the house was to admire, in spring, the low and lacy white embroidery of the first wild umbellifer, the pignut (an earthy name from the crunchable root, like a hazelnut – hence “Here we go gathering nuts in May”).

At the other gable, also by permission, the self-sown, ancient alien Alexanders rose early in a glossy thicket of lime-yellow flowers. Each year we mean to cook its shoots for a vegetable, like the early monks; each year we leave it too late.

The really undesirable alien among the umbellifers is, of course, the giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum from the Caucasus, the one with sap that makes the human skin ultrasensitive to sunlight, setting up a rash of blisters that can end in AE. Imported as a statuesque, decorative plant, it was recorded as “naturalised” in Blackrock Park in Dublin exactly 60 years ago. Its spread along the island’s river banks has closed off stretches of popular angling streams and silted their spawning beds with winter-eroded soil.

August brings the usual paranoia about the flourishing of common ragwort, the flood of its blatant, unsubtle yellow flowers an affront to notions of good husbandry. A “noxious weed”, like thistles, it contains alkaloids toxic to horses and cattle, especially when faded and dried in a crop of hay. There was great point to the Noxious Weeds Act originally passed 70 years ago, when the horse was an animal vital to Irish farming and hay was the general winter fodder; its relevance is revived by the rise of recreational riding.

Senecio jacobaea or buachalán buí – not an umbellifer, for all its sprays of daisies – is subject in Britain to a new Ragwort Control Act, sponsored by the British Horse Society in consultation with agriculturists and ecologists. This takes a more realistic view of such a tenacious plant (50,000-odd windblown seeds and 70 per cent germination), commanding control only “where there is specific threat to animal welfare”. Ragwort supports a whole community of wildlife – most prominently the cinnabar moth in my drawing, whose larvae rely on its leaves. Indeed, the plant’s toxins make the caterpillars so poisonous that nature rings them in yellow and black as a vivid warning. But the plant is food for at least 77 species of foliage-eating insects, including more than 27 species of moth, 22 types of thrip, 13 species of bugs, nine flies and six kinds of beetle. No fewer than 178 insects have been recorded visiting for nectar or pollen.

Many people, however, would share Maria Edgeworth’s distaste for the plant, which she penned a couple of centuries ago. When the Edgeworths set out to visit the Pakenhams, 12 miles away in Westmeath, “there was a vast Serbonian bog between us, with a bad road, an awkward ferry, and a country so frightful and so overrun with yellow weeds that it was aptly called by Mrs Greville ‘the yellow dwarf’s country’.” Along many of Ireland’s roads this August, the yellow dwarf still rules okay.

Eye on nature

On Marlfield Lake, outside Clonmel, there were two swans and their cygnets at the edge of the lake.

Alarmingly, a third swan was being pecked to death by the parents. One swan was standing on its body and pecking at its head and the second swan was doing the same to its body.

Kelvin Lowe, Clonmel, Co Tipperary

Swans have very aggressive territorial fights, in defence of cygnets, when a third swan ventures into a breeding territory. Normally the vanquished one beats a retreat and rarely is it a fight to the death.

In early May this year, while passing some houses, I noticed a swift flying to a roof cavity, reeling away then flying back again.

On its final attempt, a starling burst out and attacked the swift. Both birds almost hit the ground but the startled swift managed to stay in the air. The starling must have beaten the swift to its regular nesting place.

Kieran Fitzpatrick, Greystones, Co Wicklow

A bird which I think is a sparrowhawk landed on our clothes line today. There was another one hiding under a tree at the bottom of the garden.

Patrick Lynch, Collon, Co Meath

There must have been a nest close by.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. Email : Include a postal address

Leaving the grass uncut beside one gable of the house was to admire, in spring, the low and lacy white embroidery of the first wild umbellifer