Beauty abounds as this rolling tome gathers much moss


ANOTHER LIFE:THE MOUNTAIN IN OUR window is bathed in warm and rosy light when the sun sets in the sea. A darker side faces inland. The great corrie scooped out above Doolough Pass is shadowed through the year. At the northern cliffs and buttresses, winter’s snow beds linger and the streams and waterfalls run cold.

Like all the great hills around Ireland’s rocky rim, Mweelrea was sculpted and scoured of life by the glaciers of the last ice age. Now, like most of the the others, it is home to a legion of little plants whose spores arrived on transatlantic winds in the past 20 millennia.

Mosses and liverworts – collectively, the bryophytes – tend to be ankle-high at best. Their intricate flowerlessness, however exquisite in close-up, struggles out of Latin polysyllables into uninspiring common names like drooping-leaved beard moss (a rarity of shadowy western waterfalls) or sickle-leaved fork moss, critically at risk as one small tuft in Donegal’s Blue Stack Mountains.

Who beyond ecologists should care? Dwellers among mountains certainly should, since mats of bryophytes help to hold the high slopes together, soaking up the rain and letting it go slowly, helping to check landslides before they begin.

But bryophytes are everywhere on this moist island. On sand dunes, woodlands, peatlands and field and city walls, they are part of the living fabric that serves the insect world. Their 830-odd species – nearly all blow-ins, or brought by migrant birds – are the last big family of plant life to be given proper study in the story of Ireland’s biodiversity.

A decade and more of field research, backed by the conservation agencies north and south, have gone into Rare and Threatened Bryophytes of Ireland, by Neil Lockhart, Nick Hodgetts and David Holyoak. It is the latest in the magnificent series of natural-history books published by the National Museums of Northern Ireland. It is also certainly the heaviest, commanding an extra £8 postage charge on the £25 online price from Blackstaff Press. That’s still incredibly good value, given the unexpected beauty of the book, not only in its plants (an inspiration to anyone in art and design) but also in its landscape and habitat photographs.

This has been a golden spring for Ireland’s natural history. The bryophytes follow splendid new overviews of the island’s butterflies, grasses and flora – and yet another milestone book has been added to the study of its birds. In the past two or three decades, what was once a minority, amateur passion has been matched by a wave of professional research. Bird Habitats in Ireland (the Collins Press, €34.99), edited by Richard Nairn and John O’Halloran, offers more than 20 scientists with expert knowledge of particular landscapes and the species of dependent birds.

For its size, this island has a remarkable range of habitats, each with a distinctive offering of food and shelter. Near all face some kind of change, not least as Irish wildlife responds to new arrivals. Deadly mink have reached vulnerable seabird islands; a new shrew makes extra food for dwindling barn owls; new waterweeds and molluscs threaten our fish.

Climate change gets a chapter to itself, as seasons shift and vital links are mismatched between nesting and food supplies. We have few enough golden plover left breeding in the uplands without losing the hatch of crane flies to which the feeding of their nestlings is geared. Such crucial insights inform an important book (large format, good pictures) that brings the story of Ireland’s birdlife up to the minute.

Other new books on nature are full of more personal delight. Carmel Madigan’s family has lived on Co Clare’s Loophead Peninsula for 300 years. The rocky, windswept shore and moorland hold remarkable flowers in which mallow, elecampane, Babington’s leek and sea rocket are all part of the tapestry. The Wild Flowers of Loophead (€20 at, itself a lyrical weave of Carmel’s photographs, paintings and poetry, would tempt anyone to holiday at home.

Damien Enright’s place is west Cork, and many have enjoyed his serial accounts of that lush and lively coast and its wildlife. The Kindness of Place (Gill Macmillan, €16.99) follows local nature through a year, as meshed with his own busy ventures in and around Courtmacsherry. A personal chronicle, vividly and intimately told.

Declan Cairney’s place is at the northern end of Co Clare, where a summer of volunteering at the Burren Birds of Prey Centre, at the Ailwee Cave, captured his 11-year-old ambition. It inspired his little book Raptors: A Pocket Guide to Birds of Prey Owls, which is, as Gordon D’Arcy writes in a foreword, a remarkable piece of work. The young author’s illustrations are strikingly effective (sparrowhawk clutching blue tit is a gem), and the whole must launch his future as a naturalist. The guide costs €7.50 from The proceeds are being given to Ireland’s Golden Eagle Trust.

Eye on nature

A growth of weed has choked some of the large ponds in Bishopstown Park. It has taken only a short while, a year or so, to cover the surface of these ponds. It is green at first and then turns red.

CA Bennett, Bishopstown, Cork

From the sample and photographs you enclose, it is water fern (Azolla filiculoides), an alien, invasive species, banned in the UK. Introduced for ornamental ponds, it grows at great speed, doubling its biomass every two or three days, and reducing oxygen levels in the water. Notify Invasive Species Ireland at .

I had the privilege of seeing two swans engaged in a courtship ritual on Lough Sallagh, in Co Longford. The first swallow arrived on April 17th and was soon joined by another. I heard them chattering in the outhouse where they usually nest; then they disappeared. I’m afraid that during the cold spell they had few insects to feed on and might have starved. I heard the cuckoo on April 23rd, and he’s on the go at five o’clock these mornings.

Marian Carthy, Gortletteragh, Co Leitrim

Swallows will also feed on the ground when flying insects are scarce.

The cuckoo has arrived here on April 30th.

Saul Joyce, Claddaghduff, Co Galway

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