Revelling in nature is more fun when you do it by the book


ANOTHER LIFE:THAT AMAZING WEEK of warmth conjured a greening of the land just made for the mothering of lambs in April: rarely have our western ewes had such a generous prelude to accouchement.

Across Ireland, indeed, the extravagant sun sparked a surge of growth in a leafy legion already enjoying the longest season in Europe. Grasses energise our agriculture, our golf, parks and gardens, and they shelter and feed our wildlife large and small – yet “grass” is all that is generally acknowledged of their nature and their names.

An unexpectedly lovely and absorbing new book seeks to put that right. The flowers of purple moorgrass, writes John Feehan, “are really beautiful. They open early in the morning, and when they do it is as though a little light comes on inside each.” The accompanying photograph, one of the scores of Damien Egan’s superlative images, reproaches me further for never having stooped to a plant so abundant here in Mayo.

Indeed, The Grasses of Ireland (€37.50, including postage, from is a splendid revelation of the myriad lives that go to clothe our “emerald isle” – more than 130 kinds of grass, each with its own form and fitness, all varying in how they succeed on different soils and in different weathers, each providing for its own invertebrate community. Cocksfoot, for example, is linked to no fewer than 139 different creatures.

The value of different grasses to agriculture has given them their history, ecology and botanical attention, all matched in the collaboration of Feehan and the botanist Helen Sheridan. Apart from its inherent charms (among them magnificent illustrations borrowed from old European works of botany), one striking lesson of the book lies in its dealings with Lolium perenne. Even mixed with clover, this ubiquitous ryegrass has aggressively pushed out every other grass species from the general farmland of Ireland. Fed with cheap artificial fertiliser from the middle of the last century, its sheer bulk and productivity made it, as Feehan says, “a paragon among grasses, against which all others are compared, beside which all others fall short”.

As input costs rise, however, the virtues of mixed swards are being rediscovered, holding fresh promise for biodiversity and farming alike. Many old native grasses could be welcomed back from their refuges on roadsides and wasteland.

Damien Egan’s photographs of old meadows in the Burren remind us of the names: meadow foxtail, sweet vernal grass, soft brome, smooth meadow grass, rough meadow grass, red fescue, downy oat, quaking grass, Yorkshire fog and more.

Identifying some grasses can fox even experts, except when, briefly, they’re in flower. Even then they need no brilliance to attract insects – they are pollinated by the wind. By July, when early grasses are seeding, and common bent is in flower, the bright spring colours of the landscape are washed over dully with beige. But July is also the month when tall and stately hair grasses of boggy land, damp woods and rough grassland can become, in Feehan’s estimation, among the most beautiful plants in the Irish flora, the panicles of the tufted one being “incomparably lovely”. His own keen observations are among the book’s delights. The chewed stalks of sweet vernal grass “have a lavender-like flavour”, while the rhizomes of scutch “taste like licorice”.

Nothing quite so arcane marks the other momentous plant book of the spring, Webb’s An Irish Flora (Cork University Press, €35). This is the eighth edition of Ireland’s botanical bible, still named for David Allardice Webb, the great Trinity field botanist who first published An Irish Flora in 1943.

Now a fine brick of a book, three times as thick as the edition I’ve been using since the 1990s, it is the work of Prof John Parnell of Trinity and the ecologist Dr Tom Curtis, with illustrations (small ones, of important characteristics) by Elaine Cullen. Along with allowing a friendlier typeface, the new size accommodates more species (many alien) growing in the wild, a rearrangement of plant families based on recent advances in genetics, new lists of protected plants, and help in identifying trees, shrubs and climbers in winter. Along with close descriptions, the book relies on analytic keys to lead to identification.

Third – and least only, perhaps, in the pecking order of plant life – comes Lichens of Ireland (Collins Press, €19.99), the first book devoted to this colourful and fascinating vegetable realm. It is the work of Paul Whelan, pioneer of excellent and popular websites for the amateur naturalist (, lichens.ieand iSpyNature.comfor young children). Moist, clean air gives Ireland a remarkable richness of lichens, and the book offers more than 250 to be found on our rocks, trees and walls.

Eye on nature

On St Patrick’s Day I lifted (and released) a mayfly off the water on Lough Conn, the earliest I’ve ever seen a mayfly rise. I doubt she found a mate.

David Browne, Knockmore, Co Mayo

My frog pond is teeming with tadpoles. However, I’m concerned with the level of green slime in it.

Malachy Daly, Aillemore, Co Mayo

You can rake out the green algae. To prevent it you need more plant cover, such as water lilies, as algae thrive in sunlight.

On March 21st a hummingbird hawkmoth visited my viburnum. Is it possible that it was blown from the Continent?

Joe Kelly, Blackrock, Co Dublin

Yes. The wind was from the southeast at that time.

Two local members heard the first call of the natterjack toad at the ponds on the Castlegregory golf links on March 26th, the earliest they have ever heard it.

Sara Nyhan, Castlegregory, Co Kerry

We have observed herring fry in the port of Belfast at least two months earlier than usual.

Ian Dickie, Belfast

We have a collared dove nesting on the sensor light outside our back door. How long will the nesting take?

Angela Treacy, New Ross, Co Wexford

Incubation takes 14-16 days, plus 17 to fledging.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email Please include a postal address