Blarney in bloom: Castle gardeners celebrate Wildlife Estate award

As the gardeners celebrate a Wildlife Estate award, tourists may find the legendary stone isn’t the only reason to visit Blarney Castle, writes Carl Dixon

The most potent symbol of Blarney is the Blarney Stone. Each year over 400,000 people flock to this small village on the edge of Cork City, with most winding their way up a 15th century stone stairway to kiss the stone.

For Irish Americans in particular it is almost a sacred duty, a link to a more romantic notion of Ireland which bears only a passing resemblance to the modern world. No visit to Ireland is complete without this ritual and the gift of the gab it allegedly confers.

Adam Whitbourn

However it is probably fair to say that the presence of the stone has overshadowed the remainder of the estate which often slips under the radar, even for those who live close to it. Blarney Castle and gardens is actually the first estate in Ireland to have been awarded the prestigious title of ‘Wildlife Estate’ from the European Landowners Organisation. The Wildlife Estates label is given to a network of exemplary estates that have agreed to adhere to the philosophy of wildlife management and sustainable land use.

Adam Whitbourn is the head gardener at the estate and is tasked with ensuring that everything runs smoothly. “Storm Ophelia certainly caused structural damage to our trees,” he says. “The clean up will probably run until March. Unfortunately, we have a lot of fallen and damaged trees in our lime avenue and we may have to replace it. On a positive note weaker trees have been weeded out and we now have a stronger stock of trees.

“These gardens are historically important and certainly one of the most impressive gardens in Ireland,” he notes. “The oldest parts of the gardens date back to the 18th century but we also have yew trees that are around 600 years old. We are ambitious and we are aiming for botanical garden standard.”

Blarney Castle has formed relationships with Kew Gardens and other botanical gardens which gives an opportunity to be innovative — some of the plants here are new to Ireland — but continuity and sustainability remain as overarching principles. “I think there is an appetite to be educated, to come closer to the natural world for a brief period,” Adam notes. “We also want to form a closer relationship with the local community, to be seen as a valuable community resource rather than something separate from it. Our season ticket holders are really important to us and often they spot problems we have missed.”

One of the distinctive features of Blarney Castle is the presence of disparate elements — working farm, forestry, gardens and tourist attraction — which must be coalesced into a coherent whole. In this regard the Wildlife Estate certification process, which requires long-term planning, has been a valuable process.

“One of first projects was lowering the frequency of mowing for some of the grassland areas which increases biodiversity,” Adam says.

“It also reduces our work load. We have also planted wildflower meadows using native mixes which are appropriate for the conditions. I see Pheasant chicks and occasionally Red Squirrels moving through them, and the place is alive with the sounds of birds and insects. By the lake I see so many more dragonflies than I used to.”

The Seven Sisters Garden,

Other features include a newly planted orchard with old Irish varieties of apple trees, beehives and an increasing use of the produce from the walled kitchen garden in the onsite café. “This place is an oasis for wildlife in many ways,” he notes.

“We have Otters, Red Squirrel, Badger, Barn Owl, Buzzard, Kingfisher, River Lamprey, Brown Trout and Salmon. The content of the garden has doubled over the last number of years and our challenge is the manage the estate so that a sense of wildness is retained, to continue to provide a refuge for important flora and fauna by sympathetic management.”

The bee hives and observation room

Mark Donnelly advises on ecology and woodland management on the estate. Having studied agroforestry systems in the UK, Chile, New Zealand and China, he is aware of the importance of woodland for wildlife. Particularly in an Irish context where so little good quality woodland remains. “Irish woodlands were felled to provide barrel staves and charcoal for export,” Mark says. “In recent times commercial forestry has been dominated by Sitka Spruce which is of limited value for wildlife. We now need a new forestry culture and we are facing huge challenges from diseases such as Ash Die Back disease. “The key is to diversify Irish woodland by planting a range of native species.”

In the absence of human influence, the climax woodland in this area would have been a mix of Ash, Holly and Oak. Due to the presence of limestone, which is unusual for Cork, there was also Yew woodland and some exceptional Yew still remain.

“For woodland to survive you need continuity of management, and this was really only possible on the large estates” Mark notes.

The barn with owl house on the side of the building at Blarney House and Gardens.

“We are starting to reverse some of the damage. We have planted thousands of yew and we have replaced five acres of Sitka Spruce with oak. We collect acorns which are then grown on by a commercial nursery and can be replanted. Oak woodland will support a much greater range of plant species such as Enchanter’s Nightshade and Sanicle and support species such as Jays, Red Squirrel and Badgers. 

Elm was wiped out by Dutch Elm disease and we have imported disease resistance Elm from the US, although it will be 20 to 30 years before we know if it works. We have released Barn Owls from a local sanctuary and constructed nesting sites. We are also protecting some of the oldest trees which are important for bats.” Harvesting of trees and ecology are not mutually exclusive and thinning is carried out on a regular rotation to ensure that high-quality timber is produced. Mark is ideally placed to see the advantages of long-term forestry planning. When a mature native tree needs to be felled he mills the wood into planks, dries them a kiln and the subsequently uses the wood to make bespoke furniture.

“We use a heavy horse when we can to extract individual valuable trees or groups of trees with minimal damage. All of the furniture in the café is made from trees from the estate. We have just finished constructing a hexagonal wooden structure which will provide an observation space for bees. It will open next spring and the Cedar of Lebanon we used will provide a distinctive smell for years to come. There is even a musket ball buried in the wood we used.”

The development of woodland takes time. Mark is planning an agroforestry system which utilises walnut, which will mature into a valuable wood product after one hundred years or so. He is also going to be running courses in traditional hedge laying and green woodworking on the estate to keep traditional skills alive. “It is a long-term process,” he admits.

“You won’t always see your plans come to fruition, but we do need to be less impatient. We are planning for the generations that come after us.”

‘I’ll leave it better than I found it’

BLARNEY Castle started life as a stronghold of the McCarthys in the 1400s and it survived the Cromwellian era relatively unscathed when its defenders escaped though caves beneath the castle. It was bought by the Governor of Cork, then by the Cork Hollow Sword Company and subsequently by James Jefferies, a Scotsman who fought for Charles XII of Sweden. He built Blarney village. George Conway Colthurst married Louisa Jefferies in 1846 and it has remained in the family ever since.

The current owner, Charles Colthurst, has been directly involved since the 1970s. Having qualified with a law degree he had the option of leaving Cork to pursue a law career. He chose to stay in Blarney.

Sir Charles Colthurst with head gardener Adam Whitbourn in the orchard at Blarney House and Gardens. Picture: Dan Linehan

“I suppose it is a bit of poisoned chalice in some ways.” he says. “Certainly the estate would not exist in its current form if it were not for the Blarney Stone. When you look through the old accounts from the 1950s there really was only a few thousand people coming through a rickety old gate at that stage. In the 1980s it began to get busier with cheap flights and more leisure time. Obviously, Blarney has always been high profile with the 40 million Irish Americans in the US and every second bar in New York had Blarney in the name.” With 400,00 visitors per year the challenge now is the manage the visitor numbers and still provide a high quality experience.

“Technically, it is a fortified tower house and it is challenging to get that many people up to a 15th century, narrow stone staircase to get to the stone,” notes Sir Charles. “There are long queues at peak times in July and August and we are trying to convince the tour operators to stagger their times and to spend more time in the gardens and village.”

The gardens are a key element providing a different more immersive and educational experience and taking some of the pressure away from the stone.

“We have 85 acres of gardens but we are not a formal ‘Capability Brown’ style garden,” Sir Charles says. “We try to be innovative to ensure colour all year round from the snowdrops, bluebells and daffodils in spring through to Camellias and Magnolias later. We are lucky to have the influence of the Gulf Stream which provides a mild climate. We occasionally lose some plants in a cold year — we lost a lot of Eucalyptus in 2010 — but overall we are lucky. We also have projects such as the Fern Garden and the Poison Garden which have proved very popular.”

Now the emphasis is on improving biodiversity and integrating the more formal gardens with the wilder less managed areas of the estate. “I have always been passionate about heritage and biodiversity,” Sir Charles says. “There are cycles in nature. This year there seems to be less butterflies for example. The countryside is fragile and I don’t think that the human race realises the impact we are having. We remove something without recognising that one element depends on another and that there are impacts on other parts of the food web. There are always challenges. Our elms were killed by Dutch Elm Disease for example and there are big issues ahead with other diseases and invasive species.”

There are also ongoing business challenges for the region. “The hotel is closed in the village which is a pity,” he says.

“There is also plans for big increase in population for Blarney in the Local Area Plan and I think we need to decide whether we a suburban feeding town for Cork city or should the focus be on heritage and tourism which I something I strongly believe in? We are not part of the Atlantic Way or the Ancient East and I think we have enough attractions with Midleton Distillery, Fota and Spike Island to push ahead with this region as a destination in its own right and which builds on our maritime heritage.” Does he have any regrets that he didn’t pursue his legal career and what may have been a more straight forward lifestyle?

“No regrets,” he says. “The people who planted the trees in these landscaped estates didn’t plant for themselves. Trees take so long to mature and they knew they would never see the culmination of their plans. The European Landowners’ Organisation is about continuity and looking forward. Of course, there are always financial challenges.

“There may be coaches in the car park but the repointing of the castle will cost €2m by the time it is complete and there is no grant aid. But it isn’t always about finances. Disney offered to come here at one stage but my father refused. I see myself as a curator; I want to leave this place in a better state than it was 40 years ago.”


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