THE short daylight hours of the Christmas holidays and of winter in general offer the opportunity for those who enjoy the outdoor world to read up on the finer details of natural history and be replete with knowledge and curiosity when the world reopens to welcome a new spring.
Over recent decades, popular books on natural history have become ever more informative and beautiful. The opportunities to learn were never more seductively presented. And such books make practical as well as pleasurable gifts for the amateur and the aficionado alike.
Bird books, field guides and coffee-table compendiums have led the way, and this year some very worthwhile works have come on the market, amongst them The Birds of Ireland, A Field Guide, published by Collins Press of Cork, written by Corkman Jim Wilson and photographed by Mark Carmody. Collins Press has been outstanding in producing volume after volume of high-quality, eye-catching, informative and beautifully produced works on natural history.
However, in recommending natural history books which might make perfect gifts for readers of this column, I will begin with a book published in 2012 by The Dublin Field Naturalists’ Club. Its title is Ireland’s Butterflies, a Review; its authors are David Nash, Trevor Boyd and Deirdre Hardiman.
While birds enhance the outdoor world with their fine feathers and their song, butterflies — besides their value as pollinators — have only their visual beauty to offer. But that beauty is less likely to disappear into the distance as soon as we come close. Butterflies can be enjoyed as they flit and flutter at close range around us, and for this reason amongst others, I find them entrancing. To learn more about our Irish butterflies, and to enjoy their beauty in photographs, I would recommend readers to open the pages of this book.
Ireland’s Butterflies, a Review is a compilation of the information the authors received from several hundred recorders over a 15-year survey period (1995-2009). The result was a listing of all butterfly species recorded on this island during that period. It is a milestone work, scientific and ground-breaking, but its textual content is accessible and the book is a thing of beauty in itself.
So also are the other two books I would refer to readers, both Collins Press publications. Wildflowers of Ireland, A Personal Record by Zoë Devlin, is impressive indeed. Her personalised approach, based on decades of study, enhances the book’s charm and endears the reader to the text. The often-intriguing history of the author’s encounters with unfamiliar species, encourages us amateurs to keep our eyes wide open not only in the country and in the town.
The illustrations are superb, not only in reproducing the natural colours of the flowers but in presenting the factors important in their identification and differentiation from other species. Encyclopaedic in its treatment of the history of wildflowers on this island, with chapters on habitats, classification, the life cycle of plants, this book has rewarded me with hours of satisfaction and helped me to tease out those subtle features of species which I have found hard to categorise with other guides.
Trees are, of course, flowering plants on a larger scale, and a constant in any vista of our landscape and a precious part of our patrimony. Another Collins Press volume, Heritage Trees of Ireland offers a tour of our island’s remarkable trees. The engaging text is by Aubrey Fennel, the photographs, by Carsten Kreiger, show the subjects at their glorious and natural best. Kevin Hutchison, vice president of the Tree Council of Ireland also contributes. The identification, location and history of 150 remarkable Irish trees are covered in this volume — rag trees often humble in lineage, hanging trees, trees at holy wells, trees of exceptional size or age, trees associated with historic events and important to local communities.
Included is the ‘autograph’ tree at Coole Park, Galway, its bark incised with by signatures of WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Masefield, Sean O’Casey and other doyens of the arts.
Ireland’s oldest native tree, some 700 to 800 years old, is a yew at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth; its girth is14 metres. Our tallest is a 40-metre-high ash in Clonmel.
The pages of Heritage Trees of Ireland presents a largely unknown history, a sylvan prospect unique to Ireland. It would encourage one to do a tour!
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