The soil is warming with the sun, writes Damien Enright

Last September, we optimistically planted some outdoor vines. The leaves have now appeared; we will soon set up trellises and wires under the simple pergola in the yard. Who knows, in five years time we may be bottling Chateau Courtmac Premier Cru.

Strange weather in Ireland in the last months of 2015 and the first of 2016, interminable rain, watery and cold, spring coming late, the time “out of joint” as Hamlet called the progress of events more sinister.

However, the metaphor aptly describes our seasons in the last nine months, the natural order of things as dislocated as a shoulder knocked out of joint.

However, last week it seemed that some celestial bonesetter had arrived and was in a hurry to put things back in place. Wild flowers that usually follow one another in sequence — one species dies, another replaces it — were blossoming simultaneously. Banks of primroses in full bloom still decorated roadside ditches, while hawthorn was putting out its first white flowers on the sceacs above.

Foxgloves were opening. Brilliant blue speedwells (like Forget-me-Nots) burst through the grass in brilliant display. The white flowers of wild strawberries, fruiting and barren strawberries, were pushing through the undergrowth into the sun. Meadow butterflies were resplendent, not welcome if they invade the garden but lovely to look at, like small cups of lacquered gold.

On the roadsides, white swathes of ‘wild garlic’ (three-cornered leek) persisted, while the ‘wild garlic’ of the shady woodland (called ramsons) was found in flower between still-dense carpets of bluebells. The occasional wood anemone still opened when the sun shone, while wood sorrel was as pretty as it gets, with its delicate flowers and drooping, three-lobed leaves. Gorse, in its golden glory, was everywhere; and, along the coast, clumps of sea pinks were bursting out of clefts in rocks, as neat and pretty as little girls’ birthday cakes.

In such weather, I looked out for lizards coming back to life, emerging from death-like torpidity to sunbathe into fast-footed, scrabbling insect-hunters. A pal of mine, Mr Hanly, saw a fella throwing tiles of black plastic into a bog, shiny side up and, being a curious man, asked him what he was doing. “I’m a lizard enumerator,” the man replied.

This intrigued my curious friend, and he enquired further. It turned out that because the plastic squares warm much more quickly than the soggy ground around them, lizards seeking a kick-start into summer climb aboard them like tourists onto sunloungers and, basking there, are very visible for counting — it certainly beats trying to find them in the fens. Isn’t it wonderful, we thought, that there are conservation bodies interested in the health and numerical strength of our indigenous lizards? The National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford is doing a great job.

Nature conservation must surely, and soon, become a global issue, not just talked about but enforced, most especially with regard to the sea where no controls exist over international waters which are so raped, netted and trawled that, even with the super fish-finding technology available, only 6% of the catches once harvested can now be achieved. The fish are, simply, not there.

With climate change, the ocean environment and ocean life are under serious threat. The seas are “out of joint”, as is the land. My son, presently in Canada, tells me that a bowhead whale, an Arctic species, was recently spotted in Vancouver Bay, far from its natural home.

Even more bizarre was the bowhead sighted off Cornwall early this month, and a sighting off the English Channel Islands in 2015. These animals were 3,200km south of the ice-cold Arctic waters, for which they have evolved.

Bowheads are an endangered species, the wild population numbering about 10,000. Also known as the Greenland Right whale (because they were ‘right’ for harpooning, easy prey and second in size only to the blue whale, the biggest creature on earth) they were slaughtered in tens of thousands during commercial whaling days, and numbers have never recovered.

Thought to be the earth’s longest lived mammal, the University of Alaska Fairbanks analysed a bowhead specimen that proved to be 211 years old. In 2007, a bowhead caught in Arctic waters had the remains of an explosive harpoon dating from circa 1880 embedded in its blubber. Harpoon heads of similar age have been found in other whales.

Commercial whaling is now banned by international accord, but indigenous peoples in Alaska, eastern Russia and Greenland can kill an annual quota for traditional, non-commercial consumption.


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