Rockpooling opens a world of wonder

IT is refreshing to discover that I haven’t lost my rock pooling skills and that the son, with whom I enjoyed so many hours of exploring the inter-tidal zone of our south-west coast, hasn’t forgotten the fish, their names, or the specialised habitat in which they can be found.

Neither of us have forgotten the thrill of trawling the pools with a small net or with our hands.

Indeed, kneeling by a shallow pool, I was somewhat chuffed to discover that while many of my contemporaries stay in the rocking chair, I was able to catch four small, slippery fish in my cupped hands, two Montagu’s blennies, with little topknots on their heads and two common or rockpool shannies.

It was a feat to be proud of. I have rockpooled with my children and with my grandchildren and no finer or more educational sport is to be had on a fine day at the sea. Clear plastic freezer bags provide instant, temporary aquariums. Catch your fish, fill the bag with water and pop it in and it can be examined at all sides before release back into its element, little the worse for the experience.

There are also the gorgeous anemones – beadlet anemones with a necklace of turquoise blue beads around their frills, strawberry anemones, deep red with green spots, dahlia anemones, like the flowers, snakelock anemones with purple tips on their tentacles which, when touched, give tender fingers a tingling electric shock.

The pools themselves, crystal clear, with their pink coralline weed, dark brown carrageen and green sea lettuce are beautiful to behold. But so much in nature is resplendent in August. I turn to the butterflies once again.

Up to a few days ago, small tortoiseshells swarmed over the verbena, buddleia and sedum in our garden, along with a sprinkling of peacocks and red admirals. Then, suddenly, where there had been 30, there were three, and the situation hasn’t changed.

Was the sudden disappearance due to falling temperature? Possibly: certainly, the nights were cold but the days were often as sunny and warm as any gone before.

Then, I noticed a small tortoiseshell perched on the ceiling of my workroom – it has been there now for six days now and I believe it intends to spend the winter with me, sleeping the months away indoors, as tortoiseshells do. If it survives its hibernation, it will fly again one sunny day in May or June, lay eggs and then expire, having guaranteed a hatch of bright, new offspring to enhance our garden next year.

I notice that a peacock butterfly with one wing distinctively torn – perhaps by a bird? – is on the verbena each day. It must roost nearby at night and return to its food source, like a bird returns to a peanut feeder. We have not put out peanuts or other food for the birds for months: let them feed on the caterpillars and our garden pests, like their ancestors.

Last Sunday, I whiled away a sunny hour on Rosscarbery pier in West Cork watching terns quartering the sea, their cruciform white shapes every so often plummeting down onto the cobalt surface before they swooped skyward again.

Sometimes, just as they were about to hit the water, the prey moved, or dived, and then they would rise in a perfect, graceful parabola and continue their surveillance. Occasionally, this happened many times and so they described parabola after parabola, in a seamless pattern.

Later, I saw a spotted fly-catcher behaving as flycatchers do, swooping out from a chosen perch to snap a fly out of the air. Perhaps the damaged peacock butterfly was a survivor of a flycatcher’s beak. Our flycatchers will soon be off to spend the winter in South Africa. It was busy fattening up before the 6,000-mile flight ahead.

The blackberries are set fair to be a burgeoning crop this year. They should be in prime condition as this column goes to press. The sloes are fat, the wild plums fatter. The hedgerows are laden with food for free.


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