Summer sun changes everything

ON the south coast, on these sun-kissed days, one can listen to the cries of the terns as they soar, brilliant against the sky, and then drop, spinning like sycamore samaras, to take sandeels from the surface of the sea.

Above them, big gannets ride the air, their wing tips black as jet against their snow-white wings. Rocketing into the sea, they raise fountains of white spume.

These are gorgeous days to be abroad in the countryside, to flake out in a meadow of white and pink clover, shining buttercups and purple seal-heal, and look straight up into the cloudless sky. Self-heal, indeed! An hour laid out in a west Cork meadow could better a week of therapy for a distressed soul.

The lepidoptera are waking, moths and night and Speckled Wood butterflies during the day, now flying in numbers under the beech trees, jousting in the dappled shade. On the 5th., I spotted the first Ringlet, more chocolate brown than the Speckled Woods, and with black spots on the wings instead of white.

As far back as May 9, I noted Speckled Woods in our garden, and on May 22, a single Red Admiral in all its glorious hues. On May 26, there was a Wall Brown at the Old Head of Kinsale, where sea pinks, yellow kidney vetch and golden trefoil were all in bloom. Large and Small Whites have been regular, but scarce and, then, in the last few days, Meadow Browns have joined them. However, no Red Admirals, and, as yet, no Small Tortoiseshells or Painted Ladys. My wife saw a Tortoise shell still in hibernation behind a bedroom cupboard. It should emerge soon; surely, the days are warm and long enough.

I was struck by a contrast when walking to the beach for a late afternoon swim yesterday. A field on one side of the boreen was recently ‘developed’. From hedge to hedge, it was a swathe a prairie of rich, green grass on which some attractive (I think exotic) cattle grazed or lay contentedly cud-chewing in the sun.

I saw one butterfly, a ringlet, as I walked its perimeter. Across the boreen was an unimproved field, of many colours, clovers, trefoils, red docks gone to seed, vetches, fescue grasses and bindweed, and over it bees and small clouds of butterflies flew. Which field was the more improved? While one produced food for humans, the other produced food for everything else. Nature has a broad palette, a thousand creatures, a thousand colours. But then, we eat meat, although clearly the hectare devoted to cattle could feed 10-times as many human were it devoted to legumes.

This halcyon weather that has roused the butterflies has aroused the hedgehogs. Perhaps they are late to mate, given the cold spring, but driving in the UK and in Ireland over the last three weeks, I have seen many hedgehog road kills, a sad sight.

Their breeding season generally occurs from April to July. Females may mate with multiple males. As a result males increase their home range to encompass the range of as many females as possible. Road kill surveys note peaks in hedgehog road deaths during this time, and the majority are male.

Three to six young are born, usually in June. However, with our relatively mild climate, newly independent juveniles have been observed up to the end of October, so breeding may occur late.

A few years ago, walking untrodden ways in the Tatra mountains in Slovakia, we came upon a hedgehog that didn’t roll into a ball and didn’t run away. It stayed unmoving, exactly where it was, and I took photographs. We noticed that it was ‘wide’, broad-beamed, at the base. I wondered if it might be a female and have young hidden beneath it. Perhaps they had run for cover under her belly when they heard us approach.

Now, with information on a website article by Amy Haigh who completed a PhD on the ecology of the hedgehog in rural Ireland at University College Cork in 2011, this seems possible. At one month old, hedgehogs leave the nest accompanied by their mother and learn to forage over a two-week period before setting off into the world alone. Fearlessly, the mother was protecting her brood, refusing to be panicked by us humans.


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