When crabs still bear roe in October

Damien Enright says the world of nature has been knocked out of kilter.

A READER reports frog spawn and tadpoles near Dunquin in Co Kerry.

I haven’t been to the stone circle at Drombeg, west Cork this year, in the fulacht fia of which tadpoles are usually present by now.

I was talking to a fisherman, who told me that recently, crabs may be full of roe in January, and indeed in October. This is one crazy, out-of -kilter world.

This year, snowdrops were much later to flower than primroses and celandine. Rhododendron is blooming on a spectacular tree, 30-foot tall, with a canopy of the same diameter that grows over the gate lodge of the old Kincragie estate at Courtmacsherry. By the weekend, it should be covered in big pink flowers, a sight worth making a pilgrimage to behold.

The decaying driveway to the now ruined house of Kincragie, once the home of the Earl of Shannon, is bordered by magnificent trees. The trunk of one Monterey Cypress has a circumference of 36.5 feet (11.5 metres). Sequoias, including coast redwoods and giant redwoods (Wellingtonia) abound. Huge trees, soaring to more than 40 metres in their native California, the Coast Redwoods grow to 100m (the record is 112m) and are said to be the world’s tallest trees.

My colleague on this page, Dick Warner, notes in his text for the Collins Gem Trees Photoguide, that this honour may, in fact, belong to the Douglas fir. Wellingtonia is the world’s largest tree by volume, with a bulk of up to 2,000 tons, and in its native habitat it can live and continue growing for more than 3,000 years.

Other “fancy” trees on the sadly- untended estate include myrtles, holm oaks and sweet chestnuts.

One of the finest trees of all is the huge cork oak in front of the Courtmacsherry Hotel, once the Earl of Shannon’s summer home.

Sometimes the owner blasts huge lights into the sky through the foliage and the rough, fissured bark, the convoluted branches and the millions of the small, evergreen leaves look beautiful as the beams move across them.

Cork Oaks can live for between 150 and 250 years and grow to 25 metres, about the height of the ancient tree at the hotel.

Normally grown commercially in serried ranks on the plains of Spain and Portugal, it has been said that a monkey could travel the length of the Iberian Peninsula without touching the ground by swinging from cork tree to cork tree. Every 10 years the bark is stripped off in unbroken swathes and stacked like pipes after the harvest. The bare wood is dark red. I don’t think the hotel tree has ever, in its long life, been subjected to the indignity of being stripped naked.

I don’t know where all the goldfinches have come from this year. I’ve mentioned how they descend on my bird table in small charms of 10 or 12 birds and spend all day in argy-bargy with local tits, chaffinches and greenfinches. They are very welcome, being such attractive birds. I wish they’d nest in the garden and sing me sweet songs. Recently, I saw one feeding on an isolated seaweed-grown rock on the foreshore. They’re normally land birds, seed-eaters.

At the beginning of the last century, goldfinches had almost disappeared from these islands due to trapping for cage birds; they are pretty, are a manageable size and have a fine song.

In 1863, Britain’s House of Commons was told of a boy who took 420 birds in a single morning. The RSPB, founded in 1891, made saving the goldfinch one of its first tasks.

The RSPB was actually formed to oppose the trade in “grebe fur”. This was the skin and soft under-pelt of a great crested grebe’s breast feathers, then used as a fur substitute in ladies’ fashions. Soon, the head feathers of the grebes’ breeding plumage became highly fashionable in the millinery trade. These could only be taken by killing the birds.

Grebe numbers rapidly fell and by 1860 they were nearly extinct in these isles. The fashion for decorating fancy hats with wild- caught feathers was waning before legislation was put in place, but the society then saved goldfinches from extinction.

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