Go and take a walk on the wild side

IN the comics we read as kids, nutty-looking English uncles with round glasses and straw hats followed by rosy-cheeked Enid Blyton or Famous Five children, all with butterfly nets, were figures of fun for us Irish boys.

They were sissies while we were hardened hedge-hunters! We could catch butterflies – if we bothered – by throwing our coats over them, poor things. We caught baby rabbits similarly, chasing them around the field until we got close enough to launch the jacket, like an airborne manta ray, and then throwing ourselves prostrate to pin down the warm, furry bundle struggling underneath. We didn’t harm the bunnies but bringing them home to “tame” them certainly threatened their lives. Their only salvation lay in our parents ordering us to let them go.

Now, in my maturity (or, some might say, post-maturity) I can get quite excited about butterflies myself, which may seem passing strange coming from a guy who plays hard-nosed Texas Hold ’Em poker with a crowd of amiable chancers until all hours one night a week. But butterflies can, indeed, be exciting especially when you find relatively rare ones or a thriving population of a threatened species as did myself and a group of sociable bird watchers last weekend near a lake on the Mizen Head peninsula in west Cork. After a long and enjoyable trek through breathtaking scenery in picture-perfect weather – full sun with a cooling breeze – we repaired to a marsh near Barley Cove. There, we ambled about looking for orchids, butterflies and dragonflies.

A man from west Cork – Eagle Eye Jim they call him and, indeed, his eye for soaring skylarks bore this out – was the first to spot a lovely Marsh Fritillary butterfly rise from the wet meadow of rushes, reeds and ragged robin flowers beneath our feet. The breeze was keeping them low in the grasses and it required a sharp eye to catch them in brief flight before they disappeared once more.

Excitement rippled through the company as the first-seen fritillary sat on a leaf, some 20 grown-up humans ranged around it, cameras clicking and hardly daring to make a sound.

Like mushrooms, once you’ve seen one fritillary, it becomes easier to spot others and, within ten minutes, cries were going up “Another, another!”. Simple multiplication indicated a population of 60 in the marsh overall.

Meanwhile, some of the group were crouched over orchids, trying valiantly to “sort them out”. It seems to me that it would take the patience of Linnaeus to do so because orchids have a classification-unfriendly proclivity to hybridise. So, while the particular gorgeous items looked like common spotted, they also had characteristics of early marsh, etc, and would try the patience of all but the most dedicated botanist.

However, all present agreed that it was wonderful to be seeing so many orchids and butterflies and birds and wild flowers and, even if one couldn’t name a single species, wasn’t it great to be out in the day admiring them, in lovely, wild west Cork.

Fine fat frogs were found too, a heartening sight, being absent in many places now.

All this because the area wasn’t intensively farmed.

Having a mission of some kind while one takes the air is, of course, a powerful incentive to get out into it. In these economic straits, more people will, I suppose, stay in Ireland for holidays and walking about will be part of the recreation. It’s very cheap and a lively interest in nature adds immeasurably to the pleasure of the stroll. So, I recommend my fellow citizens – and hard-nosed Texas Hold ’Em brothers – to take up butterfly-spotting or tree-spotting or flower, fish or fowl spotting.

Each will prove rewarding in its way, and will add excitement to an outing, never mind impressing your fellow walkers and poker players with your knowledge and erudition as you educate yourself.

On beach holidays, delving into the tide pools will reveal a world of submerged wonders, and the kids will be overawed as you catch crabs, shrimps and three-inch-long fish with your bare hands.

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