Perfect time to turn over new leaves

BOOKS make ideal Christmas presents and, this year, the outdoors reader is spoiled for choice. Here are a few suggestions.

Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Clery’s The Complete Guide to Ireland’s Birds will appeal to the casual observer and the experienced bird-watcher alike.

Beautifully illustrated and compact enough to be carried in the field, its publication is timely. During the Celtic Tiger era, Europe-wide field guides were all the rage. In those halcyon days, checking out the local Spanish or Greek birds added an extra dimension to a holiday. With the hair-shirt back in vogue, foreign trips are off most people’s agenda. Having to make do with Irish wildlife is no bad thing; this island has so much to offer.

Europe-wide guidebooks have a drawback; they must, of necessity, feature so many birds. Pages of LBJ’s (‘Little Brown Jobs’) confront the bewildered bird-watcher — it’s hard to see the birds for the trees. Waders and warblers can be difficult to tell apart even in Ireland. The ‘Irish List’, according to Dempsey and O’Clery, runs to 467 birds, a formidable total. But the authors ease the LBJ problem by placing the hundred or so most rarely encountered species in an ‘accidentals’ section, which will interest only the devoted twitcher.

O’Clery’s excellent illustrations highlight key identification features and flight patterns are shown where relevant. Maps and time-bars indicate where and when a species is likely to be seen.

The outstanding botanical publication of 2010 was undoubtedly Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger’s The Wild Flowers of Ireland. Beautifully written and embellished with lavish photographs, it’s the fruit of decades of fieldwork by one of Ireland’s leading botanists.

Our plant heritage has taken a bashing since Robert Lloyd Praeger undertook his weekend excursions but, against the odds, many of our rarer plants have survived, even in urban areas. This book, however, is not a field-guide or a ‘where-to-go’ atlas. Habitat-based, it has chapters entitled Weeds In Flower Beds, Urban Waste Ground, and Roadside Verges. But this is no mere listing of species likely to be encountered in such habitats. Instead, Doogue offers us a wealth of ecological observations on each of the plants he features. Reading this book is the next best thing to being taken into the field by a master of his craft.

William Robinson, who died in 1935, was one of the most influential garden designers of modern times. The informal ‘Robinsonian’ garden dispensed with the traditional formal layout which had been in vogue for centuries. A garden, he thought, should mimic nature, featuring both native and exotic species, an approach which anticipated the Arts and Crafts movement. Now, a new edition of his most celebrated book, The Wild Garden, has appeared, edited by Charles Nelson, formerly of National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin.

Robinson was a mysterious individual who, according to Nelson, never referred to his origins. Born in Ireland in 1838, he was seven years old at the height of the Great Famine. Biographical details are sparse but we know that he began his gardening apprenticeship on the Marquess of Waterford’s estate at Curraghmore. In his 20’s, he worked on a demesne at Ballykilcavan, Co Laois. It’s said that, following a quarrel, he took revenge on his employer by putting out the fires in the glasshouses and opening all the windows. As the tender plants perished, he left for London to join the garden staff at Regent’s Park Botanic Garden. At the ripe old age of 28, Robinson ‘forsook the pruning knife for the pen’ and devoted the rest of his life to horticultural writing.

The Wild Garden, which appeared in 1870 when the author was 32 years old, was in Nelson’s words ‘one of the most influential horticultural books ever published’. This new edition, with photogrkaphs notes and an extensive introduction by Nelson, reproduces Robinson’s original text. The book will appeal to historically minded gardeners and social historians.

The Complete Guide to Ireland’s Birds by Eric Dempsey & Michael O’Clery. (Gill & Macmillan) €19.99.

The Wild Flowers of Ireland by Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger. (Gill & Macmillan) €29.99.

The Wild Garden by William Robinson, a new illustrated edition with photographs and notes by Charles Nelson. (The Collins Press) €23.99.

More in this section