The arrival of Spring brings with it an opportunity to get around to doing jobs that have waited all winter for our attention. There's always fencing to be done and with land drying out a bit, it is possible to think about reseeding, sowing crops and getting paddocks ready for grazing. Calving and lambing are winding up and for dairy farmers bulling cows have to be monitored for AI. Still, with the longer days it's a good time to catch up on organising the yard for the year ahead. People traditionally did their thatching and white-washing at this time of year.
Living in nature, we really notice the longer days. Last week we had the equinox, when day and night were equal in length. From here on in the days will stretch their advantage and extra light means more time to get the work in. It is important to remind ourselves to slow down when we have a lot to do. Those who rush are often just running into trouble. We all know that the best way to do a job is to do it only once, and properly. Remembering this when the pressure is on is difficult, but try to take your time and enjoy the emergence of nature, the miracle of new life.
Crows started their noisy mating rituals in February and they are now settling down on their nests. A lot of people don't like crows much. They are a constant annoyance to farmers, stealing ration out of cattle troughs, attacking the barley in summer, but they are a very clever bird and worthy of respect. They never seem to miss an opportunity and they can be very enjoyable to watch. Their mating routine is hilarious, with the male prostrating himself before the female, dropping one wing and then the other, crawling on his belly and rolling his head around, then hopping about in a vaudeville dance.
Crows mate for life and if one partner dies the other will visibly grieve, as would we. They are highly developed emotionally and can make great pets. Those who have helped an injured crow make a friend for life, or at least the lifetime of the crow, which can be anything between 6-22 years. Jackdaws are among the most interesting of crow species. Smaller and more agile, they will chance their arm building nests in calf sheds, and of course chimney pots! Some crows have learned how to use tools and when studied in captivity have shown remarkable levels of intelligence, from dropping stones into a jar of water to access floating food, to bending a piece of wire to make a hook for catching insects in tight spaces.
Daffodils have been battered by the wind and rain for a while, but now at last, they can preen themselves in sunshine. They are not quite done, but may be past their peak. Under old stands of trees, primroses are in full flower and bluebells are pushing out. Trees are also beginning to bud. Early varieties like willow and hawthorn are emerging, as are mountain ash, or rowan which will produce wonderful bushy white flowers in early summer. The catkins of the male willow are out now and these beautiful buds can provide food for up to 73 different insect species, which makes them one of the most important early flowering plants.
Now that gorse and willow are in flower there are plenty of bumble bees gadding about foraging for nectar. These are mostly queens and they spend the spring stocking up their energy reserves and looking for a likely place to build a nest. When she is happy with her nest a bumble bee queen begins to lay eggs, producing female workers at first and later drones and new queens. There are 20 bumblebee species in Ireland, out of 101 bee species in total. Only one of these is the honey bee and the rest are solitary bees, meaning they do not form colonies. Other pollinators like butterflies, moths, hover-flies, wasps and various other flies are also active now. Pollinator species provide what are called 'ecosystem services' which in Ireland are estimated to be worth €53m to the economy each year. As farmers, our well-being is dependent on them maintaining healthy populations.
Wasps are another misunderstood creature. In early summer they eat nectar, like bees. In doing so they help with pollination. They also forage on greenfly and other pests so they are a gardener's friend. This is not as well-known as the way in which they turn to a sugar diet in late summer and annoy us when we have our meals outside.
Bats are also emerging at this time of year. These harmless creatures gorge themselves on bothersome insects like midges and their acrobatics are a delight to watch at dusk. Some old buildings can contain important maternity roosts, where large colonies of bats breed. Bats only have one single offspring per year. It is important to bear this in mind if carrying out building repairs. Bats don't need much space to access their roosting sites, but if a new fascia board is installed and a great job is done sealing the roof they could be trapped inside and a whole colony wiped out. Ask the experts for any bat-related advice at Bat Conservation Ireland.
“Would you come cutting furze with me
I would and I would bind with you
My darling and my own !” Old Irish song.
The gorse, whin or furze that occupies so many of our rough corners and rocky hillsides is a very important plant for wildlife. It flowers twice a year, offering a double helping to nectar lovers and its delicious blossoms smell like coconut. The old adage goes, "When gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion". Within the spiky folds of this 'hedgehog plant', small birds like linnets, yellowhammers, wrens, stonechats and warblers all find a safe haven. The macabre habits of the butcher bird are highly reliant on gorse. This bird stores its larder of mice and other little birds it has caught by using the sharp points of the gorse bush as a meat hook. It hangs its prey out to dry so there'll be another helping of dinner at a later stage.
Gorse has many uses to humans too, some of them no longer so well-known. Nowadays it is mostly used for flavouring gin or vodka (just cover a jar of flowers with your chosen tipple, seal and wait three or four weeks for maceration). Gorse tea is popular with some alternative types and there might be a market for it among those who have entrepreneurial spirit, a wild stretch of land and thick pair of gloves. You can add, it was once recommended as a cure for worms! Gorse wine is rich and full, but takes about 9 months to mature. There are various recipes online.
In the old days gorse was widely grown for an astonishing array of uses. Fields were planted with rows of “greater furze”, a tall woody variety, which was allowed to grow for three or four years until it attained a height of four or five feet. Then it was harvested for fuel on a rotational basis. Between the rows, crops were planted, much like the agro-forestry of today. It was used to feed horses, as a roofing material and even in the foundations for roads, which might explain how some of them got to be so bumpy! Old gorse grinders are still to be seen in many a yard.
It was a popular fuel for bakers' ovens as it burns so hot. Ricks of furze were sold to the cities in the 1600s, where they were stored in high stacks of flammable danger and presented a constant worry to the authorities. In 1743 the Corporation of Gorey Co Wexford issued a decree “that no person shall keep any quantity of ffurze in any place within the Burrough unless such place be ffree and out of danger of fire." So much for gorse. Today it is largely seen as a nuisance plant to be grubbed and burnt out of existence. More's the pity that we don't see its usefulness and cash in on a plant that needs no fertilizer, no pest control and no upkeep.
So it goes. Perhaps you have enjoyed this diversion. There are always serious matters to discuss, but sometimes it is nice to stroll among the wildlife and enjoy the natural world for its own sake. Here's hoping the weather stays settled and spring delivers on its early promise.