By Albert Nolan
It seemed like a lifetime ago since i was involved in the building of the extension to Castletroy Park Hotel. In between the dust and the noise I noticed that wildlife thrived all around the hectic building site. Sometimes during lunch I would escape for a few minuets and enjoy the walks around the hotel but I never had the time to explore in any great detail. I was passing by a few weeks ago and with a few hours to spare it was the ideal opportunity to discover what natural treasures lay hidden in this bustling part of Limerick.
I discretely parked my car and was greeted by a singing blackbird. Only male birds sing and they do this to proclaim their territory, attract a mate and warn other males to keep away. They were once woodland birds but the gardens here have plenty of mature shrubs and trees and this is ideal for blackbirds.
The privet hedges are been kept neat and tidy but Ceanothus is growing through it and their pale purple flowers give added interest. This shrub is excellent for bumblebees and every garden should grow it in a sunny corner. Normally lawns hold very little interest for wildlife but the ones at the front off the hotel have been strangely spared from the mower. Wildflowers have jumped at the opportunity and I pause to examine the different species.
Creeping buttercup is a common grassland species and as it names suggests it sends out long runners. When these find a suitable spot their roots sprout and a new plant grows. I have often seen these runners crossing neglected paths to reach the fertile ground at the opposite side.
The wonderfully named Cats ear lives up to its name. It is a tall plant with large yellow flower and does not have leaves on its stems. Also if you rub your fingers along the stem you will notice that it is very rough just like a real cats tongue. Also it has small bracts on the stem that resemble cat’s ears. Daises, Oxy eyed daisy, Sow thistle, Dandelion, Narrow leaved plantain and Ragworth make up the reminder off this natural garden. All these flowers are part of the natural fabric off the city and enhance our interaction with nature. The more wildflowers we have the greater the variety of birds and insects.
I move slowly along the path and see cuckoo spit on a speedwell flower. This amazing substance is created by an insect called a froghopper. It does not wash away in the rain or dry out in the sunshine.
As I pass by The University of Limerick I hear a Chaffinch and Wren singing. These birds thrive in the mature trees growing in the grounds. A troop of long tailed tits passes musically overhead. They have long bobbing tails and feed on insects and spiders. Their nest is one of the most beautiful in the countryside. It consists of dozens of colourful lichens and mosses and blends in perfectly with its surroundings.
I follow the birds through the trees and these disappear into the extensive gardens of Milford Care Centre. Seasons of leaves have been stacked underneath a Sycamore tree where they are slowly breaking down. This rich compost is excellent for the garden for improving the condition off the soil or as mulch around plants. It also contains tonnes of worms and insects and a male blackbird is busily foraging for his breakfast. I pick up a fistful and it feels cool and dark in my hand. Scientists have calculated that in a handful of good soil there are over seven billion different creatures, one for every human on the planet.
A wild edge thankfully forgotten by progress of time has been created between the main road and the border wall of Milford. It is bordered by tall trees that filter out the noise and light. Tall flowers and grasses grow along the edges and all roads must have once looked like this. I follow the narrow path that winds down the middle and admire the different flowers. I find Herb Robert, Nettle, Common hog weed and Herb Bennet. Hedge wound-worth is found in damp and shady places and the whole plant smells very pungent. Any plant with worth at the end off its name was once a powerful medicinal herb. Hedge wound-worth was used for the treatment of wounds and sores. As I leave this twilight world a wood pigeon starts to call.
The contrast with the next section is dramatic as the neat lawn contains very few wildflowers. Only a couple of Dandelions, Nettles and Narrow leaved willow herbs cling to the edges. There is more cuckoo spit on the grass and groundsel has finished flowering and produced plenty of seeds for birds. A bright fly on a sycamore leaf catches my attention but he moves too quickly for me. I leave the shade off the tall trees and many off the gardens along this road are quite large and have mature shrubs and trees.
Old walls can be very interesting and we hardly give them a second glance. I stop to examine the wall and get a few strange looks from passing students. Polypody fern, Herb Robert, Nettle and Maiden hair spleenworth have gained a foothold in the lime mortar. A Magpie is giving a harsh call from a nearby tree. Pride of place in very evident here and on a roundabout leading into a housing estate a volunteer is busily tidying out the flower bed.
A little further on I find a more balanced approach to nature management. The lawn beside the public path is kept well cut but a long woodland edge bordered with a wildflower verge has been left grow and this is well away from the path. Old sycamore trees with flaking bark are a haven for wildlife. The rough bark provides a home for many different insects and these in turn are eaten by birds. Cotoneaster is a shrub with bright red berries and birds eat them during the autumn. Common hogweed is in flower. and a fine line off nettles stand guard barring access to all but the most determined of naturalists. A Wren starts to sing and i am probably to near to his nest.
Bindweed is very unwelcome in our gardens as it wraps it stems around other plants and climbs to the top. It has bright white flowers and bumblebees will often rest in them during a shower of rain. Cleavers or sticky Willy has developed a very clever strategy for dispersing its seeds. Most plants use the wind or birds but the sticky seeds of cleavers get stuck to our clothes or the fur of animals and we transport them to a new location.
There is also a thick patch of bramble and these will produce blackberries for birds in a few weeks. I hear a Blackbird giving a warning call and they build their nests in the thorny mass and are safe inside from predators.
A flickering shape catches my attention and when they land I find two Silver ground carpet moths. These are a common daytime flying species and can often be disturbed from vegetation. The purple flowers of Bush vetch have attracted a bumblebee called Bombus praturum. These important insects are in decline and it is vital that we create feeding stations for them throughout the city.
I head off the main path by Milford Parish School and find another hidden glen. Hidden away is a small stream and behind that a field has turned yellow with buttercups. A Blackbird flashes by carrying food and he is probably returning to his nest in the brambles.
Storm damage branches and grass has been stacked in a corner and this is a marvelous habitat for insects. Lichens line the branches and will slowly break them down and return the minerals and nutrients to the soil. Nettles are growing on the grass and I count four 7 spot ladybirds. They come to feed on the greenfly that live on the nettles. A Blackcap is singing and this is a summer migrant from Africa. Just as the university has become a multi-cultural institution nature has its own cosmopolitan mix from across the globe.
The large field by the school is full of red clover and swallows are flying low looking for insects. I pause for a few minuets to chat to the grounds keeper and he informs me that he has seen very few butterflies this year. The new university building is flying up and cranes of a sort and hauling concrete high into the sky.
A long line of tall cypress trees have been planted along the road creating a green corridor for wildlife. Birds and animals like to stay under cover when moving about as they are not exposed to predators. Robin/Goldcrest singing, Magpie calling and a pair of Jackdaws are on the roof off a house. I hear a very strange noise and it takes me a few second to identify it. The warning call belongs to a Song thrush and it makes the same noise as an old fashioned football rattle.
I take the first right turn and head towards the main road. One side off the road is carpeted in wildflowers and the opposite is virtually barren. Red clover, Nipplewort, Sow thistle and Herb Robert growing on a wall create a colourful display. Heard another blackbird singing.
A beautiful shrub with red flowers is growing by the side off the road. This is the second time in a few weeks that I have come across it but I still don’t know its name. It is fabulous for bumblebees. Bush vetch is scrambling up through it and a Bombus pascuorum is searching for nectar.
I stop by the graveyard for a few moments and see a pair of Magpies on a TV aerial. This is what alarmed the poor Song thrush a few minuets ago. More Swallows calling musically. In a quite corner off the graveyard Common fumitory and Cow parsley are growing. I head on and pass some students. With their studies behind them they are now carrying six packs instead of books.
I reach the roundabout and struggle to resist the temptation off Rios. A lone rook passes overhead and the volume has increased considerably. Birds too like their take away and three Rooks and two Jackdaws are eating a discarded pizza and chips. Some of them are eating at home and I see them flying back to their nests with a few chips or a slice off pizza.
The line off cars is constant and with the path getting very narrow I have to be careful not to get too distracted by nature. There are fine mature Ash, Oak and Copper beech trees in the gardens. Red and white valerian and ivy leaved toadflax are growing on the walls
Hidden by the edge off a wall and almost swallowed up by the rising path I find an old mile stone. The top is worn smooth from countless hands and i bend down to make out the writing and it says Nenagh 18 miles. In today’s global terms this is only a tiny journey but a hundred years ago it was a few days hard walk on dangerous roads. These roadside relics are scattered throughout the city and are an important part of our culture.
A tall sycamore tree is growing over the wall and it is at least a century old. It trunk is peppered with countless nails the scars of many elections it has witnessed during its lifetime. Across the road by a house a field is full of cow parsley.
Many off the houses are cut into the hills and the gardens climb steeply behind the houses. They contain an interesting mix of plants from exotic Rhododendron, Horsechestnut trees and mountain ash. Robin, Chaffinch and Housesparrow calling.
The traffic is discernibly close on the narrow path especially when a large truck speeds by.
I slip off the main road as soon as possible and cut back across to the university road. There is a fine grove of Sycamore trees and they have massive trunks. Sycamores are commonly planted in urban places because they have the ability to shed their bark. This removes the old dirty bark and helps the tree to survive. Underneath in the leaf litter a blackbird is foraging.
This is one off the busiest areas in Limerick yet the ability of nature to survive and adapt never ceases to amaze me. Creating space for nature is something we can all do in our gardens and communities and how we accomplish this reflects our green vision for the future. So next time you are out and about spend a few minuets searching and you will be amazed at what lives right on your doorstep.
I pop into the shop for some milk and bread but end up with a bottle of wine instead.
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For more nature stories by Albert Nolan go HERE.