Saturday, 28 July 2018

The drought is broken, thanks be to God!

What a hot, dry summer we have been having, with barely a drop of rain since early June. Parts of the lawn are completely brown - except for the long rooted weeds such as dandelions (now would be a good time to get rid of them). Many garden plants are visibly suffering, and I expect we will lose some, as with the hosepipe ban we are watering only the most precious. Marty is keen to avoid wasting as much precious water as possible, so I bought a large plastic tray to put under the shower - the kind you keep under the bed for shoes and such. Since it is too heavy and awkward to pick up full of water, we have to bail it into a bucket and carry the water outside to where it is needed.

Our farming neighbours are finding it much worse. Those with animals are struggling to keep them watered, and since the grass is not growing they have had to feed them reserves intended for the winter. I talked to a young farmer over my hedge who says that he has had to let the beasts down to water in a drain, that he is feeding them meal and sillage, and that the coming winter will be a real crisis. He was spreading artificial fertiliser on a field grazed to the bone in order to encourage grass growth, hoping to graze it again in 6 weeks time.

Another neighbour has just finished harvesting barley and wheat. I suspect yields have been poor enough, but that will be partially compensated by higher prices, and I hear the price of barley straw has soared, since it can be fed to animals.We were blessed yesterday to see a good sized flock of geese grazing in his stubble, fattening up for the winter on the fallen grain. I'm not sure what species they were, but they are probably feral Greylag (Anser anser) which stay in Ireland year round, unlike their cousins from Iceland who come only for the winter.
Geese grazing on my neighbours field on 27th July 2018
We have been praying for rain for weeks, and our prayers have been answered. We have had good rain over the last two days and the waterbutts are full again - I see that our nearest Met Éireann weather station at Gurteen has recorded a total of 12.4mm of rain over the last two days of intermittent showers. But I expect we will be back to hot and dry conditions by this time next week. So we must keep on praying.

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of the sheep,
we pray for those who give their lives to the care of animals
and whose livelihood depends on the well-being of creatures in their care.
At this time of crisis in the farming community,
we pray that in the providence of God
the sun will shine, the rain will fall, the grass will grow,
and God’s creatures will be fed.
We give thanks for the sense of local community support,
the willingness to offer practical help
and the attentiveness of neighbour to neighbour.

This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Mr Brock comes calling

Someone has been digging holes in the croquet lawn, and I feel sure it is Brock the badger. I met him at the bottom of the Lime Alley at dusk one evening last autumn, as I carried a glass of wine with me to my place of contemplation. I froze and looked at him, and he froze and looked at me. We looked at each other for at least a minute, and then he trotted off through a hole in the hedge.

Mr Tommy Brock, from Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of Mr Todd'
That's the only time I've seen him, but I often see signs of his nocturnal visits. He dug holes in the croquet lawn last autumn too - no doubt in search of grubs, such as cockchafer or ghost moth larvae. When the cobnuts are ripe and falling I suspect it is he that comes to hoover them up, because he leaves his scat around. This summer too I am finding the scat, which includes lots of undigested blackcurrants - the blackbirds have almost stripped the bushes already, and a lot fall to the ground, where they make easy picking for badgers. Here are some photos:

A hole dug in the croquet lawn

Badger scat with blackcurrants
I shall have to fill the holes with sand to make the croquet lawn flat again before the grandsons come to visit, because they will surely want to play croquet. But I don't really mind the small inconvenience. It is good to be reminded that my garden is a part of the wider landscape in which other creatures God has created live their lives.

The only place in the garden Brock has gone digging seems to be the croquet lawn, and I wonder why. It is mown close, but that can't be the reason, as so are other places in the garden. Perhaps it is because it is at the bottom of a slope down from the drive border, and the watertable there is closer to the surface, so that the grubs are easier to reach in the current drought.

I like the old English name Brock for the badger. It is a loan word from the Celtic languages that were once spoken in England before the Anglo-Saxons arrived on the scene - cf 'broc' in Irish and Scottish Gaelic and 'broch' in Welsh.

Badgers can contract bovine tuberculosis (TB) from cattle, and are a significant reservoir of infection, reinfecting TB-free herds. Humans can also be infected with TB from raw milk or handling cattle, though with pasteurisation this is much rarer than it once was, thanks be to God. TB is a significant problem for farmers with cattle in Ireland, and for many years the State has supported a TB eradication programme, requiring all cattle to be tested for TB annually, and reactors to be slaughtered. This has also included the culling of badgers in areas where there is evidence they are reinfecting herds, even though they are a protected species. Happily, in January this year the Government announced a programme to vaccinate badgers against TB. It will commence in the areas which have already been part of field trials demonstrating the effectiveness of badger vaccination, and it will roll out incrementally to other parts of the country over time, with vaccination gradually replacing the need to remove badgers. The aim is to totally eradicate TB in Ireland whilst both protecting the badger population and protecting cattle and the livelihoods of farmers.

Let us pray that this new initiative, based on solid science, will be successful, so that we can continue to enjoy the presence of badgers alongside our livestock industry.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Farewell to days of wine and roses

There are quite a few old rambler roses in the garden I share with Marty. Two weeks ago they were a fine sight, but already they are going over – the days of wine and roses are so fleeting, but they leave us with beautiful memories to treasure until next June.

Here is Rosa ‘Belvedere’ in full bloom a fortnight ago, bought some years ago at Belvedere House in Co Westmeath - really much too vigorous for the place I have it, but it makes a bold statement by the front gate.

Rosa ‘Belvedere’ in full bloom
And here it is today.

Rosa ‘Belvedere’ going over
Here are portraits of a few others – some of which I do not know the name of. I would be glad of suggestions from any reader who recognises them.

Rosa ‘Neige d’Avril’, from Angela Jupe at Fancroft Mill
Rosa name unknown
Rosa ‘American Pillar’, from my mother’s garden
- in honour of Marty

Rosa ‘Weilchenblau’ 

Rosa name unknown – a bit like R. filipes ‘Kiftsgate’, but not so vigorous
– the evening scent is to die for
Rosa name unknown – it is more like a giant shrub than a rambler,
and repeat flowering – it will continue up to the first frosts

Rosa ‘Dorothy Perkins’ has bloomed particularly well this year
– it is usually spoiled by mildew, but not in the dry conditions this year
We also have a yellow Lady Banks' Rose (Rosa banksiae ‘lutea’) planted beside a Southern beech into which it has climbed more than 20 feet. It is very early and long over, but flowered very well high in the tree this year. Here is a portrait taken from the web.

Lady Banks’ Rose (photo by Jarekk on Wikimedia Commons)
How blessed I am to be surrounded by such beauty, even if it is evanescent! It puts so many of our worries into proper perspective:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)

Monday, 9 July 2018

Carney Commons & Finnoe Church

I found myself with a little free time last Saturday, so rather than working in the garden in the heat I decided to make a foray to Carney Commons. This is a calcareous fen, which floods in the winter, but is bone dry in the summer – in other words it is a turlough. It is a remarkable place, locally renowned for its wild flowers and insects, which has never been cultivated. At some time in the past someone tried to plough a bit of it, but because below a few centimetres of organic soil it is nothing but chalky marl, it is quite useless for anything but rough grazing. As the name suggests, it is common land, and I suspect surrounding farms on better land share the grazing rights, though these do not appear to be taken up, as it is to some extent being invaded by scrub. This is a shame, as if it continues it will gradually squeeze out the species that make it so special – it is some years since I was able to find the Bee Orchids that used to be there, though Fly Orchids can still be found. It does not appear to be currently protected by any conservation designation, which it really should have.
A view across Carney Commons, with an interesting prostrate juniper, a glacial relic, one of the first plants to colonise the Irish tundra after the retreat of the glaciers
A track across Carney Commons, showing the chalk marl substrate and encroaching scrub, including self-seeding Scots Pine – I suspect if left to its own devices over centuries it would become a pine forest!

The object of my foray was to see how the orchids were doing in the dry conditions, in particular the Marsh Helleborine (Epipactus palustris) and Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), both of which I expected to find in full flower. The Marsh Helleborine was in profusion, but no where near as lush as it usually is. I could not find a single flower spike of the Fragrant Orchid – it must really not like the heat and drought. However, I did find what I think was a seed head of the Fly Orchid, and there were quite a number of flowers of a very pale form of the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii – not the pure white ssp okellyi, so common in the Burren at this time).

Marsh Helleborine (Epipactis palustris) – such a beautiful flower

A rather pale Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii)
As I searched for interesting plants I was rather troubled by the flies, but there were lots of other insects. I saw plenty of male Common Blue butterflies (Polyommatus Icarus) but few females, which were either hiding or emerge later. And the air was thick with Six Spot Burnet moths (Zygaena filipendulae) – I photographed one feeding on a Common Spotted Orchid.

You can see the Burnet’s proboscis searching out the nectar in a flower
Elsewhere the Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) was in full bloom, so called because of the sweet smell it gives off when used to stuff a mattress, and for the first time I found Burnet Saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga).

Lady’s Bedstraw
Burnet Saxifrage – at least I think so!
As I walked along the chalky track, a car pulled up, from which emerged a man and his daughter and a dog. As the girl picked bunches of flowers and the dog raced around I fell into conversation with the man. He said he knew rather little about the plants I was so interested in, but he knew more about animals. His farm is beside the Common, but he didn’t know whether or not he had grazing rights. He was a shooter, and often walked the Common in winter when it was flooded, hunting snipe and duck.

Carney Commons is a very special community of living creatures, one of the few wild places that remain in Lower Ormond. Human beings are part of that community, and unless we tend and keep it, for instance by maintaining a rough grazing regime, it will inexorably change and develop into a very different community. But I am sure that however the community develops God will see it to be good and will continue to delight in the diversity of life he has made.

Finnoe Church
I did not stay long at Carney Commons, because of the heat and the flies. But I also drove down the laneway to Finnoe Church, in search of the Nettle Leaved Bellflower (Campanula trachelium) I have found there in the past. The margins of the laneway even under the trees were completely dried out, and I could not find even a wizened stem of it. I do hope it has not died out there - it is protected under the 1987 Flora Protection Order as being ‘Endangered’.

I went on over the stile into the church yard of the de-roofed Church of Ireland church, which I think was closed in 1969, once united Kilbarron, and later with Borrisokane. It is not far from Prior Park, my grandparent’s house, and I have an early childhood memory of being taken to church there in a pony and trap - though my mother rather poo-pooed the idea, as they usually worshipped in Killodiernan. Some years ago, I rescued a small piece of the wrought iron altar rail from the ruins of the church, which still rests on my patio. And I have a little book listing in manuscript Finnoe church sustentation for the years 1902 to 1908, with names and amounts, including those of my grandfather and greatgrandfather.

The path through the churchyard has been kept clear, and a few graves are being well maintained, with quite recent interments, but the rest of the graveyard is frightfully overgrown. There is something ineffably sad about a ruined church in an abandoned graveyard. I imagine the many generations of faithful worshippers - including some of my ancestors - walking up the path Sunday by Sunday, the happiness of christening and wedding parties, the sadness of burials. All but a few are now forgotten and not remembered by us, but each one is known and loved by God. 

Finnoe Church exterior 8th July 2018
Finnoe Church interior 8th July 2018
May God bless and keep all who have worshipped here.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Requiem for a Greenfinch

A couple of evenings ago, as Marty and I were taking advantage of the fine weather to share a barbeque with our good neighbour Geoff on the patio, a Greenfinch came to perch on the pergola not 8 feet away from us. This normally shy bird had no fear of us and stayed there for several minutes before disappearing into the bushes. ‘What a bold bird!’, I exclaimed.

The next evening, as we were again preparing to light the barbeque, a sad sight greeted us. There on the patio lay a dead Greenfinch, the same bird I feel certain, a male judging by the bright yellow on its wings and tail. It appeared to be quite uninjured, so could not have been killed by a predator. So why was it dead?

The dead Greenfinch on our patio
There are several possibilities - heat stroke or dehydration come to mind. But most likely I think is a nasty parasitic infection which has been causing mass die-offs of finches in recent years – Trichomoniasis, caused by the single-celled Trichomonas gallinae parasite. The Summer 2018 issue of ‘Wings’, the Birdwatch Ireland magazine has a most informative article about it, from which I quote:
‘The parasite is transmitted between finches via their saliva at shared food and water sources, when feeding chicks or when feeding their mate during courtship. The parasite colonises the back of the throat in an infected bird, progressively narrowing the digestive tract and making it increasingly difficult for it to swallow food or water; this eventually results in starvation.
‘The Irish breeding Greenfinch population is now half of what it was 12 years ago, before the impact of Trichomoniasis’.

‘Wings’ also gives advice on how garden hygiene can limit the spread of the disease:
‘The best thing to do is to remove all feeders and water baths from the garden and clean them in a mild bleach solution. The Trichomonas parasite doesn’t survive well outside the host, particularly in dry conditions, so leave your feeders and water dishes to air-dry after cleaning. We recommend that you hold off from feeding birds in your garden for at least two weeks afterwards. This will encourage them to seek food elsewhere and give the healthy birds a chance to separate from any infected individuals.’ 

The winter before last, I had noticed a near absence of the usual Greenfinches at the feeders Marty keeps so well stocked. I wondered why, but last winter they seemed to be back up to normal levels. It is disturbing to think that the disease has returned. What a horrid way for any creature to die!

Greenfinches are not so very different from you or I – we are all mortal, and death will come to us all eventually. We too are liable to epidemic plagues. Just 100 years ago the ‘Spanish Flu’ influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide, more than died in the Great War. Now, with better global communications and climate change, new human plagues such as Ebola and Zika are emerging all the time alongside old ones such as influenza, cholera and typhus. Such diseases are part of the motor that drives evolution to create the diversity of life we see around us.

I am sure that our God cares for Greenfinches just as he cares for us, and all his creatures. Jesus reassures us, saying
‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:29-31)

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Restarting God in the Garden

The Editorial in the July 2018 issue of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for the United Dioceses of Limerick & Killaloe, which I edit.

Editorial - God in the Garden

What a wonderful world we live in, overflowing with the diversity of living things, filled with beauty at every scale from the gigantic to the minute, and able to feed us all if we use it as we should. It is our Garden of Eden - God has made it for us and all his creatures, he continually remakes it through evolution, and in the words of Genesis he sees it to be good.

One of the delights of summer for me is to spend time in the garden - my wife Marty and I have our own parts, since 2 gardeners into 1 garden does not go. Other pleasures are visiting other people’s gardens, and botanising in wild places like the Burren, a natural rock garden. Such places are miniature versions of God’s good world.

A view of Marty's labyrinth garden with oriental popies and aquilegia 
in the foreground and the wysteria arch in the background.

Back in 2006 I started a blog called ‘God in the Garden’ in which I celebrated the glories of God’s creation including my garden, and mused on our place as Christians within it. Five years later I abandoned it and have posted nothing for years, but like all things digital it still lives on in cyber space – you can find it at

I have decided to restart it and set myself the goal of posting something at least weekly as a small spiritual discipline, part of my commitment to the Community of Brendan the Navigator. I know that God is in the Garden, and I pray that in words and pictures I may praise him and reflect his glory, however dimly. Do have a look if you have any interest in the idea, and feel free to comment.

God bless, Joc Sanders

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Burren orchids in profusion

In mid June Marty and I made an overnight trip to the Burren in north Co Clare. We usually do so in May to see the spring gentians, but this time my eyes were on another prize – the orchids for which the limestone pavements are renowned. I was inspired by a birthday present from my brother Tom, a book called ‘Orchid Summer’ by Jon Dunn, in which he records a mad dash around Britain and Ireland to find and photographic every single orchid species and variety known to occur in the two islands. The book is really a road-trip diary, but beautifully written and filled with anecdote, and I recommend it to amateur botanists like myself.

Slieve Carran Nature Reserve
My search began at Slieve Carran Nature Reserve in the Burren National Park, where I was once shown shrivelled seed heads said to be of the Dense-Flowered orchid (Neotinea maculata). It is a Burren speciality I have never found, with a remarkable distribution – it is widespread around the Mediterranean, but in northern Europe does not occur except in the west of Ireland and the Isle of Man!

I scoured the limestone pavement on the path that leads to St Colman MacDuagh’s holy well and cave, but I failed yet again to find it, no doubt because it was already over. But I did find several other orchid species. The Heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata ssp ericetorum) was everywhere, alongside the bloody cranesbill, mountain avens, and birdsfoot trefoil which make the Burren as gay as any rock garden. There were rather fewer Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii) and I found a single helleborine about to flower, most likely Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine), which is common in the hanging hazel wood above St Colman’s well. The Early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) were over, but their drying seed-heads were easy to spot, and I took a poor photo of one still showing some dying purple petals. But my biggest excitement was to find single specimens of Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and Lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia).

Heath spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata ssp ericetorum)
Common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii ssp fuchsii)

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) in bud, with bloody cranesbill

Seed-head of early purple orchid (Orchis mascula), with a few desiccated purple petals
Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

Lesser butterfly orchid (Platanthera bifolia)
Meanwhile, flying all around were day-flying burnet moths, a local subspecies of the Transparent Burnet (Zygaena purpuralis ssp sabulosa), another Burren speciality. I snapped this mating pair resting on a seed-head of Mountain avens.

A mating pair of the Burren Transparent Burnet (Zygaena purpuralis ssp sabulosa),
resting on a seed-head of Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala)

We continued our pilgrimage walk to St Colman MacDuagh’s Holy Well. I felt proud of Marty, who completed the walk despite her artificial knees and hip – a long walk over rough ground there and back. By then it was getting late, so we headed for Ballinalacken Castle Hotel for the night, where we were given a room with a view over to the Arran Islands as we requested. Sadly the restaurant was closed that evening, but we did not starve as we ate well in Doolin.

Pol Sallach
The next morning we went to Pol Sallach, on the shore off the coast road close to Ballinalacken, for some more botanising. This is a favourite place, where once Marty found Pyramidal Bugle – another Burren rarity. We didn’t find it this time – too late, I’m sure – but we did find two more species of orchids: Western marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza occidentalis), and a single Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera).

Western marsh orchid (Dactylorhiza occidentalis)
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
At last I found a couple of late spring gentians in bloom. And I harvested a good bagful of rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum) from the rocky beach, a delicious wild vegetable - I took a few roots to try to grow at home.

Spring gentian (Gentiana verna)
Bishop's Quarter
From Pol Sallach we drove through Lisdoonvarna to Ballyvaughan, and stopped for a walk on Bishop’s Quarter beach, where I used to take my children to swim and swam myself as a child. On the sand-spit there, by the deserted lifeguard station I found yet another orchid, Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) in both a typical and a flesh-pink form.

Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis),
with sea holly in the background

... and a flesh pink form of Pyramidal orchid
We lunched well at Linnane’s of Newquay, where Marty eat lobster and I had lemon sole. Then we headed for home by way of Carron and Glencolumkill. Stopping at the view point, while Marty dozed in the car, I walked up the green road in the townland of Fahy North that leads to the winterage, looking for the small and elusive Frog orchid, but without any luck.

Nine different species
Still, I had found 9 different species of orchid over two days, and enjoyed two lovely days in the Burren, one of my favourite places - I felt very specially blessed.

The wonder of orchids
There is something very special and wonderful about the vast family of orchid species, of which there are over 25,000 worldwide. Their common ancestor lived over 100 million years ago, and they have evolved alongside both insects and fungi.
  • The amazing diversity of their flower forms have arisen to take advantage of insects as pollinators. Many orchid species attract particular insect species with scents mimicking the insect’s sex pheromones. Others provide nectar and have spots and blotches which guide insects to it. Orchid flowers have intricate mechanisms to stick a bundle of male pollen on a visiting insect just where it will be safely delivered to the female part of the next flower the insect visits. 
  • The seed of orchids is minute, like dust, which can blow long distances on the wind, but without food reserves the seed needs to link up immediately with a mycorrhizal fungal partner. This feeds the growing orchid underground, sometimes for many years, before it is big enough to put up leaves, feed itself and produce a flower spike to reproduce. After flowering many orchids revert again to life underground until conditions are right and they are sufficiently strong to bloom again - this is why they can be so elusive, appearing and disappearing over many years. Some have even given up on the bother of producing leaves with chlorophyll to feed themselves, living entirely off their fungal partner, and only putting up a flower spike to reproduce. As far as I know no one has discovered what is in it for the fungus in this case, but I feel there must be a benefit.

God has created an evolving world in which different species are meant to live in community with other species, a reflection of the divine community we see at work in the Trinity, I believe. This is as true of our species, the human species, as it is of orchids. In this Anthropocene age, a time of mass extinction caused by human action, we ignore this at our peril.