Michael Viney

Books for Christ­mas: from the de­fin­i­tive Bur­ren to a pine marten cel­e­bra­tion

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS -

There was a time when the strange and mag­i­cal land­scape of the Bur­ren at­tracted just a few roam­ing nat­u­ral­ists, mostly of the gen­tle­manly, even cler­i­cal, kind. To­day, as a star at­trac­tion along the Wild At­lantic Way, the Bur­ren’s lime­stone hills peer over more than 10,000 vis­i­tors a year.

As the coastal road at Black Head and Poul­sal­lagh be­comes clogged with cars and coaches, and tourists spill into the in­te­rior to pic­nic on its flow­ery pave­ments, con­cern about eco­log­i­cal wear and tear was bound to grow. “The Bur­ren should never be­come a play­thing or be over-pro­moted in the in­ter­ests of tourism,” writes David Cabot. “It is the jewel in the eco­log­i­cal crown of Ire­land.”

With botanist Roger Good­willie, Cabot has pro­duced a de­fin­i­tive up­date to its en­chant­ing, of­ten puz­zling, nat­u­ral his­tory. Pub­lished in Collins’ pres­ti­gious New Nat­u­ral­ist se­ries, the 464 pages of The Bur­ren come gloss­ily en­riched with pho­to­graphs, mostly by the ac­com­plished Fiona Guin­ness, but also with a weighty price of £65 (¤73). Even as a Christ­mas present, there­fore – and sadly, per­haps, for Ir­ish book­shops – some on­line dis­count-hunt­ing may be nec­es­sary.

It’s a se­ri­ous, ex­pert book, but smoothly read­able and jar­gon-free. Both au­thors bring a long de­vo­tion to the Bur­ren. Cabot, now a lead­ing or­nithol­o­gist, first ex­plored it in com­pany with the great botanist David Webb.

Good­willie is an author­ity on the flora of the Bur­ren’s tur­loughs and fond wit­ness to the “drama of the first au­tumn ris­ing” as sub­ter­ranean wa­ter swells up to fill the lakes.

The unique­ness of the Bur­ren, pre­sent­ing such strange mix­tures among its plants, is chron­i­cled at a cru­cial time. “An un­in­ten­tional gar­den”, it was first grazed by woolly mam­moths, gi­ant deer and wild horses and now by cat­tle driven up from the val­leys to rel­ish the lime­stone’s win­ter warmth. Great change has ar­rived not only with tourism, but with progress in sus­tain­able farm­ing pi­o­neered, with EU and gov­ern­ment sup­port, by the Bur­ren­beo Trust.

Per­se­cuted or poi­soned

The rem­nants of old wood­land and dense stretches of mossy hazel scrub shel­tered the sur­vival of the pine marten, else­where per­se­cuted or poi­soned al­most to ex­tinc­tion as Ir­ish sheep-farm­ing in­ten­si­fied in the mid-20th cen­tury. In Bri­tain, the ear­lier toll from game­keep­ers cleared the marten from Eng­land and forced its refuge in the wilder west of Scot­land and Wales.

It was in the Bur­ren’s Dro­more Wood that British pine marten devo­tee Johnny Birks saw his first Ir­ish one. After work­ing with the Vin­cent Wildlife Trust to help re­store the martens in the UK, he has now pro­duced a much-needed pop­u­lar book on the species. Pine Martens (Whit­tet Books) is a lively, en­gag­ing and thor­ough ac­count of Birks’s favourite mam­mal and its dif­fer­ing habits and for­tunes in these is­lands.

Some of the most sig­nif­i­cant re­cent re­search has come from zo­ol­o­gists in Ire­land, such as find­ing that the spread and pre­da­tion by the pine marten had re­duced the alien grey squir­rels in the mid­lands. A study in North­ern Ire­land, adds Birks, “sug­gests that grey squir­rels are much more naive than reds when it comes to the scent of pine martens”.

Un­sung up­thrust

The up­lands and val­leys of Ire­land’s south­east in­spired a gifted part­ner­ship for Comer­agh: Moun­tain, Coum, River, Ru­mour (Whim­brel Press). Water­ford pho­tog­ra­pher Paddy Dwan and poet Mark Roper spent five years on this, the third of their books de­voted to the char­ac­ter, cul­ture and nat­u­ral his­tory of the re­gion. In richly tex­tured im­ages and prose, they por­tray this com­par­a­tively un­sung up­thrust of Mun­ster, glacially sculpted and bathed in an of­ten dra­matic light.

In this land­scape, Dwan’s mo­ments with birds are also ex­cep­tional, from cross­bill and buz­zard to kestrel and cuckoo. Roper fell into a ravine and broke

The unique­ness of the Bur­ren, pre­sent­ing such strange mix­tures among its plants, is chron­i­cled at a cru­cial time

his neck, but went on to fol­low the story of the moun­tains, wo­ven with the lo­cal lives of those who know them best.

Christo­pher Mo­ri­arty knows Dublin’s big river – from its first nascent trick­les in the moun­tains to the last fresh­wa­ter swirls into the sea. He spent much of his ca­reer as a gov­ern­ment fish­ery bi­ol­o­gist delv­ing into fresh­wa­ter ecol­ogy, and his early ex­plo­rations of the Lif­fey led to a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with the his­tory of its bridges, river­side ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban wa­ter sup­ply. The River Lif­fey: His­tory and Her­itage (Collins Press) is suc­ces­sor to Mo­ri­arty’s Book of the Lif­fey, writ­ten 37 years ago, and takes vig­or­ous ac­count of a greatly big­ger and even thirstier city.

En­joy­ment of the cap­i­tal’s out­door world has been en­riched by fine new parks, and walk­ing and cy­cling trails that ap­pre­ci­ate the river, its in­land lakes and wildlife. Their sur­round­ing and in­trigu­ing ar­ray of his­tor­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture has be­come Mo­ri­arty’s spe­cial hobby, and for Dublin­ers the book is a trea­sury of ideas for some­where new to go this week­end.

Bur­net rose – a flower of the Bur­ren’s ‘un­in­tended gar­den’. IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY MICHAEL VINEY

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