Taking a walk on the wild side with Eanna Ní Lamhna

They say you learn something new every day and that was certainly the case for me on Friday last when I took part in a woodland walk with Eanna Ní Lamhna as part of Lough Ree Environmental Summer School.   I learned lots of things –  what wood sorrell tastes like (citrus), what an Enchanter’s Nightshade looks like (enchanting), where to find St. John’s Wort growing wild (deep in St. John’s Wood), the fact that the dawn chorus is an all-male choir and finally, if the organisers tell you to bring wellies, there’s usually a very good reason!             The event was hugely enjoyable for the nature enthusiasts, walking enthusiasts and those who simply wanted to learn more about their local heritage as they explored the native woodland of St. John’s Wood.             I had received only one instruction from the organisers of the event – bring wellies – and of course I forgot. On arrival in Lanesboro, I was looking sideways at the high black boots being worn to work, but fortunately a rummage in the boot turned up an aging pair of runners, which got me over the worst of the mucky spots along the route of the two-hour walk.             Those taking part in the tour assembled at Lough Ree Co-op in Lanesboro at 3 pm and shortly before 4 pm arrived at the entrance to St. John’s Wood in Lecarrow. St. John’s Wood is a special place as it is one of the few remaining native Irish woodlands, containing a mix of native Irish trees and shrubs which has evolved over the centuries. Because of the special nature of the woodland, the area is a Special Area of Conservation and invasive species such as deer or grey squirrels are not to be found there.             In many areas of Ireland, farmers, apart from their farmland, own turbary rights on local bogs, but in the St. John’s area, the farmers owned a plot of the wood which was designed to supply them with fuel. Thus, some timber was removed regularly and the rest of the wood was left to renew itself. Walls dividing the plots could be seen along the route of the walk.             One popular tree to be found in St. John’s Wood is hazel and environmentalist Eanna told guests that this hazel was coppiced, or cut back and the young shoots used to provide scolbs – or rods for thatching. Other species pointed out in the early part of the journey included whitethorn, found at the edge of the wood, complete with sloes, and the blackthorn with its ripening haws.             Guests at the walk included lots of family groups and the event proved a great summer holiday treat, with Eanna Ní Lamhna a knowledgeable and entertaining guide for the woodland walk.             In early sections of the wood, Ms. Ní Lamhna pointed out wild garlic and indeed the smell of wild garlic was in the air. Later on in the walk, she pointed out one of a number of wild cherry trees and this time I think my imagination overtook me and I thought I could smell cherries. Instead, I realised that a child next to me was sucking a cherry-flavoured boiled sweet!             The Enchanter’s Nightshade is an unusual looking plant, but one with an interesting history involving norman Robert Goodfellow, a reputed magician who collected herbs.             No area of the wood was safe from Ms. Ní Lamhna’s scrutiny, as she showed guests woodbine, moss, lichen and the heart’s tongue fern. The heart’s tongue was called after a heart which was a deer and the fern so named because it resembled a deer tongue.             Holly is popular in St. John’s Wood, and the holly tree is either male or female, but only the females produce berries, while the male trees produce pollen. Holly or Cuileann has helped in the naming process for areas such as Maigh Cuileann, Kilcullen, Glencullen etc.             The canopy in the wood is dominated by oak trees, which can live up to 700 years. Oak is Ireland’s largest native tree, after the yew. Mountain ash or rowan with its serrated leaves was also pointed to along the way in what was a nature lesson for young and old.             One young boy spotted a frog along the journey and a discussion on frogs ensued. For the non frog-specialists among you, frogs can live to be up to 12 years old. There are no toads in Ireland and toads cannot jump and the wetter the weather the darker the frog gets, ranging in colour from nearly black in wet weather to pale yellow or green in fine weather. The colour of a frog is not a lesson in predicting the weather but rather a history lesson on recent weather.             Cuckoo spit was examined in great detail. Of course it is not the spit of the cuckoo, but rather a well constructed and nourishing home for a spittle bug or leaf hopper.             The berries of the arum lily were also examined. Also known as Lords and Ladies, the centre of this plant smells like rotten meat, attracting flies, which are attracted into the centre of the plant and trapped there for a time by the downward-pointing shafts inside. Later, the shafts droop, allowing the flies, by now covered in pollen, to escape and go on their merry way, spreading the pollen in the neighbourhood.             Nature is a strange and wonderful thing. Men (and women!), it’s worth noting that when a spider goes-a-courting, he brings with him a present – a nicely wrapped fly for his intended! Talking of flies, a wasp beetle was one of the more unusual specimens which we happened upon an he was duly trapped in a glass jar for a time so that he could be passed around for everybody in the group to have a look at, before being released back into the wildlife wonderland of St. John’s wood.             The tunnel of the miner moth was also demonstrated and once again, this was a new experience, as the strange hieroglyphics on the cherry leaves were explained away by Ms. Ní Lamhna.             What else do you need to know about this weird and wonderful trip? Well, there are 14 species of ladybird, red and black, black and red, pink, yellow and with spot numbers ranging from two to twenty four. Other than that, if you want to find our more about this wood or any other aspect of our environmental heritage, then watch out for next year’s Environmental Summer School and get your place booked!