Country Matters: A ruthless visitor to a strange, magical landscape

Richard Mabey, a noted English naturalist, saw the Burren (boí reann, rocky place) as a place hovering between wildness and civilization, where brief advances in cultivation were followed by a retreat that took the landscape to a time before the presence of the put people back.

he thickets of hazel and pretty alpine flowers hinted at an unfinished landscape that had swum across the Atlantic. The tufts sit between “a Celtic garrigue,” he wrote, a tangle of sloe, burnet and madder.

For him, the defining plant was the hazel, whose “dark patches fill hollows in the white rock… to halt the gentle slopes and brace against crumbling walls.” The horizon of humped, glaciated ridges, shelves and terraces where the setting sun highlights pink ribbons is never far away.

The great Robert Lloyd Praeger, who wandered the length and breadth of Ireland more than 100 years ago and wrote down what he saw, said that there was nothing here or in Britain to compare with the strange limestone landscape of the Burren – the abundance and beauty of the Bergwort, Spring gentian, saxifrage, maidenhair, cistus, bloody cranesbill and deer’s tongue living in cracks in rain-widened limestone crevices where humus had accumulated, the damp, mist-laden Atlantic breeze did the rest.

The cuckoo calls here too, like last Tuesday, some enthusiasts studying the evocative tricks of an amazing landscape, waiting for a frenzy of orchids, led by the early crimson with its deep violet flowering spikes.

Farther north cuckoo sounds conjure up to me the milkiness of Maytime as HE Bates described it, between the small fields of Leitrim showing the outlines of old potato ridges, where crops fed a town country and now only dreams remain with a grazing beast or two.

“Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing, cuccu!” (Summer is in, sing out loud, cuckoo!) is an alert for pipits, robins, wagtails and hedge sparrows. The visiting brood parasite has about 12 weeks to carry out its reckless tasks before returning to Africa. The male bird sings to find a mate, not an easy task as the host birds in whose nests the cuckoo rests are declining. Cuckoos cannot easily cross over to other species because their eggs are genetically programmed to resemble those of normally infested birds.

The female is a fast runner. After pricking an egg from a host nest, she injects her own in about 10 seconds while clinging to the rim, and repeats this up to 15 times a day, finding suitable nests. The bird’s ruthless reputation dates back at least to Pliny the Elder, who wrote that a weaned cuckoo eventually ate its foster parent. Chaucer bluntly described it as a killer in his Parliament of Birds.

The rapidly growing usurper in the nest will soon drive away any remaining eggs and nestlings competing for food. However, the cuckoo plays a useful role in biodiversity by eating any hairy caterpillars it can find – which other birds literally cannot tolerate, as the cuckoo’s innards have a protective lining.

His song has also inspired composers of great music. The pitch of the bird call notes is D and B or D and B, treble. Beethoven, who introduces the cuckoo at the end of the Pastoral Symphony’s second movement, gives the notes D and Bb an uplifting start to a summer’s day. Country Matters: A ruthless visitor to a strange, magical landscape

Fry Electronics Team

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