The Earl of Meath, Jack, my Father-in-Law, is a forester, he is also a keen observer of wild life, a passion that he has carried for almost four score years and so he is keenly aware of how nature is fairing on this estate. I sometimes liken his spread of informative snippets, regarding Killruddery’s Heritage and its eco system to the spread of the Turkey Oak in the Garden, that was planted to mark his birth, the tree is in the prime of its life, remarkably branched and stretching. For every branch of that tree, I swear our Earl has a nugget of information about bird, animal, seed, plant, tree, date, timeline, family lore or custom on this estate.
And so to this past seasons Nature Diary, Jack’s news is not all good, like many he is anxious about our environment and natures condition, he is not only critical of the effect of the increased urbanisation of rural Ireland or environmental impact globally, he is also honest about the effect of increased activity and footfall at Killruddery, an estate that has protected biodiversity / undeveloped tumbling buildings and land for so many years. Through seeing all sides and bringing awareness by which we might decide best possible next steps, Jack Meath hopes we can tread carefully allowing progressive development of the Estate that by and large will remain a green belt with a rich bio-dyversity.
And so here you have his diary – warts and all.
Summer / Autumn Report – 2020
Killruddery Nature Diary with Jack Meath
Weather pattern: Very little rain from 13th March through to 2nd June. June had showers and good sun. July had somewhat wetter weather. August alternated between warm and cool with a lot of heavy rain.
We have been thrilled to restore the old Horse and Diary Yards at Killruddery, creating space for Estate Visitors to enjoy Cafe, Shop, Farm Market and Events, this progress has not been without its challenges to migrating birds, swallows seem to have had difficulty finding suitable nesting sites. Having said that swallows all over Ireland are reported to have been very late arriving this year and to have arrived in lower numbers, talk has spread of Swallow netting in regions far South of Ireland. The first swallow I saw was on April 20th and the main lot did not arrive until May. In spite of my purchasing artificial nesting boxes for swallows in February and arranging for them to be installed on the South facing wall of the new farm shop area, they have not appealed to the swallows. I am hoping the nests will be more user friendly next year. We only had about five pairs, two of which were successful in rearing broods in the Horse Yard, despite the renovations. The young swallows when they first leave the nest line up on the cables to practice their flight and I see them return to their nesting site every evening until they are strong enough.
Due to covid restrictions our Dawn Chorus walks were cancelled this year. If they had taken place the weather was much kinder than last year. My son, Anthony, put up a 24 hour camera and sound recorder on the roof of the main house overlooking the long ponds to record the dawn chorus. The first bird called at 5.40 a.m. and was soon joined by a great outpouring of joyous bird song which filled the air and continued undiluted by any commuter traffic, there wasn’t any, until after 9 a.m. The camera revealed a shadowy figure on all fours which explored the ground, a feral cat.
As for the Home birds, in the Gardens the following have reared young: wren, robin, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, pied wagtail, grey wagtail, black bird, thrush, gold finch, green finch, collard dove, jackdaw and rooks. My great sadness was a complete absence of wild ducklings in the gardens. This is the first time in fifty years or more that this has occurred. Feral cats are possibly a problem, also disturbance by film units during February and March in the Wilderness area with their bright lights during the day and night time.
On the Estate, no ducks nested on the Ace of Clubs pond which has a punctured bottom reducing water levels and choked with duck weed. Ducks are early nesters and need to brood their eggs for 28 days as from early March and will therefore hatch during the first fortnight of April. In the Old Wood I did see a pair of Mallard who may have nested in part of the aqueduct but I only saw them twice in March. I also saw a woodcock in breeding plumage in the Old Wood but I do not know if there was any success in breeding.
Woodpeckers were heard in three locations in the spring. Once April comes they become much more silent. I had hoped to view the young woodpeckers in late June, early July but failed to find any of their nests sites or to hear any, I am hoping they did well as they were so active in Spring.
This is the third year running I have not heard a cuckoo. I do generally see one in June. At Killruddery the ground nesting meadow pipits on the Little Sugar Loaf were the main nest hosts where the cuckoo laid her egg. Some lands have been afforested on the slopes here thus denying nesting habitat for meadow pipets.
Every year we seem to host a long eared owl pair who nest within the garden bounds. When the owlets fledge the nest they perch in different locations in the gloaming keening loudly to their parents, almost deafening one. As they mature they venture further and further afield. You can hear them in late June and July for a period of approximately two to three weeks.
There used to be a small herony here in the Ardee plantation. They would nest in the tallest evergreen Silver Firs. The last two nests were occupied in 1975. Imagine my surprise on twice seeing a heron flying over the house with a long stick protruding from its beak, heading northwards towards the Pig Wood during early April. However nothing occured which led to a nest. Herons are very vocal and are busy in February/March building nests.
Raptors, birds of prey, are to be seen on most parts of the Estate. In the 1960s and 70s the kestrel was common, possibly as many as ten pairs. From 1980s sparrow hawks became more common and overtook the kestrel numerically. What is unbelievable now is that since about 1998 the buzzard has become the most common raptor at Killruddery. However because of modern farming laws (no carcasses allowed to be left out on the land) there is not enough food for them and in the past we have found very thin young fully grown dead birds. Our rabbits have almost disappeared, possibly to red heart diarrhoea. We have no voles in Co. Wicklow only brown rats, house mice and field mice so I think in competition with the owls, buzzards are finding it hard to rear young successfully.
Hedgehogs found the spring hard work as it was so dry and cold, not conducive to ground bugs after their hibernation. Badgers would find them easy prey. However some do survive every year in the garden and surrounds.
Red squirrels increase slowly but we have to keep culling the grey squirrels which are of the rat family and eat anything. Pine marten have been seen on the Estate and these shy creatures certainly have an effect on the grey squirrels.
Butterfly species are improving. We have seen orange tip, large and small cabbage white, holly blue, grizzled skipper, red admiral, tortoiseshell, speckled wood, peacocks, common brown, heath both large and small. Compared to 50 years ago their numbers are small but hanging in there as long as we restrict our herbicides.
Olly, who keeps honey bees on the estate was very pleased with the dry sunny April and May, he drew wonderful spring honey, however, late summer honey was reduced due to excessive summer rain. Bees, bumble bees, wasps and flies all add up to the biodiversity required for everything to live and we saw these creatures thrive well on the estate this Spring.
Later in the Summer the rain was more hostile to the honey bees quest.
As I write this report in September it is a glorious, sunny, fresh, warm Autumn day. Noisy swallows have ganged up and are busy flying around the building complex and the gardens. They will soon depart for Africa. I wish them well and safe return.
Winter / Spring Report – 2020
Killruddery Nature Diary with Jack Meath
The Garden looks very well. No wind or rain to spoil the magnolia and rhododendron blossoms. The display was magnificent (the best I’ve seen in 20 years!) as indeed were the cherry blossoms – always over too soon. Thousands of spring bulbs have been planted, producing a display of narcissi, daffodils, crocuses, wild anemones, violets and or course banks of yellow primroses; bluebells are the May prize!
The first swallow arrived in the sky over Killruddery on 20th April. This is later than usual and also their numbers were drastically down last year, with a very mediocre breeding season. Renovations of the old farm buildings have destroyed old nesting sites. I have attempted to remedy this by erecting six artificial nests with protective eaves on a south facing wall of new Farm Shop.
Our raptors and long eared owls are hanging on but I wonder if they have enough prey to rear their young? We badly need more rabbits to help our raptors. I have not seen a kestrel here for four years. In the 1960s we had a dozen pairs, minimum.
On a positive note our red squirrels continue their slow increase (largely due to the culling of grey squirrels).
Herons can be seen on the banks of the Long Ponds hoping for fish or baby ducklings. They used to nest here and breed until 1975, using the tall silver firs in the Ardee wood.
We try to keep the areas of woodland which surround the Gardens somewhat unkempt, which makes good habitat for our numerous hedgehogs.
11,000 trees were planted in the Sugar Loaf Plantations this year, of which 3000 are broadleaves (hardwoods with flat leaves, producing seeds inside of fruits). A further 1000 trees have been planted in Geoff’s wood. I do hope you enjoy looking at the forty shades of green around you in all their freshness.