The Attack of the Killer Rhododendrons (8 page)

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Barron explained that the rhododendron situation in Killarney National Park is not a simple one. It is clear that the original sites of infestation were Dinis Cottage and Muckross House, and that rhododendrons were first planted there about 150 years ago, probably for their ornamental value. At the time, some spots in the region had been cleared of their oak trees, and therefore had poor natural cover. Recognizing that rhododendrons grew very quickly, landowners had probably planted them for their shelter value. Today Muckross House has some monster rhododendrons with trunks the size of my torso, but these are a different species of rhododendron, not nearly so invasive. A big patch of
Rhododendron ponticum
in front of Muckross House, a potential source of seeds, had been eliminated some years earlier.

At one time, Ireland was almost entirely blanketed by forests. Today, it is considered to be Europe’s least-wooded nation, and preservation of remaining oak forests is a very high priority. A management plan survey completed in 1990 showed that 75 percent of forest sites in the 11,000-hectare Killarney National Park were infested with the nasty type of rhododendron. Now, after twenty years of clearance efforts, major chunks of the park have been freed from its grip.

In that period, three forms of control had been tried. The efforts
of contract workers didn’t work as well as was hoped, possibly because of a lack of follow-up to make sure they had done the job properly. Attempts to control rhododendrons by park staff also didn’t work. For a spell, rhododendron duty was seen by park personnel as punishment for stepping out of line. More successful are the efforts of a non-profit group called Groundwork operating out of Dublin. Groundwork started off in 1981 as a small collection of Irish students with an environmental conscience. Willing to tackle an assortment of environmental challenges in Ireland, their chief mission is the elimination of rhododendrons from oak forests. Through three summer months, visitors from around the world sign on for one- or two-week work camps, dedicating themselves to rhododendron Armageddon. Volunteers stay in a hostel in Killarney National Park and travel each day to the site where their attentions are most needed.

Because winds in the region generally blow from the west, and rhododendron seeds disperse long distances in the wind, clearance efforts proceed from west to east. The slopes of Torc are among the most heavily infested, but as the region was cleared of its oak trees many years ago, it is not the highest priority for rhododendron removal. In those regions where oak still stand, they continue to provide viable seeds, and an area can establish a new generation of oak even after forty years of rhododendron infestation. With luck, the seeds of other forest plants are still sitting dormant in the soil, waiting to germinate when conditions are right, or perhaps they will blow in from other forested regions. If so, the oak forest community may be able to re-establish its former glory and complexity.

To get rid of rhododendrons, the first step is to cut them down or dig them up. Then you wait a year or so for the plants to try to grow back, and kill the new growth. The site needs to be revisited every few years to kill new rhododendron shoots. Many years must pass before an area can be declared free of the noxious plants. Barron explained that burning the chopped and uprooted rhododendrons would seem like an ideal end to them, but environmental legislation prevents that. Instead, the dead plants are woven into
massive fences that resist decay and act as a barrier to grazing deer and sheep.

According to Barron, dried rhododendron wood burns really well. Since it is illegal to take rhododendron wood out of the park, cut wood piles up. Driving from one locale to another, we passed a fellow filling the back of his car with rhododendron logs. When Barron slowed down to have a good look, the fellow jumped into his car and sped off.

As we wandered hills close to the highway, Barron pointed out the remains of abandoned “lazy beds,” where the scant earth had been pulled into hilly rows suitable for growing potatoes many years before. I spotted the bones of a largish mammal. “I hope it’s a sheep,” said Barron. It seems that removing rhododendrons is only half the battle in restoring oak forests. Deer and sheep might not eat rhododendrons, but they are perfectly willing to chow down on young oak seedlings.

These bones were not from a sheep, but from a Sika deer, another introduced pest. According to its promotional material, Killarney National Park is home to Ireland’s only remaining wild herd of native red deer. The genetic integrity of red deer is threatened by hybridization with Sika deer. Barron explained that hybridization is less of a problem than generally claimed. The local population of red deer is genetically pure, and the Sika deer are the most genetically pure anywhere outside of Japan. The two do not hybridize in the park. They do so further to the east, and hybrid populations are moving toward the park, but that is a concern for future generations of conservation biologists.

I
WANTED TO CONTRAST
the difficulties brought on by rhododendrons in the oak forests of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland with the beauty of ornamental rhododendrons growing peacefully where they were planted. In my last act of rapidly dying faith in my guidebook, I aimed for Annes Grove Historic Irish Gardens. These gardens were said to be awash in rhododendrons of every description, collected from all over the world. This sort of gardening seems to
me a demonstration of belief in the acts that survive us; young rhododendrons are planted with loving care in the certainty that their best floral displays will come long after the gardener has died.

Travelling east from Killarney, my first great trick was to navigate the narrow streets of Mallow. Not ever such a big town, Mallow certainly has big traffic problems. Delivery trucks are longer and wider than any street in town, where they clog any sensible vehicular progress. The road system was well signed to take me back to Killarney, but not so keen to show me how to move forward. I found no fewer than three signs willing to send me off in what I knew was the wrong direction. All three were the sort of temporary plastic sign that normally read “Real Art Sale This Saturday at the Airport Holiday Inn” or “Jim’s Landscaping: No Job Too Small!!!” At first I thought the misleading signs might have been printed and erected by someone with a poorly developed sense of humour. On my third trip down the main street, I concluded that they had been put up by the Town Council in the hopes that weary travellers would eventually need a restaurant or a hotel. Or a mortician.

Halfway between the towns of Mallow and Fermoy (Mainstir Fhearmuighe), Annes Grove Historic Irish Gardens should have been easy to find. The gardens’ website indicated that once I got to Castletownroche, I was to turn left at Batterberry’s Pub and then follow the signs. I found Batterberry, but it was a grocery store, not a pub, and it wasn’t at an intersection. I also found a butcher shop offering a free turnip with every piece of bacon purchased. I spotted a pub called Dany’s, and since it was at an intersection, I turned left.

The gardened estate has been in the family of Arthur Grove Annesley for more than two centuries. I was greeted at the entrance by a delightful lady who gave the impression she felt more at ease in her rubber boots than she would in stilettos, and felt closer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth. Cats circled her feet. Explaining that I had come to Annes Grove to see the rhododendrons, I was told I had arrived at exactly the right time. Although they had lost some of the larger blooms to a late frost, I was assured that at this time of year “the rhododendrons go off like
firecrackers!” I told her I would keep my head down and wear protective eyewear. In exchange for €6, I was given ticket No. 008466, a descriptive brochure, and instructions to proceed to the car park “six or seven kilometres down the way.” It was two kilometres. Perhaps my host hadn’t fully come to terms with the metric system.

The gardens are described as “a supreme expression of gardening in the Robinsonian manner,” which, I gather, means an amalgamation of native and exotic plants with little concern for formality. This was a spot without pretension, without artifice, and without any other visitors. In a walled garden rich in small surprises, I was greeted by the din of birdsong. Backswimmers dodged patches of duckweed in a water feature, and low topiary showed the results of loving attention. I wandered past cedar, magnolia, and arbutus, skipped between patches of bamboo and carpets of ivy, and slipped by a couple of skulking Ring-necked Pheasants. A few steps later I found a couple of shotgun casings, and wondered if they had been used to nab a pheasant for a traditional Christmas dinner.

I can imagine some visitors complaining that there is nothing to do at Annes Grove. There are no interpretive signs, no labels, no interactive displays, no café, and no gift shop. To me this was part of the site’s great joy. All alone, I was reluctant to tread too heavily, and even the click of my camera’s shutter seemed thunderous.

But click I did. The previous day’s encounter with
Rhododendron ponticum
hadn’t even hinted at the variety available in the world of rhododendrons. From twiggy saplings through vast shrubs and on to towering trees. New words will have to be coined to describe the range of colours and hues of rhododendron flowers, all vying for the attention of pollinators in the dappled morning light. I was surrounded by tiny flowers in small bunches and huge flowers in enormous displays.

Then I traipsed down the hillside, through a bog, and on to the Awbeg River, which was in no special hurry to get anywhere. I spotted trout (
breac
) lazily holding their position in the current. They were brown spotted fingers against the brown rocky riverbed, and as they twisted they provided silvery flashes from scales on their
backs. I took them to be rainbow trout, one of about a dozen freshwater fish species introduced to Ireland.

I started to envy the trout. Before departing Ireland, I still had to find lunch in Castletownroche, and would then have to face a five-kilometre tailback at Fermoy brought on by roadworks. Interchange construction at Cork city (Corcaigh) meant that all of my road maps would be useless. I would then have to navigate the streets of Kinsale (Cionn tSáile), never designed for vehicular traffic, and battle for the one parking spot that hadn’t already been nabbed, before searching for Ireland’s best-hidden hotel. The next morning I would face a hellish delay brought on by crushing fog at Cork airport, requiring travellers to catch coaches to connecting flights in Kerry and Dublin. In contrast, with the least flicks of their tails, trout in Awbeg River could remain in one spot, facing the current, and have everything of value float downstream to them.

CHAPTER FOUR
The Last of the Mynas

REASON NUMBER FOUR FOR INTRODUCING A FOREIGN SPECIES: BECAUSE I WANT TO TAKE MY PET ALONG WHEN I LEAVE HOME.

I
HAD A ROMANTIC VISION
of what it would be like to engage in a quest for Crested Mynas in Vancouver. My wife, Lisa, and I would drive west out of Calgary on a crisp early autumn day and head for the Rocky Mountains in our steel-grey Land Rover, completely ignoring the fact that to drive a Land Rover we would have to steal one. We would stare in rapture at stands of larch, with their needles turning gold against the backdrop of rich green lodgepole pine. We would drive through the southeastern mountains of British Columbia, marvelling at the early snow in Rogers Pass, all of it piled neatly at the side of the road. Because it was a romantic vision with precious little regard for reality, the town of Golden wouldn’t be blanketed in fog, the vegetation around Kamloops would be verdant, and all of the glacial motorhomes would have gone back to Saskatchewan. Arriving in Vancouver, we would seek out the Crested Myna in the ancient Douglas-fir forests of Burnaby, Richmond, and New Westminster. Hundreds of mynas would dart to and fro, singing sweetly, and engage us with their plumage of gold, azure, and flame, and their precision aerobatics.

Life is rarely as attractive as my romantic visions. First off,
Crested Mynas are not multicoloured, unless “multi” means two, and “colour” means black and white. To get a sense of Crested Mynas, imagine a crow that came out of the clothes dryer a little smaller than it went in, or a starling that had never heard of Jenny Craig. Dab a little whiteout on its wings, allow it a really bad hair day, and you have got a Crested Myna. Although they are technically songbirds, it takes a great leap of imagination to describe their shrieking, screeching utterances as songs.

Second, whatever majestic Douglas-fir forests once existed on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have long since been cut down and replaced by hoards of high-rise apartments, fast-food restaurants, and noisy highways. Not that it really mattered; as I was about to see, Crested Mynas in Vancouver have never been really big on beautiful habitat.

Finally, I knew that Vancouver Crested Mynas, the only population in North America, had been in steady decline for quite some time. What I hadn’t realized was just how close they were to local extinction. Word came to me through Vancouver contacts that if I wanted to see Crested Mynas, I had bloody well better hurry up, as they weren’t doing very well at all. And so, instead of a lovely autumn drive through the mountains with my wife, I found myself in a boarding lounge at Calgary International Airport, looking out the window at a Boeing 737–700 surrounded by a February snowstorm, while trying to ignore the promise of freezing rain.

T
HE CRESTED MYNA
is endemic to China, Vietnam, and a few of the smaller and potentially more dangerous nations in Southeast Asia, where they are presumably doing quite well, thank you very much. As far as anyone knows, they were brought to Vancouver as pets by Chinese immigrants in the 1890s. But nothing remains captive forever. When it comes to mynas in Vancouver, some people imagine an accidental escape, while others speak of an ornery ship’s captain or an insane customs agent who intentionally let them go. My own pet theory is that a couple of birds outlived their owner, and the family, growing tired of their raucous din, tossed them out to fend
for themselves. In any case, one or possibly two pairs of mynas managed to establish themselves in the wilds of metropolitan Vancouver in the dying years of the nineteenth century. Considering the City of Vancouver itself wasn’t incorporated until 1886, mynas must surely have some claim to landed immigrant status.

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