To full understand the overall ‘feel’ of St. Catherine’s Park, it is useful to have an idea of the rise of the large estate house in the 18th and 19th centuries. Typically, these ornate country houses, built in a traditional Palladian style, were surrounded by large estates or demesnes. The fashion of the period was to create ‘natural-looking’ landscapes using carefully planted belts of trees, and the creation of lakes and ponds. One of the best-known creators of such man-made landscapes was Capability Brown.
Whilst St. Catherine’s may not be on the scale or ambition of even the nearby demesnes of Castletown House and Carton Estate, they nonetheless still have elements of managed and planted woodland, even if some of this woodland is much older than the Georgian period. Due to the longevity of some of the woods around the river, especially on the north bank in Fingal, and that overlooking Leixlip, St. Catherine’s Wood may be classified as ancient woodland, making it a site of extreme importance for conservation. It’s also worth noting that St. Catherine’s Park has a history of coppicing: the practice of managing certain species such as Hazel, whereby the tree is routinely cut back near to its base. This encourages the growth of many long, slim shoots that are perfect for weaving fences and wattle panels. This is an ancient woodland tradition and rather than kill the tree, it can prolong their lifespan by many multiples.
The existence of a number of ancient woodland indicator species (Peterken, 1979, Rackham, 1980) in the ground flora also supports the status of St Catherine’s as ancient woodland (Bohan, 1998).
This paragraph is a direct quote from the Fingal Woodland Flora Survey by Shawn McCourt and Dr. Daniel Kelly, Botany Department, School of Natural Sciences, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin 2. The link will download the full PDF survey of all of Fingal’s woodland. (4.1MB)
There are several records of endangered or rare flowers within St. Catherine’s, including Hairy St. John’s Wort (Hypericum hirsutum), Yellow Archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdelon ssp. montanum), Green Figwort (Scrophularia umbrosa) and Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria).
We often overlook trees in favour of wildflowers, but the park contains some fine, mature woodland that’s worth studying. There are plenty of Beech and Ash trees, along with Horse Chestnut, Sycamore, Hazel, Yew and Holly. Other trees include Silver Birch, Pedunculate Oak, Common Lime, Spanish Chestnut, Small-leaved Elm and Wych Elm, and some pine and fir species. In the hedgerows, you will find common natives such as Elder, Spindle, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and of course, everyone’s favourite, Brambles. Well, they are in Autumn when you can pick the berries. At other times of the year they can snag the unwary walker.
Trees that like moist soils can be found here too, especially nearer the river, including Poplar, Alder and Willow.
Woodlands, especially those of an ancient nature, support a rich under-storey of native wildlife flowers that specialise in Springtime flowering. This is to capitalise on the light levels before the deciduous tree canopy leaf layer closes in during Summer. Classic woodland flowers include Lesser Celandine, Dog Violet, Primrose and Bluebell, but perhaps the most glorious sight in St. Catherine’s Wood in Spring are the dense carpets of Wood Anemone.
Dotted amongst the nodding white heads of the anemones are Wild Garlic, or Ramsons. These give out a very distinctive odour, as their name suggests. Wild Arum are also quite distinctive, and in Autumn, put on a show of bright red cluster of berries known colloquially as Devil’s Poker. Please note, these berries are poisonous!
In the hedgerows in Summer, you will find several pretty white flowering plants. There are Greater Stitchworts, and also Woodruff. The attractive small, blue flowers are most likely to Germander Speedwell.
Why not take a guide book with you next time you visit St. Catherine’s? Kids love getting out and collecting leaves, nuts and berries. You can walk through the woods and see how many tree species you can identify, and in the Spring and Summer months, have fun spotting as many flowers as you can. Once you are comfortable telling your Herb Robert from your Herb Bennet, you can move on to more challenging things, such as ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi.
Hedge Woundwort, Ground Ivy, Goosegrass, Chickweed, Wild Strawberry, Cinquefoil, Bush Vetch… there are so many plants in the park that we can’t list them all.
There are one or two problematic species within the woodlands. The main problem is Cherry Laurel. It is similar in shape and size to some of the Rhododendrons that are causing alarm in native woodlands across the country. It was once a widely planted tree, as it is an evergreen broadleaf; an uncommon thing in Irish flora. It offered ideal cover for game birds. However, it is not native, and once it takes hold, it can be hard to eradicate, and as it keeps its leaf cover all year, it prevents the woodland floor from developing naturally, and all undergrowth is largely killed off.
Snowberry can also be found in the woods, in patches in Fingal, and near the river in South County Dublin. It is not as much of a nuisance plant as Cherry Laurel, but again, it is not native, and chokes out any other growth. The river brings with it some non-natives too. The most showy are the Himalayan Balsams, most visible near the south bank of the Liffey above the weir. There are also some bamboo growing in the woods on the north bank, opposite, and recently, Wolfsbane (or Monkshood) was spotted very near the river’s edge, close to the weir. This is a highly poisonous plant. To date, there are no records of Giant Hogweed in the area.
From the survey mentioned above, these are the main aims for the rejuvenation of St. Catherine’s Wood:
There has been some progress to date, though much of the Cherry Laurel remains, as does the Snowberry. The paths have been developed, and the fencing of these has discouraged foot traffic through the main woodland areas. But there is more to do to manage the woodland. The creation of the wet meadow by diverting a small stream has been a success, and the fenced area near the river has been grazed by the wonderfully photogenic Highland Cattle recently.
These are all aims and initiatives of Fingal County Council, who manage the largest part of the park.
The woodlands support a range of native Irish animals. The most obvious are the Grey Squirrels, who have become less shy of late, as they get used to the many passers-by. They can be found throughout the park but are most often found by the woods near the river. Most of our wild mammals are nocturnal, which means they are most active late at night or very early in the morning. These include Badgers and Foxes. Otters have been found along the river, and there have been recent sightings of Mink. Rabbits too are now a feature of the park.
The diversity offered by St. Catherine’s means you can find woodland species close to open grassland species, and of course, the river also supports a wide range of animals, insects and fish. Bats are another interesting attraction, and although it may take an expert with special listening equipment to tell them apart, you can often see bats on a summer evening, huning for insects. The wet meadow on the north bank is a particualrly good spot.
It is not possible to list all the birdlife that calls the park home. Of most interest are the Buzzards and Ravens; relatively recent arrivals, and also the Little Egret – once a very rare sight in Ireland, and Jays, especially in the oaks above the weir. Of course, you can always find our more common birds such as Herons, Rooks, Jackdaws, Blackbirds, Pigeons, Robins, Wrens and various finches and tits on even a short walk in the park. And if you are patient, you can see a Kingfisher skimming along the river surface, or of a late evening stroll, hear an owl in the woods.
There are countless insects to be found too, if you are willing to look. In the woodlands, you can witness how old wood and leaves are broken down by weather, decay and a host of hungry creepy-crawlies such as woodlice. Fear not! There’s not much in an Irish woodland that will do you harm. Of course, most folks are happier to leave the bugs and beasties (such as spiders, slugs, worms, centipedes and millipedes) to go about their business, and if it’s insects they want to see, they would rather marvel at a butterfly. Of course, these are all here too. the open grassland is always alive with common Irish species such as Small Tortoiseshell, Common White, Peacock, Meadow Brown and Speckled Wood.
Nearer to the river you will find dragonflies and damselflies. These species can be tricky to identify without a good guide book, and a subject that will sit still long enough for you to study it; something that doesn’t happen too often with these large and fascinating insects that are always on the move. You can find hawkers, darters and chasers along by the Liffey. Dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched, while the smaller damselflies rest with their wings folded behind them.
Read this interesting article which mentions some of the park’s wildlife: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/go-walk-st-catherine-s-park-co-dublin-1.1525297