A Hare’s Tale

A country for hares . . . The idyllic landscape that surrounds us is a haven for Nature in all her moods and varieties, including the human intervention of agriculture (above). Regular non-human visitors to our garden at Nead an Iolair which is, after all, just a slightly tamed piece of the natural landscape, provide a constant source of interest and entertainment, as we have demonstrated in previous posts, including this one.

This summer of 2018 has been exceptionally dry – our usually green sward, and the view beyond (above), turned the colour of straw instead of verdant green. When the rains started a couple of weeks ago it didn’t take long for things to get back to normal (below), and the fresh green shoots of grass attracted an unusual, but most welcome, visitor.

Here he is: Berehert the Hare. He’s young, probably about half adult size, but completely independent. Leverets are born fully developed – furred with open eyes, and lead a mainly solitary life. Hares can run faster than any other European land mammal – an amazing 37 body lengths a second. For comparison, Cheetahs can only manage 23 body lengths per second. It’s their speed that can keep them safe: they can easily outrun a single greyhound but, unfortunately, humankind makes the odds most unfair by setting two or more dogs against them in hunting and coursing which, unbelievably, are legal in Ireland, even though the conservation prospects of the Irish Hare are considered ‘very poor’ under the Berne Convention and EU Directive 92/43 Annex V see page 104. There have been attempts to change this bizarre situation – so far unsuccessful: you might like to tackle your own TD next time there’s an election coming up.

Berehert (have a look here to see where his name comes from) stayed around our garden for three days, and this provided an unprecedented opportunity (for me, anyway) to closely observe the animal’s characteristics and behaviour. In the picture above, where he’s looking a little glum on our terrace in the rain, you can see his wonderful russet colouring and his very long legs, particularly the hind ones. These enable him to take great leaps – fully grown he can jump four and a half metres from a standing start in any direction. This is another protection mechanism: if a hare is approached or surrounded by predators – usually dogs – he’ll wait until they close in on him and then jump that distance and run off. The dogs, which rely on scent more than sight, are completely confused and by the time they sort out where he’s gone, he has (hopefully) vanished.

Fortunately, Nead an Iolair’s resident greyhounds (which came with the house) wouldn’t be much use in the chase: they certainly didn’t seem to deter our visiting hare. Young Berehert did everything which was expected of him while I was watching. He allowed me to get quite close to him – and was perfectly aware that I was there, then suddenly he leapt up and was away, a gangly confusion of legs and ears. But he only went as far as the next patch of new green shoots. Here he is, nibbling away . . .

Hares are restless animals: they don’t stay in one place for very long, and it’s quite normal for them to range over 2km at a time when foraging. Berehert is still out there somewhere, and I’m hoping that he will revisit us occasionally. I’d rather not dwell on the fairly short average life span of hares in the wild (four to nine years) and the fact that only one in five leverets survives their first year. For our continuing education in the natural world of wild West Cork we will have to rely on our more regular and stable visitors: Finnbarr the Pheasant’s family and the myriad of small birds who populate our feeders, not to mention the wide variety of insect life and, in these shortening evenings, the colony of Common Pipistrelle Bats who are busily out hunting: if you think you don’t like bats, just bear in mind that each one can eat around 3,500 small insects, such as midges, in one night.

Thank you, Finola, for all those excellent photographs of Berehert: not the easiest of animals to capture on film!

Robert’s Favourite Posts

We had an unexpected – and unsolicited – accolade in the Irish Examiner last weekend! Tommy Barker wrote, in an article about Rossbrin (pictured above): “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website, http://www.roaringwaterjournal.com, by Rossbrin residents Robert Harris and Finola Finlay is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” Of course, we went straight to our bookshelves to dip into our copy of Praeger’s The Way That I Went – An Irishman In Ireland, first published in 1937. Here’s an extract:

…At the southern end of this land of great mountain promontories, in West Cork, you find yourself in a little-known and tourist-free region of much charm. You stay on Sherkin Island (Inis Oircín, little pig’s island) or Cape Clear Island, at Schull (Scoil, a school) or far out at Crookhaven: and you walk and boat and fish and lounge and bathe, and enjoy the glorious air and sea; towns and trams and telephones seem like bad dreams, or like fugitive glimpses of an earlier and inferior existence. A meandering railway penetrates to Schull, and roads are as good as you could expect them to be in so lonely a country. All is furzy heath and rocky knolls, little fields and white cottages and illimitable sea, foam-rimmed where it meets the land, its horizon broken only by the fantastic fragment of rock crowned by a tall lighthouse which is the famous Fastnet…

Yes – that’s our West Cork alright (above is a view of the Mizen taken from Mount Gabriel). We hope that, over five years of writing this journal, we have indeed given a good account of this wonderful place which we are privileged to call ‘home’. Certainly, there is nowhere we would rather be. But Roaringwater Journal has not just been about West Cork: we have covered a fair bit of Irish culture and history as well. Last week’s post set out the six most popular articles that we have written in terms of readership numbers; today we are both reviewing our own personal favourites (see Finola’s here) and there is lots to choose from: 466 posts to date! All of them are listed by category in the Navigation pages.

Foremost in my own mind in terms of personal satisfaction is the series I wrote last year: Green & Silver. There have been nine posts in all, starting with my review of a book which I first read in 1963, when I won it as an essay-writing prize at school. The book, Green & Silver, told the story of a journey around the Irish canal system in 1946 (the year I was born), undertaken by an English engineer and writer, L T C ‘Tom’ Rolt and his wife, Angela. When I wrote the review 70 years had passed since the Rolts made that journey. Finola and I conceived the idea of retracing the steps of the Rolts, although not by boat: we drove and walked. It was to be an exercise in tracking the passing of time. We would find the location of every photograph that Angela Rolt had taken in 1946, and take a new one, so that we could compare the changes that had occurred over seven decades. There were many: the canals themselves, which were then near-derelict in places have now been well restored, and the island of Ireland has today an amazing but probably under-appreciated asset: a cross-border system of navigable waterways which connects Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Belfast and Coleraine.

Canal port: Richmond Harbour, Co Longford. Upper picture taken by Angela Rolt in 1946; lower picture, the same view taken 70 years on

I have always had an obsession with wildlife, and one of my favourite posts summarises what wonderful natural things we have all around us here: The Wild  Side. We have written about the birds – choughs, eagles, sparrowhawks – and the little ones that come to our feeder and keep us entertained.

We will never forget our good friend Ferdia, who arrived on our doorstep on the day we moved into Nead an Iolair, and was a regular visitor (usually daily) over several years. Sadly, foxes don’t live for long in the wild, and he has now passed away. He was a very fine dog-fox and was undoubtedly the head of a large family. We hoped that one of his offspring might have taken his place on our terrace, but I suppose he just could never be replaced.

Of course, the pasture and coastline that surrounds us has fine creatures of the domesticated variety, too! (left and right below).

I have family roots in Cornwall and, during my time living here, I have become aware of many links between that westernmost peninsula of Britain and West Cork. In fact, those links go back into prehistory: in the Bronze Age – three and a half thousand years ago – copper was mined on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – a stone’s throw from where we live – and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to make the all-important ‘supermetal’ of Bronze. Another link which I was so pleased to find was that Cornwall’s Patron Saint – St Piran – was actually born and brought up on Cape Clear – the island we look out to across Roaringwater Bay. Read all about it here.

The little church at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall (now inundated by sand) marks the spot where St Ciarán from Cape Clear landed to start his mission. Because of a difference in the Irish and Cornish languages, he became known as St Piran over there. He lived to the age of 208!

Stirring up those links led to my life being taken over in the summer of this year by organising (together with Ann Davoren and the team at the West Cork Arts Centre) an exhibition of the work of three contemporary Cornish artists which was held in Uillinn, Skibbereen’s amazing new gallery. The exhibition ran with the title of West meets West and heralds future collaborations and visits to Cornwall by West Cork artists. This link opens the series of posts that report on all this.

My time here in West Cork – and in Ireland – has heightened my interest in all things medieval, particularly architecture. Finola has written a highly researched and detailed series on the Irish Romanesque style, and our travels to carry out this research have been enjoyable and instructive. I have taken a liking to High Crosses, most of them probably over a thousand years old. They are always found in the context of fascinating early ecclesiastical sites. If you want to know more, have a look at the posts: so far we have explored Moone (above), Durrow (below), Monasterboice, and Castledermot. There are many more to add to this list – and to keep us busy over the next few years.

That’s quite enough for one post! It would be possible to write several on how we have been inspired by our explorations in search of material. Somehow, though, our hearts always come back to our very own piece of Irish soil: Nead an Iolair (Nest of the Eagles). Here it is, and here are the eagles flying over it! You’ll find more about them here.

Falconry Fantasy

I’ve waited a whole life for this – the chance to be a falconer, if only for a moment.

Ever since I read T H White’s The Once and Future King, it’s been a fantasy of mine to interact with one of those magnificent hunting birds that he described so well. A couple of weeks ago, at Adare Manor, Robert and I got a chance to finally live that dream – yes, he read the same book and loved it just as much as I had. T H White was a falconer himself, although not a very successful one. The treat was part of a couple of days stay at Adare Manor – Robert’s post describes this fascinating place in wonderful detail.

This falcon is happier and calmer with his hood on

Our falconer at Adare Manor was Susan Kirwan, one of the team at Adare Country Pursuits. What she doesn’t know about birds would fit on a postcard. She trained her first bird, a jackdaw, at the age of nine, and was hooked. Now she shares her knowledge and her love of birds with those of us who have admired from afar but have never had an opportunity to get up close.

Susan has Saoirse, the American Bald Eagle, show off her wings

She spent the morning with us, handling each bird in turn and giving us an education on each one – habitat, habits, hunting style, personality, peculiarities, nutrition, feathers, weight – it was in-depth and fascinating. There wasn’t a question we asked that she couldn’t answer. She has spent her life studying and living with these birds.

All of the birds wore jesses (ankle leathers) and Susan showed us how to hold our gauntlets and our fingers to secure a bird once on the glove. She encouraged us to speak in a calm voice and not to betray nervousness – birds are excellent at picking up on human emotions.

Tiny, the White Faced Scopes Owl, awaits her turn with us

Some of the birds were trained to fly from perch to perch, attached to a ‘creance’ or long line. Each has a optimal weight for flying and it’s essential to keep it there, so weighing and inspecting is part of the daily routine. Food must be as close as possible to what they would eat in the wild, to preserve the level of roughage and protein. Falconry, especially when you keep several birds, is a full-time job.

Caesar is a Common Buzzard, which is a native species in Ireland

Owls, although excellent hunters for themselves, don’t make the greatest falconry hunters. However, they are often brought to Susan as motherless chicks and she becomes their parent, as they imprint readily on a human. Susan told us that the Harry Potter series started a trend among some young people of capturing owls ‘to train’ but of course this is almost impossible for an amateur, so that is how some birds have come to her aviary.

Noddy, a Dark Breasted Barn Own, has beautiful feathers and colouring

Oscar, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, has a good old ruffle

Raising an imprinted bird involves a particular set of skills and deep knowledge of the species. Susan is a certified falconer and has taken all the courses she can find to develop her skills. It was obvious, in the way she talked to and handled her birds how much she loved them.

Top: I’m obviously a ‘natural’ at this! Bottom: Well, maybe not quite yet

It was a thrill to be so close to a bald eagle. Living in Canada, I had many opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in the wild, but I had never seen one as close up as I did at Adare. Saoirse is not quite four yet, and it takes a full four years for a bald eagle to mature and to grow both the white head and the white tail. Saoirse’s tail was there, but her head was at the salt-and-pepper stage that women of my age can relate to.

The Harris Hawk – ours was called Felix – is considered the easiest hunting bird to train because of its laid-back attitude to life and its natural ability to interact with humans. The highlight of our session came when Susan let Felix loose to fly to a high perch, and then called him down to land on our glove.

What a feeling! This IS a wild bird – Susan affixed a locator transmitter to its leg before we started so that if Felix took it into his head to fly away she could track him through the woods. She described how a falconer would track a bird before locators were used – it involved standing very still and tuning in to the sounds of the forest. Other birds would react to the sudden appearance of a hawk or falcon and the falconer would follow the sound-clues to his bird.

I learned that Oscar’s tufts aren’t his ears and that they don’t always stand up like this

We were extremely lucky to have Susan and her birds all to ourselves that morning – not sure how often that happens! But if you get a chance, don’t pass up an opportunity like this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank you, Susan – you’ve made some old T H White fans very happy!

See you again, Tiny!

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was