The Wild Side


Up here in Nead an Iolair, in the townland of Cappaghglass, we luxuriate in the nature all around us. Our house was built in the 1980s on a piece of land which had belonged to the successors of the mining company – the copper mines were active for a few generations in the 19th century both here and on Horse Island, just across the water. The post-industrial landscape which surrounds us is alive: small, stone-enclosed fields are grazed by cattle, ponies and a few goats while in equal measure are large tracts of gorse, heather and rock. Here and there are the remains of the mine workings – a stump of a chimney, fenced-off and walled shafts, quarries, ruined workshops and cottages: the architecture of abandonment.

horse on horizon

Nick's Goat

nead birds

It seems to me that our house interrupts nature, with our lawns, our haggard, stone terrace, hedges and fences, but nature is well able to adapt and cope. Of course, we encourage this: we enthusiastically nurture all the little birds that visit our feeders – and the big ones: rooks, pheasants, magpies: they all get their share. And there are those that don’t come to the feeders but nevertheless forage the land – choughs (which perch on our roof and shout out their names – cheough – cheough… before flying off to give us an endless and entertaining display of dizzying acrobatics), starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and – always on a Sunday – Spiro the sparrowhawk who unsuccessfully dive-bombs the feeder, scattering – but never catching – the small birds. After the effort he rests on one leg on the low terrace wall and stares thoughtfully out to the Cove.

Can YOU see it?

Chough on the post


From The Galleries

Michael, whose family has farmed the fields around us for generations, tells us that the land above us is known as The Galleries – possibly because there is such a spectacular view to be had from these fields to Rossbrin below us and to the islands of Roaringwater Bay beyond. The Cove itself is a paradise for the waders, especially at low tide, and for crustaceous life in the rock pools.

Muddy shanks

Curved beak

All around are the hedgerows that, in the spring, summer and autumn, support a wealth of wildflowers. In turn these are the haunt of nectar-seeking insects, especially bees and butterflies.

We are visited by four-legged mammals in all shapes and sizes: I’m pleased to see some of the decimated rabbit population returning after a recurrence of myxomatosis these past couple of years. We don’t get hares in the immediate neighbourhood: they seldom mix with the smaller Leporidae, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of them from the road that goes down to the village. Rats, mice and shrews are never far away, but are kept under control by our larger visitors – feral cats and foxes. Our own Ferdia has gone from us during this past year – he was an ancient fox who had made a pact with the human world: I’ll sit picturesquely on your terrace and entertain you provided you keep the food scraps coming – we did, of course. His descendants make fleeting visits, passing through but, as yet, never pausing to make our acquaintance.

Ferdia's Eyes

Bunny eyes a daisy

When it comes to observation of the natural world there’s never a dull moment here. We are fortunate that some globally threatened species seem to thrive around us – curlews can always be seen by the water, for example. The small birds crowd in, especially when I refill the feeders: sometimes we have to fight our way through the melee when we want to go out. It’s a great way to live, and a great place to live in. Thank you, Mother Nature.

RH and friend

Photographs (from the top down): Tortoiseshell butterfly; Cappaghglass field; Nick’s goat; Nead an Iolair with starlings; greenfinches; chough on our gatepost; Spiro the sparrowhawk; view across Roaringwater Bay from The Galleries; muddy shanks; curlew in the Cove; 2 x bees; Ferdia the fox; rabbit; Nead bird feeder with goldfinches, greenfinch, bluetits and great tit – and pheasant; Robert and friends; heron hairdo. Grateful thanks to Finola for many of these pics

Heron Mullet

Bird Diary

birds group wb

Since we started this blog, back in 2012, I have regularly written posts on the many bird varieties which we have around us on the coast of Roaringwater Bay. There are lots to add! Watch out for more entries in the future which will include some of our new arrivals. In the garden of Nead an Iolair the other day we were surprised by a male Sparrowhawk perched on the wall: the small birds all kept well away! Recently we’ve been visited by Jays, too – someone else the smaller birds shun, as it is partial to stealing eggs and young.


Today I’m going to recap on our feathered companions up here. Remember – if you see something printed in blue on these posts you can click on it and it will link you to a new page on the subject mentioned.

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Loons (sketches by Richard Allen)

Almost a year ago I talked about the Great Northern Diver – or The Loon, as it is called in Canada. It’s only one of the many wading and shore birds which visit the unspoilt coastline in these parts. Watch out for future posts on Oystercatchers (which have already received a brief mention), Curlews, Gulls and Ducks, to name but a few.

Charm of Goldfinches - photo by Maurice Baker

Charm of Goldfinches – photo by Maurice Baker

In November of last year I discussed the Charm of Goldfinches which visited the bird feeders in our garden. We saw nothing of them through the summer – in fact they were absent until this November, when a whole flock suddenly descended upon us in one day: now they are regular attenders again.

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

Fly-past at Ard Glas!

The very first bird post that I put on the blog was Aviation – and this was when we were renting Ard Glas. That was a general review of the birds that came to our luxurious new bird table which Danny made for us – now sadly demolished by Ferdia the Fox who is as fond of peanuts as the birds are…


Since then I have introduced you to Old Nog the Heron – who flies over us quite frequently, made a passing reference to the Swans who live below us in the Cove (but see more below), and set out a whole lot of fact and folklore about the wonderful Barnacle Goose.

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

Legend of the Barnacle Goose

My favourite birds of all here are the Choughs. This is because they had died out in my home county of Cornwall (where they appeared on the coat-of-arms) when I lived there, although a programme to reintroduce them was started a few years ago and I was delighted to see a pair foraging on the coastline there just before I left. Imagine how pleased I was to discover that Choughs are resident all around Nead an Iolair! They perch on our roof, forage on our rocks and generally make themselves known to us through their distinctive cry of Cheeeeough

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

Choughs over Nead an Iolair

The seasonal bird of the moment is the little Wren. On St Stephen’s Day (26 December) this – the King of all the birds – has to take cover, because he is being hunted!

Troglodytes troglodytes

Troglodytes troglodytes

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Wren Boys in Cork (Maclise 1843) and drawing by Jack Yeats

Amongst many other creatures, Swans are depicted in the Honan Chapel – that gloriously effusive celebration of stained glass and mosaic art.

Honan Chapel Swans

Honan Chapel Swans

They are also well represented in Irish folklore – most prominently in the saga of The Children of Lir. Here the enchanted children are destined to live out one of their fates – 300 years in the cold, inhospitable Sea of Moyle:


Old Nog

The Heron Family - a 19th century print

The Heron Family – a 19th century print

Here at Nead an Iolair we are on a flight-path. Not for Eagles – which you might expect (Nead an Iolair means Nest of the Eagle) – but for Herons. I have often watched one of these most prehistoric seeming of birds lazily flapping its way across our view, apparently from the hills behind us, towards the islands in front – no doubt heading for its shallow water fishing grounds. Yesterday I saw the Heron being mobbed persistently by Crows – presumably worried about their eggs and young – but our Old Nog ignored the harrying and continued stolidly on his way. Herons roost in trees – and do so communally: I would like to search out the Heronry, which would be a rich experience in both sound and smell.

A 'Tarka' edition illustrated by Tunnicliffe

A ‘Tarka’ edition illustrated by Tunnicliffe

Old Nog – there’s a good name for this character. It comes from Tarka the Otter, probably the most famous book by Henry Williamson – a master nature writer and novelist who lived from 1895 to 1977, spending many of those years in Devon. The book – winner of the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1928, and never out of print since it was published – opens with these lines:

…Twilight upon meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and Old Nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down the estuary. A whiteness drifting above the sere reeds of the riverside, for the owl had flown from under the middle arch of the stone bridge that once carried the canal across the river…

Henry Williamson

Henry Williamson

The story of Tarka unfolds in places I know well: I was in Devon for nearly four decades before I came here to Ireland. The stone bridge that once carried the canal across the river is still there, not far from where I once lived: the old aqueduct on the Rolle Canal over the Torridge now carries the driveway to a private house. Tarka’s travels took him right up to the heart of Dartmoor: to Cranmere Pool, close by which stand, today, the ruins of an old farm. This was once described (by William Crossing the Dartnoor writer) as ‘the remotest house in England’. My mother’s grandmother was born and raised there in the nineteenth century, one of fourteen children from a single generation. The name Cranmere comes from ‘mere of the Crane’, and the Crane was and still is a name often given, in England and Ireland, to the Heron.

Home of my forebears: Teignhead, Dartmoor (Strutt 1828)

Home of my forebears: Teignhead, Dartmoor (Strutt 1828)

Having established, perhaps somewhat tenuously, my own relationship to the Heron, I will enlarge upon the bird’s place in folklore and tradition. The Heron was once a regular dish on the English medieval banqueting table: as the property of the crown, heavy fines were levied on anyone caught poaching the bird, while in Scotland the penalty was amputation of the right hand. From observations of the bird standing still for hours in shallow water waiting patiently for its lunch to pass within range of its sharp bill, anglers assumed that the Heron’s feet had some means of attracting the fish towards it, and it was once a custom for the fisherman to carry a Heron’s foot for luck, but also to coat the fishing line with Heron’s fat and a noxious mixture made from boiled Heron’s claws.

Aesop penned a fable about the Heron and the Fox: Fox invites the Heron to dinner but only provides a shallow plate of soup which the bird is unable to partake of because of its long beak. In retaliation, Heron invites Fox, and provides the food in a bottle with a long narrow neck: Fox is unable to share in this food. The moral? ‘One bad turn deserves another’.

Fox and Heron - Frans Snyder 1657

Fox and Heron – Frans Snyder 1657

I have never successfully photographed a Heron, but you can see some excellent pictures in the portfolio of Sheena Jolley – a professional wildlife photographer who lives not far away from here, in Schull. And here’s another – by our friend Lisa who lives out on the Sheeps Head.

In Ireland the Heron is known as Corr reisc or Corr-ghrian (crying Crane). Although a common bird, I have found no specifically Irish folktale which includes Herons: if you know of one I would be delighted to hear it. There are some superstitions: if a Heron lands on your house you will have good luck, and if some of its plumage floats down to you – then you will have amazing luck! So, come on Old Nog – how about an occasional perch on the roof of Nead an Iolair? And, while you’re at it, throw out a few feathers as well… Of course, if there are more than one of you we will be able to say …there goes a siege of Herons…! 

heron stamp