FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE EVENING ECHO. 27TH FEBRUARY, 2018
“Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.
Go Coillte Mach rachad
ní stopfaidh me choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos
i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.”
Raftery, of course, when he penned those lines that we all learned at school, had only his native Kiltimagh and Mayo in mind. It still is quite apt for me even though Mayo is the farthest place from my thoughts. My mind, instead, is focussed firmly on the Seven Heads, at the eastern end of West Cork as I gaze out towards the sea, across the lush green fields and the few brown ones scattered here and there since the crop they grew through 2017 was harvested.
Being a ‘town-boy’ I don’t know a lot about farming except the bits and pieces I picked up on visits to the farms of uncles and aunts; from watching the livestock fairs as they spilled over from “The Fairfield” onto the streets of our small market town; observed the weekly market every Friday; the annual flax market and the comings and goings to the local mill, which was very much part of our street. The regular parade of horses (sometimes donkeys) and carts every morning to and from the creamery played a part too.
The farmers and their wives and families came to town for whatever business they needed to attend to in their ponies/horses and traps or carts but there were no parking areas for such vehicles as there are now for cars. Instead the animals were tethered to convenient ESB poles or telegraph poles, railings or even the branches of trees overhanging the streets from gardens that were, usually, invisible behind high walls. I’ll put it as politely as I can; one was almost as certain of standing in ‘smelly stuff’ as one crossed the street just the same as if one was crossing a busy farmyard.
With the little knowledge that I have I have been eagerly anticipating Spring. From the front door of my house, which is on an elevated position, I can see to the sea about 1.5 km. away. I have a vista of almost 180 degrees. Within that area I can see about 150 fields of various sizes, different fertility and different colours, though the colour is predominently a vivid, rich green. I tried to count the fields recently but soon lost count and my count is now partly based on that effort at counting and a rough estimate. I can see at least 30 homes and several clusters of farm buildings. Within the area of my view there are a number of dairy herds.
As Winter approached the landscape became very quiet. With the few crops harvested there was very little work going on on the land. Sometimes on rare occasions a tractor would appear in a field and make its way round and round, spreading artificial fertiliser. Some farmers seemed to take a cutting of grass much later into the year than I had expected and in one field, close to the village, barley that had been badly ‘lodged’ was finally cut but the straw was left to deteriorate into the ground on which it lay. For those who don’t know, ‘lodging’ is what happens when adverse weather and crop conditions result in the bending over of the stems near the ground level in grain crops, which makes them very difficult to harvest and can dramatically reduce yield.
Gradually the animals began to disappear from view and by the 1st November none were to be seen, both beef cattle and the dairy herds. They were all gone indoors where they would shelter from the harsher elements of winter and where they would be fed with whatever feed the farmer had harvested or bought in. Ocassionally I could see a tractor moving a few large bales of silage but apart from that there was little activity.
The changing weather brought other kinds of activity. On fine days a big flock of crows (I refuse to use the collective noun “a murder” because it makes no sense.) would fly in the first daylight from the east, over my house, and in the evenings they would drift back again in smaller flocks. Wet or even just damp weather brought the seagulls and the availability of anything they could possibly eat brought a couple of magpies.
The magpies chattered and hopped about and when hit by the occasional winter sunbeam their beautiful coats shone in various shades of dark blue and black. Why do people hate them? I think they are quite beautiful. I know, I know, I know; “One for bad luck …..” etc but if you see one then just look around and you will almost always see another.
Best of all I love to see the goldfinches and here I can accept the collective noun because they are indeed “a charm”, just to see then fly in in undulating flight, rising and falling as they search the fields for thistles or other plants with abundant seeds. The red heads are indeed a beautiful feature but the yellow of the wings, expecially in flight, are like spun gold.
Since I moved to West Cork, however, I have discovered the buzzards. I reckon there are maybe three or four of them around my area, hardly enough to be termed “a wake” I’d say (another daft collective noun) but really interesting to watch as they swoop low over the fields and then perch motionless for long periods on a convenient fence post. It is believed that buzzards, which disappeared from here in the 19th century, started to come from Scotland to Northern Ireland in the 1930s, with others following later from Wales. They are now found in many parts of Ireland and mostly eat rabbits and rodents, but will take frogs, large invertebrates and the chicks of ground-nesting birds. They do not, I am given to understand, take lambs and the late Dick Warner has written that there’s no record from anywhere in the world of the common buzzard killing a lamb. He reminded us, however, that they eat rabbits, rats, mice and the odd magpie or grey crows. Rather than declaring war on the buzzard then farmers might welcome them.
The last couple of months in this area a new phenomenon has been revealed to me. That is the starling murmuration near Timoleague. It has been some marvellous sight to see in the last hour of the day before nightfall – though I am told it occurs at dawn too. I have seen it described on the Internet as little more than “a mass aerial stunt – thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison”. It’s completely breathtaking to witness. It is thought that starlings do it for many reasons; grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands; They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas and they gather over their roosting site and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.
It is all beginning to change and I am surprised by the sense of excitement I felt on Wednesday last, 21st February, when I saw one of the dairy herds back out in a field behind a milking parlour. It was only for a few hours but it was great to see – I can only wonder how excited the cows were to feel grass under their feet and taste fresh grass on their tongues. The day before, I had watched a tractor towing a tanker around a large field as a large fan-shaped emmission flew out from the rear of the contraption. Slurry spreading.
I would have expected to have seen a lot of ploughing before now but none at all. The fields are, of course, quite saturated and the land is not conducive to good ploughing. Perhaps as the weather improves the fields will dry out and tractors will be working late into the night to get the land ready for sowing the 2018 crops.
The Barryroe area generally is well recognised for producing some of the best potatoes available anywhere. Perhaps it is the open sandy soil that provides good drainage. Even I know, from my gardening days, that early potatoes should be in the ground by St. Patrick’s Day but with that hallowed feast-day only a little over 2 weeks away there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that now.
It is an exciting time of year in the countryside. Perhaps the fact that I have been largely confined to the house – or to a sheltered corner outside, away from the wind when the sun comes out – because of a heavy cold and chest infection, has made me stop and look around me at what I see every day but often don’t really notice. I’ll have to leave it to Raftery again to explain where the charm of the countryside in Spring comes from:
Tá cur agus treabhadh
is leasú gan aoileach
Is iomaí sin ní ann
nár labhair me go fóill,
áitheanna is muilte
ag obair gan scíth ann,
Deamhan caint ar phingin cíosa
ná dada dá shórt.