One of the joys of living and working in the rural West of Ireland countryside is that you become well-acquainted with all species of domesticated and wild creatures which you rarely get to see in the towns and cities – and I’m not talking about the human varieties, such as Hughie & Maurice!
Gazing out of my office window on my half-acre plot, depending on the time of year, I view in close-up all manner of things from the animal and bird kingdoms. There’s hares and rabbits peeping out from the edge of the woods opposite, and often a beautiful fox stealthily creeping across the meadow in search of his long-eared prey. Thankfully, we never see the “kill” as foxes drag their quarry to undergrowth for the final execution.
In the next field, there are two donkeys which roll on their backs in play when the sun shines. Maybe they are discouraging pesky insects from crawling inside their thick coats. Donkeys must always have company to thrive – so never rear a donkey in isolation.
Cattle and sheep are rotated on the meadow. The sheep are the loudest, especially just after lambing when the ewes call out for their twins or triplets. Each ewe has a distinctive voice, and the lambs instantly recognize the call of their mother and frolic back to her side, leaping and high-kicking their young limbs, when they’ve wandered too far away. Some ewes sound scarily masculine with deep booming voices. Many is the day that I’ve turned toward the meadow believing that one of my male farming neighbours is calling for my attention. The cattle get louder in winter when brought indoors to their sheds. If one old girl calls out for her daily silage feed, then she sets off a chain reaction of incessant “loo-ing” until the herdsman dishes out the grass. Cows in Connaught “loo” not “moo” – it’s a subtle difference.
It’s always a treat to see the hedgehog or badger ambling along at dusk by the river. At the other end of the spectrum, everyone rushes to chase off the non-native [American] mink, if spotted. These fine looking animals were introduced into Ireland and farmed for their fur. Unfortunately, many have escaped their compounds and now they breed freely in the countryside. The problem is that these creatures are “killing machines” pure and simple. They will attack and destroy any other small animal on their patch, whether it be cats, dogs, hens or other wildlife. Minks kill to dominate territory, whereas a fox will only kill for food.
Bird-life is abundant in our garden. We put out feeders and seed to encourage our feathered friends, all year round. There are the noisy black crows who feed at dawn, and squabble among themselves. If we fatten the crows up here, then the local grain and vegetable growers stand a better chance of maintaining a healthy crop, we believe. Next in at breakfast time are the gentle wood pigeons. I call them Love Birds. They always go around in twos, one male and one female, and reputedly keep the same partner for life. Aw!
The little fellas arrive soon after. The big wild pigeons happily share their meal with the sparrows and finches and tits and thrushes. Now and again the robin shows his face and chest. Always a loner, not like the loved-up pigeons. The timid wrens from the riverbank sometimes swoop in as well if the weather determines that worm and insect-hunting is leaving them a bit famished. We have been particularly pleased this year to see that the once-rare goldfinch is thriving around our garden. In fact, just of late, this pretty yellow-feathered species might be outnumbering all the rest. It is hard to count numbers accurately when you reach 30+ for one breed and all the recently hatched goldfinch chicks won’t keep still, busily cracking open the Niger Seeds.
Of course, my favourite birds refuses to partake in the freebie meals on offer. These are the fiercely independent and abundant swallows – after returning in the spring or early summer from their winter vacation, thousands of miles away in sunny Africa. With their own in-built SatNavs, somehow year after year the same pairs return at gradual intervals to our relatively tiny garden, or more precisely the roof eaves and outbuildings. Before long, a dozen or so spruced up mud nests appear, and mating begins during dazzling aeronautical displays. Then you notice that the ladies retire to the nests for a while, and leave the man of the house to get the groceries. In no time at all, chirping is heard above the window tops or in the barn roof, and soon after three or four tiny faces peep out from their dried mud homes.
It is the biggest delight of all to watch the baby swallows grow, day by day, until the very hour that mother has to be cruel to be kind. This is the time when she watches from afar but refuses to feed her chicks ever again. The youngsters must now fend for themselves – and this means attempting that strange exercise of flying at which their parents are so adept. Some chicks need more encouragement than others. Dad often soars and swoops doing his loop-the-loops right outside the nesting zone. The kids get the message. They must make a leap of faith and test out their wings. I was privileged last year to witness the very moment when one young swallow made his maiden flight. He leapt from the nest rim, and fell towards the ground flapping for all his worth. Miraculously, he never hit the deck because in an instant of wonderment, the tiny bird hovered a few inches off my concrete path. And then, the knack of flying was discovered. He started to rise, slowly; just enough to clear the roof of my car – until dad swooped by and said “Follow me.” The offspring did as he was told, and commenced his first horizontal journey, soon followed by a climb, a sharp turn, a dive and a well-deserved short breather on a branch of the willow tree by the river.
His two siblings soon joined him, making almost identical take-offs as they jumped like virgin parachutists from their former home in the eaves.