herald

Monday 20 August 2018

Scent

THERE were three of us: we were neighbours and we went through primary school together. We had more than that in common: we loved the fields and the woods and the waters and the skies.

Of course, we loved the hare and we were certain that we knew more about him than anybody else in the world.We didn't despise the rabbits. They had their own lives to live and they were intelligent and brave. What we knew, that many others didn't, was that there was a special kind of rabbit. Like a hare, he lived in the open, usually in bushes. He lived at the top of a sloping field and when the terriers rose him from his nest he ran down the field and it was impossible for a pair of hounds to catch him.

He was known as the bush rabbit. He was slightly bigger than the rabbits in the burrows but they were all the same species. The bush rabbits were not numerous but they had a charmed life.

We loved the hare but our favourite animal was the fox, even though our womenfolk wouldn't agree. We loved his intelligence and his cunning. When hardpressed by hounds, he might take refuge in a flock of sheep.

At times he would go up or down a stream. All this was to break his scent. We knew, too, that he had a hard life. In spring, he had to provide for the cubs. He might travel all day and end up with only a few dead rooks. And when the cubs were reared, the vixen might chase him away.

There were no squirrels in our part of Ireland and if you had worked in England or America, you missed them because in the south of England and the north east of America they were part of everyday life.

Our elder folk spoke about the weasel but there were no weasels in our part of the country. What they called a weasel was a stoat. You rarely saw one but you occasionally heard it. His warning cry was a weird and frightening sound. I doubt if any musical expert could take it down. We feared the stoat and that was why many people kept terriers around the house.

We loved the badger. We loved him for his fierce courage. We despised those people who caught them in a trap and put him into a barrel for "sport". They brought their terriers and put them at the badgers one by one. They all came out whining and hid behind their owners. Eventually, when all the terriers were terrified, the badger came out and went back to his sett.

The English people adored the badger because they believed that he was their oldest creature in the wild. They built tunnels under roads so that he could travel safely. They referred to him as a person and they called him "Brock".

We loved to think about wolves even though, of course, there were none in our area. The last of the species had been shot in a wood near Castlemartyr in 1895. People in the cities kept wolves as pets and we hoped that some of them would escape and start a new colony but it didn't happen in our time. We had to be content with thinking about them.

We loved all the fish in our waters. The most common in our area was the brown trout. And like the hare, we believed that we knew more about him than anybody else. We knew that when he went down the river a bit you were in for dry weather. And we knew how brown trout were bred. The hen scooped out a kind of shallow bed and laid her eggs in it.

The cock impregnated the hen's spawn and stayed around until the young ones were born. Of course, we loved catching the trout. That was part of our relationship.

There were plenty of eels in all the streams but we didn't understand them until later in life. The eel is the most wonderful of all the beings in creation. He is born in the seas between the West Indies and America. He comes to Ireland as part of a great multitude. When they reach here they are only like threads with a tiny sack of fat to keep them going.

If you ever see them coming up a river in thousands and thousands and thousands, it is a sight that you will never forget.



Scientists

What activates them to come up the rivers we will never know. Scientists have been studying them for centuries but there is still a lot they have to find out.

We are told that at a certain age they go back to where they were born. I believe that they never get back. Why are there new generations born there? We do not know.

In some parts of the world, especially in Scotland, you will hear of monsters such as the Loch Ness. There is one also in a lake near Killarney. I believe that the "monsters" are really eels that lost their urge to go back and they grew bigger and bigger until they can be called monsters.

Of course, we loved our birds. Our favourite was the starling. Our older folk called him the stare. We loved him because he was a great survivor. In the worst of weathers I never found a starling dead. They could pull out insects from the ditches. They were real socialists: they never fought over a scrap of food. If one had it, he had it. We loved that attitude. Some people think of starlings as dull in colour but when you are near them, you see that they are beautiful birds with specks of red and white and green.

We loved the blackbird because he was a great singer. If you left a window open so that he could hear the gramophone, he would pick up songs but he can go only so far. When the song turned, he would go back to where he started.

Fogra: Congratulations go to my friend Gary O'Hanlon -- he finished a good third in the Charleville half marathon last week

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