Friday 21 July 2017

Surreal sight of solemn farewells to the Irish stoat

Lay of the Land

An Irish Stoat
An Irish Stoat

Fiona O'Connell

'Marry in May and rue the day," goes the saying - though many make their vows in early summer and do very well in the happily ever after, directions to their big day displayed on telegraph poles around this country town.

And why not? For death has dominion all-year round, with sad farewells taking place even when the sun shines, although humans are not unique in lamenting their loved ones, as the Irish stoat - which mates this season - reminds us.

This feisty little fellow is still sometimes referred to as a weasel in rural parts, although the only members of that species to be found in Ireland are either the human variety or the furry Frankenstein minks that escape from fur farms and wreak havoc on native wildlife.

But stoats are a long way from those negative associations, especially when it comes to showing solidarity with their brothers and sisters. Folk in the past knew not to attack one, for a shrill whistle would soon bring backup. The stoat would also follow you for miles, peering out from behind fences and hedges to make sure it kept you firmly in its sights.

Because if an elephant never forgets, these fierce fighters go one step further by using their excellent memory to get their own back. In ancient times these creatures were associated with the other world. It was said they would learn where you lived and then wait for a chance to exact revenge; such as killing every fowl or lamb on your farm.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this animal, that regularly targets prey more than twice its size, is its behaviour when bereaved. Many tales are told, similar to this one by a man who was heading home one moonlit night.

He was enjoying the calm of a country walk, when he suddenly noticed that the roadway ahead of him seemed to be undulating, the movement coming in a wave in his direction. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he pressed himself against a tree by the side of the ditch. He heard the scratching sound of many nailed feet, with the odd squeal or hiss, and every so often a soft bark resounding in the night.

Then the scene turned truly surreal. For in front of the moving throng, four strong young stoats bore on high the body of the stoat king, his colouring silver-grey in the moonlight.

Without thinking, the man removed his cap and bowed his head in silent prayer while this strange funeral procession moved along within touching distance of his shoes. Stoats of every sort and size passed, with some on either side and behind, keeping control and order among the mourning creatures. The man strained his eyes to watch them leave the road and disappear through a gap to make their way across the fields towards high ground. The scent of musk lingered in the night air, along with the realisation that all creatures have their customs and traditions as they face the trials and tribulations of all whose lives are ruled by time.

Sunday Independent

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