Farm Ireland

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Connemara shows why wildlife has to be saved

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

I recently headed west to try my luck at a spot of sea fishing and enjoy a change of scenery in picturesque Connemara. I have many happy memories of childhood summers spent there and whenever the opportunity arises, I try to revisit.

It is still a magic place despite the many changes that have occurred over the years. Back in the 1950s, children ran barefoot, women wore dark cloaks and shawls and toiled in the bogs with donkeys and turf baskets, and the men worked abroad in England, America or wherever jobs could be found.

Traditional, whitewashed, thatched cottages lined the roads and laneways, and all around were scenes equal to those on any picture postcard. Central heating was unknown and both cooking and heating were dependent on turf alone. At night I would lie awake listening to the sounds of hundreds of corncrakes calling in the little meadows that lay undisturbed by tractors, mowing machines and forage harvesters. The machinery would arrive later and herald the disappearance of not only the corncrake but also of the curlew, hay cocks, scythes, donkey power and groups of women and children pausing to give a friendly wave from the bogs to the few motor cars that passed by.


Fish that were once plentiful and which supported large numbers of fishermen are now increasingly scarce. Over-fishing of our seas remains a huge problem and I was told that most of the quotas are now in the hands of a relatively tiny number of trawler owners, marginalising the smaller operators.

Many people still sigh nostalgically for the past and decry the gaudy new holiday homes built on hill tops with little regard for traditional styles or the landscape. These recently built houses might not match the ideal of a picturesque western cottage but at least they are bright, well insulated and warm and dry, unlike so many of the 'quaint' thatched cottages of the past.

Hunger, TB and the grinding rural poverty that were the daily lot of so many are thankfully long gone, along with the donkeys and shawls.

But the remnants of famine times are still evident in the deserted ruins and lazy beds high on hillsides. It is hard to imagine that more than two million people either died or emigrated in the mid-1800s. Thinking about it makes one wonder why we are complaining about our relatively trifling problems of today.

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I stayed near the Connemara National Park where, all night long, the sound of stags roaring during the rut echoed around the hills and valleys. These are the descendants of native red deer reintroduced from stock taken from the national park in Kerry, and they have also cross bred with deer brought in by local shooting interests. Fifty years ago, there were no deer in Connemara but, with the increase in afforestation and the popularity of deer stalking, they are now there in large numbers, with even the tiny Muntjac increasingly present.


Other wildlife such as the magnificent golden eagle has made a reappearance and a friend showed me videos of eagles flying overhead which had travelled from Kerry to Mayo on a day trip to hunt. They are amazing birds and wonderful to see. They represent no threat to farming and their presence can only help our struggling tourist industry.

The hardy Blackface sheep are still dominant on the hillsides but I also saw two fine Suffolk rams being loaded on the ferry to do their duty with the ewes on Inishbofin Island.

The breeds of cattle have changed dramatically since the 1950s, with top-quality continental-type weanlings everywhere and not a single Hereford or Angus in sight. Despite the relatively poor quality of much of the grazing land, the farmers of Connemara always know a thing or two about breeding good livestock.

There is no doubt that for ease of access and a friendly welcome, the west of Ireland is hard to beat. There is great value to be had in the B&Bs -- and even the larger hotels are offering good deals, especially during the middle of the week.

All that is now needed is to get the trout and salmon back in our rivers and abundant shoals back in our seas. Maybe even the corncrake and curlew will return again and herald a new dawn for an Ireland where the quality of life and things of real worth are properly valued.

Irish Independent