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An otter with her toes in the air


The sea otter

The sea otter

The sea otter

Where can wild creatures go when increasing numbers of humans encroach on landscape that had been their exclusive habitat?

They move elsewhere but to fewer places not trampled by tourism and others seeking some health-giving hours away from the constraints of urban living. There are just more people out there - David Attenborough reminds us often enough - fewer places to find peace dropping slowly where seabirds, hares and rabbits may be the only valued company and, if curlews or lapwings are spotted, to ponder the warnings of those excellent people at BirdWatch Ireland that soon we might not see them at all.

But places of peace remain for birds to return to, where animals scamper and hares may box, where mankind's intrusion is sporadic.

Not all such places are totally wild - but some have managed to escape the relentless inroads of modern farming turning more headlands into pasture for still more livestock. More than a century and a quarter past, Gerard Manley Hopkins pleaded: "What would the world be, once bereft/ Of wet and wildness? Let them be left/ O let them be left, wildness and wet;/ Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet."

How prescient are these words!

The Cooley Peninsula, looking north to the Mournes, is a fine place to see mammals and shore and seabirds which may be visitors from Britain or passing on their way northwards. There may be a flock of curlews (of precarious future) and lapwings (peewits) with their distinctive, upswinging black crest, a beautiful bird little seen whose numbers, always modest, have declined by 50pc or more in 20 years.

Why? The RSPB is blunt: "Agricultural changes, especially the move from spring to autumn cereal sowing resulting in crops being too tall for breeding birds in spring... reduction in mixed farming and unimproved grassland which have reduced the feeding area for chicks."

Lapwings, curlews and hares were plentiful at Cooley last weekend where the environmental writer George Monbiot might well have written that the sea waves had "the knapped faces of flints, their chipped chests spangled with sunlight". In the flinty sea a young female otter was feeding, lying on her back, toes in the air. She might as well have been in San Francisco Bay, to quote a friend. She was enjoying life.

Here, a small stream ran to the beach to where the otter swam, perhaps to wash off the salt. The human was up-wind, and, when she got his scent, she stalled and he got a hard stare. Five minutes passed, and then the animal turned and with a duck and glide was off to sea again.

In a separate sighting, a reader saw a flock of lapwings and "lots of fine, big brown hares" in wild Cooley.

In west Cork, meanwhile, another reader reported hundreds of sparrows chasing mates and gathering nest material for sites in farm buildings. Will colder weather set them back? Is it a false spring? I look at peeping snowdrops in the shade of a silver birch. They will thrust through whatever the weather.

Sunday Independent