Michael Viney’s final Another Life column – more than 45 years after the first

On the eve of its writer’s 90th birthday, the long-running column focusing on the natural world draws to a close

I join the locals in calling it the duach, respecting the echo of lost Irish, but to ecologists and geographers it is “machair”, a word from Scots Gaelic. The landform was classified first on the isles of the Outer Hebrides, then mapped along the windiest edge of Ireland from Donegal to Connemara.

Coming to it first, half a century ago, the flat, grassy plain between the dunes and the lake seemed a strange, idyllic lawn with a few white rocks for sitting on. What it meant to the natural world took time to learn. It is floored and renewed with sand blown in from the strand, much of it made from fragments of seashells – “the toe and fingernail parings of the sea” in Michael Longley’s indelible image.

Arriving ashore, the calcium of myriad marine molluscs – mussels, periwinkles, cockles and the rest – becomes material for the shells of land molluscs, the multicoloured snails that throng the dunes and machair. Some, small enough to need a magnifying glass, are relics of a glacial age.

This drew more ecologists to Dooaghtry (the duach’s name on the map). By the 1970s young Dutch botanists were spending summers on hands and knees listing hundreds of different plants and mosses, some of them rare. Too many sheep on the duach, they warned, could wreck its biodiversity.


Then came the EU’s fateful “headage” scheme, rewarding Irish sheep numbers irrespective of the kind of land they grazed. Peatland on the Connacht hills was stripped back to slime, and much machair was grazed bald. A local rabbit-catcher gave up on the duach for the lack of grass to hide his snares.

I was slow to miss the birds. I couldn’t tell you when the last alarmed lapwings spiralled the sky or the last ringed plover trailed away from my footsteps. To meet two other waders that used to nest there, the little dunlin and red-necked phalarope, I needed adventures in northeast Greenland.

By the 1980s, one of Longley’s poems about the machair began to ring true: “This is ravens’ territory, skulls, bones,/ The marrow of these boulders supervised/ From the upper air ... ” From the dunes, I watched ravens excavating the bloody interior of another starved and dead ewe.

The ravens still fly past my house, honking a greeting on their way from the mountains to the sea. They’ve always been great scavengers, yet now I have to think of them as potential predators on the eggs and young of waders – predators just like foxes, badgers, mink, hooded crows, the bigger gulls.

On the eve of my 90th birthday, I’m already too wobbly to wade the river in the strand. So this, with apology, is the last Another Life, my long-extended chronicle of a change in family lifestyle and exploring the natural world

In the master plan of the great new conservation scheme for machair land, costing more than €7 million, many fences will be needed for predator control. The project’s title, Life on Machair, acknowledges some €5 million from the EU’s Life environment programme.

The initiative came, however, from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It targets some 3,500 of machair at more than a dozen sites from Gweedore Bay to Slyne Head and includes the Inishkea Islands. All have had protection on paper, but not the active management they need. Many have been fertilised or built on or used for caravans, golf or football. Dooaghtry has avoided all these, but recreational pressure is mounting.

Years of machair surveys by BirdWatch Ireland have mapped the dwindling nests of waders, the near disappearance of dunlin, the fencing out of foxes that has already brought back some lapwing. Nest-protection wardens will be on site from this month until July. And personnel from the NPWS will continue their meetings with sheep farmers who have known and shared machair commonage all their lives.

The new programme, closing in 2028, will reward them for changes in grazing levels, improving vegetation and controlling predators, to maintain at least 250 pairs of waders in the habitats they need. Fewer sheep on the machair in summer, and cattle that leave some grass behind are among the new proposals.

How many will see the point? When so many farmers are feeling unfairly put-upon, this expensive and effortful new project becomes a real test of willingness to share the land with nature.

After 46 years of this column, it offers the chance of another life for the machair – if one, alas, I’ll be unlikely to enjoy. On the eve of my 90th birthday, I’m already too wobbly to wade the river in the strand. So this, with apology, is the last Another Life, my long-extended chronicle of a change in family lifestyle and exploring the natural world.

I close with a fond memory of the duach. On a fine spring day, I’m lying on my back with binoculars raised, watching my first-ever skylark soaring, singing and improvising. It rises, ever smaller, in the blue, to an ultimate, resonant speck of life.

I was thrilled. May Dooaghtry waders, too, soon return to share the sky.

You can read Michael Viney’s first Another Life column, from 1977, here. You can read his first article for The Irish Times, from 1962, here