Hare winters and welcome callers

IN Europe's hardest winters, the coast of Connacht can sometimes seem an enchanted annex of Arcady

IN Europe's hardest winters, the coast of Connacht can sometimes seem an enchanted annex of Arcady. The same blocking high" that drags snow from Siberia to make dramatic pictures on the telly can offer us day after day of unbroken sunshine, and a stillness scarcely ruffled by the wind the other side of the hill.

The tractors fetching sand for cattle-bedding crackle through thick ice at the ford. But so long as the stream keeps running we'll have water and a munificent gift of beech logs adds the right scent to the heart of the stove. The sun moves around the windows, dazzling us at morning from the snowy peak of Mweelrea and burning out at evening behind Cleggan, across in Connemara.

We have been made rather conscious of these solar perambulations. On the Saturday before Christmas, the winter solstice, we stood with a friend on a coastal hilltop north of here, to see where the sun stood at 1.30 p.m. precisely. He is a discoverer of Stone Age astronomical alignments, and author of a magical multiple-exposure photograph of the sun rolling down the seaward slope of Croagh Patrick.

On that earlier occasion - the somewhat indeterminate date of August 24th - we were perched on a rock carved with neolithic cup-marks, on a hillside some miles distant from the Reek. Now, on another hill near Louisburgh, we were standing behind a Neolithic alignment of granite boulders, and squinting past surveyor's poles stood upright at either end. We were waiting to see if this would line up, at the preordained hour, not only with the sun but with another stone cairn on a hilltop in between.


It did, I'm pleased to say. So that's the seventh of these local Stone Age solstice "calendars", including the one Tim Robinson found in a valley at Gleninagh, in Connemara. There, on winter's shortest day, an alignment of five quartz boulders points to the setting sun as it rolls into a notch in the mountains. Tim's fiery photograph of this event made a Christmas card for Mary Banotti, always one of politics' more imaginative and joyous spirits.

There was more magic about. On Christmas Eve, another friend, an amateur mycologist with the instincts of a truffle hound, took me to an oakwood in pursuit of Hydnum repandum, otherwise wood-hedgehog. I have picked these mushrooms in early autumn - but now, in a hard December?

Yet there they were, muffled up in a carpet of curling oak-leaves: clusters of wavy, buff-coloured caps, with the pale, toothy underside that, gives repandum its common name. My friend's eye was quicker than my own, but there were plenty to be shared simmered in garlic butter, a luscious appetiser before the goose.

Then, while we are on miracles, what a fantastic moon for Christmas Eve, what stars! Even quite sober people were drawn outdoors to marvel at the very encrystalisation of a silent, holy night.

Among them was a friend who lives on a ridge looking across Doolough Pass to the Sheeffry Mountains, which is where the full moon rises. Watching it ascend, gleaming and awesome, he roused his teenage son with the novel proposition of a night walk.

They went far enough to get immersed in the huge silence of the bog, their footfalls distinct on the silver road. Each distant Christmas candle, humbled by the moon, still registered over miles as a separate, glowing point of belonging. Beyond them, black, cut-out hills above them, the moon in a glittering planetarium. "I was making a memory," said my friend.

It will be another 140 years, someone insisted, before Christmas Eve and a full moon come together again: I haven't the maths to work it out.

Meanwhile, with the moon a fading wafer, I have been waiting for the birds. For in Europe's bitter winter, enormous numbers must be on the move and flying further and further west. As I write, the sunny fields along the shore are oddly empty. Only a weak fluttering of redwings and some field fares, here and there among the rushes, hints at the influx to come.

Lapwings, thrushes and skylarks - birds of the open country - are among the first to flee the cold, then buntings, finches and tits. The last of Ireland's great crop of hedge row berries will soon be gone, and the waxwings already turning up in gardens on the east coast will join a host of hungry birds.

The species hardest hit by a really severe freeze-up are not always those you might think of first. In the winter of 1962, for example, kingfishers and grey wagtails were all but wiped out in many parts of Britain: only in Ireland did they survive in reasonable numbers. But yes, the tiny birds, such as goldcrest and wren, do suffer especially, as well as those, like the snipe, who find their marshy feeding grounds frozen hard as iron.

"There is something almost mystic about those lovely, soft, whistling calls heard on a cold and frosty winter's moonlit night, as teal feed frantically in shallow pools and around the edges of the slob channels."

The words are by Chris Wilson, warden of the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, and remind us that a cruel winter in Europe and Britain can provide superlative bird-watching at many of Ireland's wetlands. Frozen estuaries beyond the Irish Sea should add even more exciting wildfowl - Bewick's swans, exotic ducks - to the flocks of Greenland white-fronted geese which are Wexford's abiding attraction.

The quote comes from High Skies, Low Lands: An Anthology of Wexford Slobs and Harbour, edited by Chris Wilson, and David Rowe who is soon retiring as president of An Taisce. It's a fine lapful of a book, much of it illustrated by the Wexford artist, David Daly, and it combines expert chapters on the whole local flora and fauna with history of the human sort - punt-gunning and the mussel trade included. The publishers are Duffrey Press, 2 Court Street, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author