Fairytale spot has magical memories

Caislean Oir
GLORIES of Ireland: Dunguaire Castle and (inset) the primroses that grow in the wood nearby.

A weekly appreciation of nature.

Sean Wood

Sean Wood

BY the time you read this, I will once more be climbing the stone steps to Dunguaire Castle (Dungoura) on Galway Bay.
It is only four weeks since I took this photograph but such is the magnetic draw of the village of Kinvara, its people, the wild places and its wildlife.
At Easter I took all of my family, while this time it's my band '
The Curragh Sons' and 30 faithful followers who will descend upon the world famous Cuckoo Fleadh.
Admittedly, with five gigs in three days we are not likely to see much wildlife this time - at least the kind with fur and feathers.
But let me take you back a few weeks, when I was taking in the view and remembering all the school holidays I had spent in places like this.
The sun is going down on the castle, and the mute swan sailing towards me could probably tell a tale far more eloquent than I, with echoes of Irish legend when children turned into swans and men grow old if they ever dismount their horse, but here goes.
Beyond the tower, where salt water fights with the outgoing fresh water to create a frothy foam, which spreads across the brackish lagoon when the tide is full, there sits a wood of strange proportions - no jokes please.
To the 'little people' who reputedly inhabit the wood, it is massive, but to you and I, it is very small.
Now spare the ridicule, but tales of hazel woods inhabited by leprechauns were the daily currency of my young summers in Ireland.
Most of the stories were beautiful, but if we stayed up too late, the Banshee or the big black dog from the bog was likely to take us away.
Or if we were really naughty, the fairies would steal us in the night and we would become 'changelings', complete with pointy ears and curly hair.
As I already had curly hair, I held on extra tight to the blankets, fearing I would be first choice.
The hazel wood is full of intricate pathways which weave impossible mazes in and out of the miniature trees, and the wonderful clumps of primroses could surely have been planted by the fairies of Kinvara.
But hang on a minute, I'm a grown-up now - the pathways through the hazel are made by foxes and other animals, and the clumps of yellow flowers are growing there because it is the perfect habitat for them.
As children, we never dared crawl into the maze, but at 48 in I went.
A tiny wren almost hopped off the end of my nose, while a male blackbird whizzed past singing the most indignant song. I was Gulliver in Lilliput.
There was a small clearing in the wood and a choice of about eight other avenues to explore, so I headed for the direction of the sea.
After about 30 metres the trees became so dense it was necessary to force my ample frame through the thicket, which obviously woke every other living thing in the wood and wings clapped and birds sang as the feathered throng got out while the going was good.
Just then I caught the unmistakeable whiff of a fox on the air - even poor old Reynard had been disturbed by my actions.
As I crawled out of the wood and faced the bay, there was the fox, shaking off his sleep and in turn disturbing all manner of wading birds, which had obviously felt safe very close to the shore.
His presence was completely ignored by the 10 reptilian herons who carried on their stealthy hunting without a pause, and within a minute he was gone.
It took more than 60 seconds for the waders to return, but there was no rush - after all I had already waited 40 years to venture into a fairy wood.
If you would like to visit the wood I can tell you exactly where to find it, as it is just down the road from the best B&B in the west, Dunguaire House. Tap it in to the net and check it out, but don't blame me if you come back with pointy ears!

Reflections on a wildlife paradise

Still not Black enough (WASP)As predicted, there was not much time for bird watching on Galway Bay last weekend, with my band performing five times in three days.
But even with such a hectic schedule of music-making, fur and feather flashed by in myriad guises, enough to satisfy the weariest of balladeers.
Between gigs and pints of Guinness, and pints of Guinness and gigs, I was struck by the sheer beauty of this place called Kinvara.
And I am not on my own, for the 30 guests we had taken with us thought for sure that they had landed in paradise.
As we pulled up on the quayside, sunglasses were the order of the day and kinetic flashes of light bounced from off the top of shore-bound wavelets, fresh in from the Atlantic.
To greet us, a pair of mute swans sailed in to accompany the curvaceous Galway hookers which leant lazily against the harbour wall, their sails furled for the next tide.
The swan's nest sits on a rocky islet at the edge of the village, so close that it was possible to watch the bird's complete nesting habits from the side of the road.
First she moved the eggs gently with her bill, then she gracefully settled in for a round of incubation, and then when the heat became too much in the middle of the day, the incumbent swan spread one wing out in a protective fan to preserve the precious charges.
The swans, of course, were silent, hence the name, but the village rookery which presides over the Convent School made enough noise to wake the dead.

I am obviously very strange because I find the cawing and high-pitched chirrups which accompany the high rise life of these crows extremely evocative.
This was especially true early one morning, when on the still air the sound carried on out across the bay and was only interrupted by the harsh call of the kinvara herons.
Some of our guests were similarly serenaded by early morning cuckoos, a delightful addition to the dawn chorus, especially as we were attending the world famous Cuckoo Fleadh.
Several lucky diners were also treated to the sight of a fox in all of its pomp strutting across the fields while they ate breakfast.
He even stopped to 'do his business' as they were half way through their 'full Irish' - thankfully no one was put off by the vulpine ablutions.
Readers will have realised by now that the Cuckoo Fleadh is very special to me, not least because it combines my twin passions of wildlife and Irish music.
But I have now taken my love the place, and the west in general, one step further by releasing a CD my poetic musings called 'The Cuckoo Set Fair For Altca'.
The CD was launched last week by poet and novelist Fred Johnson Galway, who kindly contributed the sleeve notes as well, and I was humbled by the response.
Other poets present commented on the '...more than usual sensitive to the landscape, flora and fauna'.
Personally, I view the writing as an extension of this column and therefore wildlife and wild places certainly figure prominently in the work. However, there is also a great deal of autobiographical material interwoven throughout. This extract is taken from Oilean Maisean on the CD:
Today, down comes the boat in painterly fashion,
Set on the sand for my canvas and I.
Friends who stay,are dazzled by purity,
Whilst the red -backed hare hides the hungry rocks,
And splashes through the Beaker pools of hasty hearths,
Washed clean each day, as lunar hands guide a bird in flight,
And the heat of sun allows sedge and hawk,
To dally at the edge of my world.
Copies of the CD which runs for 30 minutes are available directly from myself at £5 plus 50p post and packing - check out details on the band website at
[The Advertiser May 16 2002]


And so the crow comes
To take out my heart
Revealed from exposed flesh
Peeled back by the vultures
Ravenous at my bones
Tearing limb from limb
In a savage feast
Music has no charms to sooth them
These savage beasts
There's no terror in this pillory
The black winged saviour
Keeping the last vestige
In the ivory tower
Away from prying eyes
Away from eagles
Away from wolves
Flying to Brazil
An alien heart ripped apart and carried
On blackened quill
My body left as carrion
Mind and thoughts
For vicarious thrill
I am the antidote
And free from bondage
My reddened pumping vessel
Taken from an exposed ribcage
The whales do not weep for me
The harpoon has long since
Drilled into my soul
All my life dripped red into the soil
Fly free red vessel
Anywhere,anywhere but here
Lee [More Poems]

It's a batty world for mega-moths

Nearly as big as a bat:The Poplar Hawk moth,photoraphed by Sean Wood in Kinvara.

EVERY now and then, my worlds collide and it is no bad thing when they do, especially if it involves Guinness, Ireland and wildlife.
Just such a trinity occurred two weekends ago in Kinvara on Galway Bay. I was there to sing with my band, The Curragh Sons, and we were firmly ensconced in one of our favourite pubs, Sexton's, when a local man returned from the gents and claimed: "There's a 'mot' in there the size of a bat!"
Landlady Ruth was not impressed so I volunteered to check it out. The description had been fairly accurate because the creature was a Poplar Hawk moth with a wing span of 8cm and a body the size of my little finger.
As I paraded the 'mot' through the pub on my hand, I must have looked like a falconer it was that big.
Once outside on a stone wall, the moth gathered its strength in the sunshine, allowing me to take photographs at my leisure, before lifting off and disappearing into a dense blackthorn bush.
Hawk moths are perhaps the most stunning of our flying insects, not least because of their size, but also because of their colour - and their bodies have a fur-like covering as soft as sable.
Readers will no doubt recall the posters advertising 'The Silence of The Lambs' which depicted the unmistakeable death's head hawk moth, another UK species which can attain a wing span of 12cm.
The death's head is not only the biggest moth, but it also produces a mouse-like squeak by expelling air, which makes it even more bat-like if you happen to bump into one at night.
To give you an idea of the relative sizes, our smallest bat, the pipistrelle, is only slight larger than the death's head with a wingspan of 17cm.
My favourite hawk moth found in these parts, the hummingbird hawk moth, can actually be seen during the day from May to October when they feed, just like their namesake, hovering above flowers and sucking up nectar through their long proboscis.
The poplar moth varies in colour from a muted brown seen here to yellow, or red-grey and sometimes ash grey. They have several faded dark wavy lines and bands on the fore wing, wfth a characteristic large rust-red patch on the root of the hind wing.
About 10 years ago I had another encounter with a poplar moth which also combined two of my interests, rugby and wildlife. After the last game of the season in late April, I had thrown my muddy boots into the garden, hoping that the rain would clean them.
As it happened there was no rain for a few weeks and I forgot about the boots. That was until I caught sight of a poplar hawk moth which appeared to be roosting on one of the boots one day.
On closer inspection, I was amazed to discover that the muted tones of the moth matched perfectly the dried mud on the boot and what's more the padding on the ankle of the boot was the exact same shade of red as the moth's hind wing.
This of course begged the question, of all the places to roost, why the boots? Did it recognise the shade would provide good camouflage? Do moths think?
I called the moth expert at the Natural History Museum in London and asked: What are the odds of a poplar hawk roosting by chance on a rugby boot of exactly the same shade at 800 feet above sea level in the Peak District National Park?" His reply was not very accurate but it made me laugh: "Cosmic Sean, cosmic!"
[The Advertiser July 25,2002]

Sing the praises of our Skylarks

IN MY young days, (you know, old money days, long before such things as kilos), skylarks were a constant summer companion, and their soaring song was only matched by their soaring flight above the farmlands of Leicestershire. Unfortunately, and unknown to me when I moved to Scotland in 1971,the rot had already set in for the skylark, due to a change in farming practice. From around 1970 the change from spring to winter cereals, as well as intensified grassland management rapidly affected the success of this ground-nesting bird.
Farmers cannot be blamed, because the changes which resulted in the loss of around 12,000 birds every year were implemented as part of the Common Agricultural Policy. However so great was the effect that, between the dates mentioned, the skylark population of the UK fell by 52 per cent. That is one mighty slump and the decline needs to be addressed immediately, a fact which has been recognised by DEFRA (Department of Envimnment, Food & Rural Affairs).
To set the scene, let me explain what skylarks need to flourish.

1: Mid-field areas in which to nest and feed. Skylarks occupy the open fields to avoid predators. They cannot be conserved by measures taken within 10 metres of the field boundary.

2: Seeds and weeds throughout the year. Adults feed on the leaves and seeds of crops, and also on weeds. Their association with weedy stubbles in winter shows that they prefer seeds and weed leaves.

3: Nesting habitat to produce up to three broods each year. They nest in vegetation that is 20-50cm high. This vegetation must be open enough to give the birds easy access to the ground. They need to make two or three nesting attempts between April and August to sustain the population. Crops such as winter wheat generally grow too tall and thick to enable more than a single brood. Silage fields attract skylarks, but are generally cut too frequently to allow successful breeding.

4: Insects and spiders in the spring and summer. Skylark chicks are fed exclusively on insects and spiders for the first week of life. These are also an important part of the adults diet from April to August.
These insects are collected from crops, set aside land and pasture. Defra now recognises what is needed to reverse the decline and is encouraging all farmers to take part in a Stewardship Scheme designed to promote biodiversity.Of course this entails dishing out further grants, around £30 per hectare from 2005, but as a means to an end it has to be done. The skylark is one of 40 globally threatened red-listed species.
If you are on the red list, it means that all the experts agree, if something is not done it could soon be Dodo time.
Meanwhile at Woodhead, where skylarks have also declined, and not because of the aforementioned reasons, I look forward to a more regular rendition of, 'And the lark he sang melodious, at the dawning of the day.'
For further information check out www.defra.gov.uk and www.rspb.org.uk

Skylark Days

Your grounded den a place to hide
In the lush green grass and derelict bricks
Away from all the dust and kids
The horizon haze of afternoon sun
And Hawthorn trees in bloom
Startled from your prime position
To emulate the period that you typified
By rising higher on the wing
As if a kite upon a string
Your ascendant song echoes through the years
Of building dens and playing war
In stinging nettles and fireweed
The dead rise to fight once more
Heralded by your soaring tones
What can you see from up above?
When no one saw you down below
Why did you rise when others flew?
Were you pleased with what you saw?
Or were you just making your escape?
Lest you be found in your secret place
An icon of the summer breeze
A litmus of the plants and soil
And an age of growing up to see
That to look back,is not to be free
To look down is not to be safe
And to hold one's ground is just as bad
Moving ever upwards
Skylark where are you now?
[More Poems]

There is still a childlike wonder in every one of us

Giant's Causeway

VAN 'the man' Morrison wrote a beautiful song about a 'Sense of Wonder' and if ever a picture I have taken illustrates what he meant, then this little girl taking giant steps across the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is it.
With a veritable skip in her step and a smile on her face, the Crown Jewels and half a ton of ice cream would not have prised her away fnom the basalt marvel. Whereas for me, the promise of lobster, soda bread and a night on the Guinness was enough to tempt me back to the car after 20 minutes. However, I would like to think that I have retained the girl's sense of wonder and greatly admire those adults who have managed to cling to that part of their life.
It is a kind of Captain Cook curiosity crossed with Gabriel Oak candour, and a dash of unsullied innocence thrown in for good measure. Tall order for a 51-year-old, l8st proip forward? Not on your Nelly.
David Bellamy has it, Richard Attenborough by the bucket-load, and this morning I was diving right into my own supply, at the sight of two short-eared owls sharing their early morning field vole in fmnt of me.
It was 7.30am, and a cool mist still hung in necklaces around the small conifer plantation as I began. to climb the Holme Moss road. I knew the owls were nesting nearby and as I placed what was left of my toast on my lap, I was excited. Teaching was an age away (two hours actually) and life does not get any better. A double take saw me face to face with one adult owl perched on a fence post. It was no use. stopping opposite the bird, no matter how tempting, because it would just fly off, so I pulled up gently about 30-40 ft further on and reached for the binoculars.
So close did the binoculars take me to the owl, his yellow eyes, lit up the optics, and all thoughts of work were forgotten.
Two further cars and a noisy motorcyle later saw the bird lift oft towards the moor. But the show was not over, and another adult lifted from the rough tussocks in an attempt to share the short-tailed field vole which was swinging from the first bird's undercarriage. After a minute or two of aerial combat and the momentary interference of a passing kestrel, my morning display had lasted no more than five minutes, but the desultory flight of these long winged, and day-time flying owls,will last a lifetime.
Continuing on my way to Ashton the world was, and is a wonderful place. I am sure people think, 'what is he on?' But as I sat there with my bacon and tomato on toast, the world was once again my oyster and when the kids walked in, Woody was smiling.
From your many communications, readers share the aforementioned sense of wonder and that wide-eyed tadpole in the jar joy, so cheers to you all. The little girl on the legendary Giant's Causeway, is a metaphor for the amazing things all around us, so, please, never stop looking.


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