Thursday 24 June 2021

Hare today and gone tomorrow.

It was just after eight on a Friday morning, a few days before the summer solstice, and I was out walking with Honey, our golden retriever.

After a week of thick cloud and calm, humid conditions, the Irish weather had finally delivered something more like a summer day. The fresher air and clear blue sky would go a long way towards suppressing the clouds of midges which had recently made working outdoors almost impossible.

The word midge is frequently pronounced “midget” in Ireland. Soon after we had moved into our new home, this linguistic quirk caused a hilarious misunderstanding, with some woke eye-rolling on my part, until a kind friend pointed out my mistake. There are 29 species of midges in Ireland, including six which are partial to human blood. I suspect we have all six at our house. What these microscopic flies lack in size, they more than compensate for with persistence, quantity, and their disproportionately painful bites. Midges are as pervasive as smoke. If you are caught in a swarm, these almost invisible insects will find their way up your nose, into your mouth and under your clothes, turning every bit of exposed skin into a pincushion of itchy red bumps. I’ve even been bitten on the eyeballs — which is less fun than you might imagine.

Midges only fly during the spring and summer, when the air is still and humid. They are prevalent in and around lakes, forests, and boggy ground — the same terrain which surrounds our home. On the upside, these tiny flies are the staple food of skylarks, swallows, and bats. Midges dislike wind and direct sunlight, so they tend to swarm for an hour around sunrise and sunset. Although Ireland is frequently battered by the westerly Atlantic winds, we can also have days or weeks of calm, overcast and humid conditions. On these “midgie days,” the microscopic demons will appear at sunrise and swarm all day. Sage advice is to remain indoors, but sometimes the outside chores won’t wait.

Over the years, I’ve bought several midge hats, and various bug sprays, in an attempt to make working outdoors bearable when the “midges are up”. These hats have a fine net cage that encloses the head and can be tucked under a shirt collar. Although effective at keeping the little blighters off your skin, these midge hats are hot to wear and restrict visibility to the point of being dangerous, particularly when operating a chainsaw. I have found a bug spray called Incognito to be effective at hiding me from most biting insects, even small swarms of midges. Being less tolerant to chemicals, Lesley favours Avon’s Skin so Soft, as do the military. While not officially an insect repellent, this so-called dry oil is undoubtedly effective. I’ll give Lesley the final word on the product. “It smells lovely, keeps my skin soft and stops the midges from nipping,” she said. “On the down-side, by the end of the day I look like a basted pig, covered in dead flies!”


 Leaving the forest path, we turned right onto a single-track road and headed downhill towards home. Although we’d already been walking for an hour, giving Honey plenty of time to bound around in the forest, searching for squirrels, hare, and deer, she still insisted on pausing every ten yards to sniff at something invisible but interesting. Honey is generally well behaved and happy to walk to heel when on her lead, but she is a big dog and somewhat of an immovable furry anchor when she suddenly stops. From painful experience, I’ve learned to pay attention to what the big doggy is doing or risk wrenching my shoulder.

As I walked along the road, with Honey trotting dutifully at my side, I glanced at the delicious array of wildflowers growing along the embankments and hedgerows. I hoped to spot some new or unusual plant that I could photograph and later challenge my wife to identify. So far this month, she’s managed ten out of ten. Looking to my left, through gaps in the hedgerow, I can see several small fields sloping downhill. They are edged with dry stone walls and reinforced with prickly hawthorn bushes festooned with glorious white flowers.

The beautiful Hawthorn bush

 On the opposite side of the valley, the hills rise sharply and seem to curve overhead like the inner surface of a vast bowl. I can almost imagine the cattle slipping off the slope and flying over my head into the forest beyond. Just as we reached the gated entrance to the next field, a large hare suddenly burst forth, looked at us with contempt, and sprinted away down the hill. For her part, Honey did a comical double-take before launching herself into hot pursuit. The chase was on — or would have been had Honey not been wearing a lead. I braced myself against the inevitable tug but, despite my quick reactions, my right arm was almost ripped off at the shoulder. As 32 kilograms of excitable canine muscle tried to snap her collar or my arm, I shouted desperately for her to stop.

“Grrr-uff,” she replied.

After watching with ill-concealed frustration as the hare kicked up its heels and vanished from view, Honey grudgingly complied.

“Hello, young feller,” came a voice from my left.

“Hello Tom,” I replied. “I didn’t see you there.”

Tom was a local farmer. Although he is aged somewhere in his early 80s and his once tall frame is now bent by the ravages of time and gravity, Tom is still active, spending most of his days caring for his cattle, regardless of the weather. My time is expended by staring blankly at my keyboard, and I avoid playing golf if light rain is forecast. Beneath his tweed cap, Tom has thick white wavy hair and bright blue eyes, which seem to twinkle with mischief. His weatherworn face carries deep laughter lines, a testament to his quick wit and kind smile.

He nodded towards Honey. “I see yon dog almost caught a hare.”

“And nearly ripped my arm off in the process!” I rubbed my shoulder and winced.

“Aye.” He smiled so widely, I imagined he’d just won the lottery. “That would do it.”

“Are you injured?” I asked, pointing at Tom’s walking cane. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you carrying a stick.”

“Ah…My stick is for poking me cows when they won’t move along.” He nodded sagely, then added, “and pointing at things.”

“Can’t you use your finger?” I grinned and demonstrated how to point.

“I could…” Tom tipped his head politely, then raised his stick. His eyes twinkled with glee. “But this is for pointing at things that are further away!”

I laughed.

“For example…” Tom used his stick to draw my attention to the moorland to the west. “Yonder land used to be called rabbit mountain. At one time, it was thick with bunnies, goats, and grouse. Now all you’d find is them hare.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I’ve seen feral goats over there, but never rabbits and grouse. So, whatever happened to them all?”

“Back in ‘86, the gun club came up here and shot ‘em all.” Tom grimaced and chewed his bottom lip. “We haven’t seen a rabbit or grouse since.”

“Oh dear,” I replied, somewhat lamely.

“It’s a shame,” Tom nodded sadly. “My Mary used to make a tasty game pie.”

Still hoping to catch the hare, Honey was anxious to move on, so we said our goodbyes and carried on down the hill.


Back home, I told Lesley about seeing Tom, the demise of rabbits, grouse, and goats from the moor, and described almost getting my arm torn off. Consequently, we fell into a discussion about hares.

“Did you know the Irish hare is native to Ireland and our oldest surviving mammal?” Lesley asked. “It’s genetically different to the mountain hare, which is actually native to Scotland. The Irish hare is now known to have been present in Ireland since before the last ice age. It’s a protected species here.”

“I didn’t know that,” I replied, nodding towards the internet page she was reading, “and neither did you, until you looked it up!”

She laughed. “Do you remember when Lady caught that hare?”

I nodded.

“The silly old dog was running around on the moor when she accidentally kicked a sleeping hare in the head!” I smiled at the memory, but then my lips tightened. “I miss Lady….”

“So do I. And our other dogs too,” she added with a sad grimace. “At some time, they all chased, or were chased, by a hare.”

Lesley was right. Since moving to County Clare, each of our dogs have had hare(y) encounters. Now every hare we see is a poignant reminder of the dogs who lived rich, full, and happy lives in our care, but have since passed on.


 Lady — The Foxhound

The hare Lady killed was probably of the larger European variety. It weighed around 6kg. Despite the accidental circumstances of its passing, Lady proudly claimed the kill as her first. The hare was too large for her to carry alone, but she wouldn’t let it go, so she and I played a macabre game of tug as we brought the body home. Although she had just had a large breakfast, as soon as I let go of the hare to close the gates at Glenmadrie, Lady quickly dragged her prize into the bushes and began to eat. Ignoring our pleas, threats and bribes, the unruly pooch stubbornly remained just out of reach for the next six hours. When she emerged, looking glassy-eyed and considerably more rotund than before, the hare had all but disappeared. That evening, our foxhound slept in front of the fire with a satisfied grin on her face. Unaccustomed to such rich food, Lady’s stomach rumbled and squeaked like a defective boiler as she digested her meal. Inevitably, the eye-wateringly foul gasses from the fermentation process began to leak out. The smell was overpowering and potentially explosive, particularly as the source was laying in front of a roaring fire. Despite opening all of the windows, Lesley and I were soon forced to move to another room — quickly followed by the other dogs!


Romany — The Lasa Apsos

Being such a gentle and kindly creature, Romany had no interest whatsoever in anything dead or bloody — except for dog food mixed with cooked vegetables and some biscuit. Consequently, she was horrified when she saw Lady and I carrying a freshly killed hare. Despite her old age and frailty, the little white dog took one look at the gruesome scene, turned tail and sprinted home to her mummy!


Kia — The Collie

While Lady’s lifetime tally of hare kills eventually reached two, Kia’s proud score was nil. She was never the hunter; that was the job of the loopy foxhound. With her collie instincts, Kia was always happiest chasing the pack — even if it amounted to just one dog. On the approximately 3,000 occasions when Lady went charging across the moor, or crashing through the forest, yelping like a banshee whilst tracking the scent of some long-gone animal, Kia would always be following dutifully 10 metres behind. Whereas Lady would return, smiling and panting, but otherwise unsullied, Kia’s thick black coat displayed the history of every bush, ditch, and thicket they had visited, with some mud added for artistic styling.

Jack — The Rough collie

In the five or so years Jack lived at Glenmadrie, he never once chased a hare — or a ball. Unfortunately, when this sweet doggy turned up on our doorstep, he was malnourished, with arthritic hips and poor eyesight. Although Jack loved taking a gentle stroll on our land with the other dogs, his take on strenuous exercise was trotting cautiously for a dozen paces, then having a nice rest. Even when Lady was in full hunting mode, yapping loudly and running off with Kia in tow, Jack wouldn’t join in. Instead, he preferred to run a few excited circles, woofing into his own ears, before sitting down to wait for the wanderers to return.


Amber — The Pomeranian terrier cross


What Amber lacked in size, she more than made up for with guts and energy. Despite being run over by a car, kicked by cows, and savaged by larger dogs, Amber considered it her job to chase off all invaders. She frequently, and loudly, chased away cars, deer, cattle, cyclists, walkers, helicopters, jets, the International Space Station, and hare. In 17 years, this gutsy little Lady never caught a hare, but she never gave up trying.

We loved them much and miss them all.