Country Sights and Sounds
I went to find my old friend Loppety at our prearranged meeting point. He was there, clutching a paper cup of strong black coffee and nursing a mild hangover. “Guinness,” he muttered by way of explanation, as he rolled into the passenger seat, “is different here. And do me a favour; call me Billy.”
“Your grandfather’s name.”
We were soon on our way, through Newport and to Mulranny, where we turned right to take the coast road toward Ballycroy. The bog either side of us was empty and once we left the hills behind we fell into silence until we met the Owenduff and parked on the bridge at Srahnamanra to take a look at the weir pool. A salmon rolled just up from the concrete sill of the weir, showing tartan flanks and a dark belly, his spawning livery.
I could see the hungry look on Billy’s face. “Don’t even think about it. There are more eyes on this river than in a field full of spuds.”
As we followed the receding tide to look at the pools and riffles left behind, I could feel his eyes measuring nets and lines and imagined him there an hour before dawn, pitting his wits against the fish and their guardians. Poaching is no longer an acceptable pastime, I had to remind him, it’s a crime. Where there were plenty of fish, now there are few, and these wild rivers are the final frontier of a fast-disappearing yet invaluable resource, the last bastion in the defence of an irreplaceable treasure, a reservoir of wild stock in urgent need of protection.
“How are the salmon back at home?”
“There’s some. Not enough. We get by though.”
“If you persecute them for five more years,” I told him, “there’ll be none left at all. But if you gave them those same five years to recover there’d be enough for all, like we used to see.”
Billy fell into a brooding silence at that. I could understand his dilemma. Having seen the rivers so full of salmon it was hard to watch them flowing almost empty, over barren gravel, where a few hardy men still grappled for the final few fragments of what must have seemed an inexhaustible supply of fish. I knew and partly understood the mentality that drove them. If they didn’t take the fish then the next man would. And although the days of necessity are gone, tradition and heritage have deep roots.
When another smaller salmon showed itself I felt we should move on and find the deer I had promised. We stopped here and there along the way to listen for the roars of rutting stags, and walked the edge of plantation after plantation to look for signs of deer traffic. There were some, though not enough to warrant walking miles away from the road.
Close to Bangor Erris we found the slot marks left by a large stag and a small group of hinds, and when we listened we heard a distant bellow followed by a series of gruff barks.
Billy offered his opinion. “A young animal, maybe four or five years old. He’ll be in great condition, too.”
“How can you tell from here?” I wanted to know.
“It’s simple. The mature stags are run out by now, exhausted after rounding up the hinds for weeks on end, and that boyo out there has been hanging around waiting for his chance to take over. There must be green fields to the east of us, where they all go to feed at night, and now they’re sheltered the far side of these trees with somewhere further to run if they need to. Those tracks we saw, they’re from travelling deer that know where they’re going. If they’re well shot like you said, they won’t hang around near the road, and that means that stag would be easy caught.” He looked at me hopefully.
“And tell me, how would you go about catching him?”
His eyes became hooded. “I did hear of ways.”
“Better not,” I said. “There’s some of us have to work around here. And anyway, these deer aren’t far different than the salmon. Almost every man would take one if they could and they’re under enough pressure without you and I adding to it. We could try and find him though. What do you think?”
Billy brightened. “Leave it to me then.” Trudging over rough, hummocky ground, splodging knee-deep through stinking bog, leaping drains, crawling through the sombre dark of spruce, his loppety leg came into its own and I struggled to keep up on the wide, circular route that he took. He moved instinctively, taking into account the direction of the wind and the lie of the land, spurred on by the occasional challenging roar of our quarry.
Then there were our hinds, rather closer than I expected, their ruddy coats perfect against the brown moor grass. A short distance beyond them our fine young stag stood with his nose searching the wind. There were twelve points to his well balanced antlers – four or five years old, then, and in great shape, well muscled, thick-necked, next year’s monarch, just as Billy had said.
It wasn’t just his grandfather’s name Billy had inherited. There was no doubt about it; a master of his art.