Six in the morning, early November, and the first softening of the night. I watch as eastern darkness becomes a gentle swirl of cream in black coffee as the yet unrisen sun touches the clouds from beyond the horizon.
The night has been one of unexpected warmth, coming on the heels of a day that left ice in the shadows. After that recent sudden plunge to sub-zero temperatures, we were glad to see the barometer fall back a bit and to watch the thin line of mercury inch purposefully up the thermometer, urged on by a more temperate southerly breeze.
A thin veil hangs over the hills of north Mayo, filtering out the light of lesser stars while permitting the brighter ones to shine through. Thus the Plough can be seen, along with a shimmering cluster of Seven Sisters. There is nothing between these constellations, just that almost imperceptible emulsion of cloud.
At first the darkness of the narrow path is almost impenetrable. Then, as my eyes adjust, shapes gradually appeared. Bushes, lumps of heather, fenceposts, all stand motionless. Another shape, this one moving silently on softly padded paws, glides in and out of vision, disappearing into a profound silence, an enormous quiet.
Yet with hands cupped behind my ears I can hear so much more. Greater sounds emanate from the direction of patch-worked woodland, where birch and alder compete with imported spruce and pine. An owl gives a peculiar, skittering screech, sounding as though something has it by the throat. It calls again, closer, then once more, surprisingly far away. After that it is silent; perhaps it has its mouse, rat, or small bird and satisfied, it makes its way to the dense ivy where it spends its days.
Something crashes through the rampant rhododendron, blundering carelessly for 40 yards before falling strangely silent. One of the stags I had come to see, perhaps, momentarily drunk on a rush of hormones, or, more likely, aware of my presence and beating a hasty retreat. It is quite surprising how quietly even big, heavy animals like these can move when they want to go unobserved; a fleeting noisy panic gives way to carefully chosen steps and quiet.
After listening for another minute or two I walk on in growing light, across the open moor and into the cultivated forest, following the woodland ride beyond the padlocked barrier, past an old fridge and a pair of discarded televisions (aren’t people strange?) and down to one of the small hill loughs that dot this part of the world. Here I pause once more, on the high peat bank with the water shining silver below.
There ought to be trout in these lakes, though for the most part they would be small and dark. Yet some past anglers have written about big fish, a pound, sometimes two, and even four pounds coming from these mysterious places. It takes a special kind of persistence to spend a summers evening up here among the swarms of midges and hordes of hungry horseflies. I shall make it my aim to investigate this area, next May, perhaps, before the sun warms the wet soil and brings the midge pupae to maturity, and see whether the factory forests have done the same damage to fish stocks in these upland areas as they have elsewhere.
The deer are elusive. All I get to see of them, apart from fresh slot marks, hollow, ruddy brown hair on barbed wire and fresh sap oozing from one deeply scored tree where a stag has been busy polishing his antlers, is a series of distant ochre shadows moving for cover long before I draw near. On such a morning my scent carries far. The deer have learned that humans are not to be trusted.
As the year winds inexorably onward we shall meet up with the deer more easily. The stags will lose interest in the hinds, turning their attention instead to the rich pastures. They will be hungry after a busy rut and must regain lost vigour before the cold of winter leaches more calories from their bodies than are available for them to take in. Frosty mornings will keep them on the fields long after dawn.
Yet there is something rather unique about these Neanderthal hills in the hours of darkness. The daylight comes too quickly.