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NATURE Summer serenity on Mulranny’s machair

Outdoor Living

Speedwell
TANGLED UP IN BLUE
?Speedwell is among the many wildflower species that thrive on Machair.

Summer serenity on Mulranny’s machair


Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

We looked out across Clew Bay from the machair of Mulranny into a world of blue. Sky and sea were both quiet and calm for the first time in who knows how long, as if the world held its breath in anticipation of some great event. On the far side of the water pale blue hills divided turquoise from cobalt. Even the grass beneath our feet seemed more forget-me-not and speedwell than Timothy and bent.
This is a special place, not just because it is beautiful; it is also a rare habitat that occurs only on the west-facing coasts of Ireland and Scotland and nowhere else in the world. Machair appears to have formed in close association with human industry, where extensive cattle grazing takes place through the summer months. Keeping the grass cropped allows a plethora of wildflower species to thrive, but there must be something about giving the sward a rest as well, for if it is grazed year-round the variety of plants is gradually reduced, something that has an obvious knock-on effect on biodiversity.
Some of these gently undulating coastal plains are home to plentiful colonies of rabbits, although here at Mulranny there are just a few to be found. Why this should be is a mystery, but I never saw more than the occasional rabbit here. Perhaps there are too many predators, or maybe disease keeps their numbers well in check.
We did see the first ‘grazers’, half-grown kits fat from summer fare. These make the very best eating – and is it not fine that they appear just as the very first pigeon squabs are leaving the nest? Rabbit and pigeon pie brings back so very many memories. Rich and flavoursome, it somehow embodied everything real country living was about.
Good fortune and a kind climate has made us a little soft. Whereas at one time the sight of young bunnies would serve to heighten the senses and have us reach for shotgun or snare, now it elicits admiring comments as we sit to watch their antics while enjoying a picnic of foreign foods. A full larder affords us the opportunity to become sentimental.
It is easier to kill a fish than a mammal, although I suppose the life of either is of equal importance to its owner. Still, fish can be dealt with with one sweep of a knife, and aside from a small amount of flapping they make no protest at death. They should be there in plenty from now until November, at least we hope so. But isn’t that a dirty word – November. We have a lot of living to do before then.
With fish coming into the house we have to look at ways of preserving a few for leaner times. We have a freezer, of course, but as an anybody who has ever tried to freeze fish knows, freezer burn quite spoils the flesh, drying it out and destroying its flavour.
There are more traditional and better ways of preserving, most of which involve salting to some degree. The consumption of large quantities of sodium is unfashionable and probably bad for a person’s health, yet our predecessors lived just as long as we do, with at least equal vigour.
The amount of salt required to produce an effective brine might be alarming, even though most of this is not absorbed into the fish. Rather, the brine draws excess moisture from whatever is placed into it – which explains why our hands and feet go wrinkly if we spend more than a few minutes in the sea.
To make a good brine for smoked food, we place a small potato into four pints of warm water and add ten or twelve ounces of rock salt (not table salt) until the potato begins to float – any less and the brine will not be able to do its job properly. Sides of fish (or pieces of rabbit) will need to spend about 24 hours soaking, after which they are ready for the smoker.
A friend gave me a simple smoker more than half a century old, comprised of a steel box that seals tight. A handful of clean hardwood sawdust in the bottom makes smoke aplenty, which is driven into the food. Delicious. Just the thing for an easy summer picnic, and where would you find such serenity as here, under a column of cinerea in this blue sea-world, with friends and real food... Carpe Diem.

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