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The ravenous and the meek

Outdoor Living

NATURE’S UNDERTAKERHungry ravens are constantly on the watch for the dead or dying, hoping for the prize of a fallen animal.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

See the raven?
Ireland’s own vulture, she soars over inhospitable terrain, her broad, black wings spread wide to carry her through the cruel grip of winter. For her, the troubled eddy of wind at Nephin’s height is as a child’s toy and she revels in the powerfully alternating updraughts and crosswinds that might dash a lesser bird to the rocks, or at least send it in search of more gentle climes.
Her assignment as nature’s undertaker is an unenviable one. She lives one day on a glut of carrion, celebrating the death of a hill sheep with gleeful, croaking calls and swooping flight, and another on famine rations, composed of whatever thin insect grubs might be found beneath the droppings of those sheep that yet live.
Their life is a sentence, and it seems they seek death, or even relish the prospect. They have no intention of reaching anything like a venerable age, but strive to frustrate the shepherd, the man whose misfortune it has been to inherit the northern slope of any boggy hill, such as must have been visited by Cromwell before he passed his infamous edict ‘To Hell or to Connaught’.
There are fair lands to be found, it is true, in the valley bottoms and miles to the south, but the raven spurns these for the lonely hardship found in the rocky morass of Nephin’s barren slopes, which she shares with those poor sheep.
They chew at their diet of thin hill grass and rough heather, lifting their heads to stare bleakly at the close of day, oblivious to the black shape that plays above while waiting for one of their kind to roll onto its back in a cleft. When it does, the raven sees. The sheep is likely stuck fast, and the barrelled weight of gut on lungs brings a short end to the animal and a feast for the bird. The eyes are taken first, even while the light of life still shines within, and then the tongue, before that sharp and heavy bill gets to work on the soft skin at the rear end.
Should the cleft that the sheep has chosen to roll itself into prove insufficiently deep and fail to hold it fast, so that some feeble kicking should effect its freedom, the sheep will find no reason to celebrate the prolonging of life. Rather, once it has gained the notion of death and being deprived thereof, it will actively seek out brambles or thorns thick enough to entangle its rough woollen coat, and there, on feeling itself caught, will quietly stand until failing strength takes the animal off its feet.
If brambles and thorns do not avail themselves, a wire fence will do. Lacking all suitable means of immediately ending its life, the sheep will wait until morning before resorting to footrot, to dropsy, to infestation by lungworm, roundworm and tapeworm, to liver fluke, to coccidiosis, Johnnes disease or mineral deficiencies or, more likely, a clever and bewildering combination of the foregoing, all the while giving its lifeblood to the vast array of ticks, bots, lice and mange mites that thrive within the warm confines of its coat.
The shepherd fights more for his sheep than the sheep do for themselves. He spends his meagre resources on veterinary bills and medicines, on syringes and dosing bottles, and uses his strength striding over the hills in a vain attempt to care for those in his charge.
The eager eye of the raven sees all from her vantage point high in the heavens and falls in tumbling flight before the cliff. She senses the newness of spring and welcomes her lifelong mate back from his sojourn to the coast, where he spent weeks of winter cold, turning seaweed with crab and shrimp his wage.
The pair, together again, fly over the crag that holds their nest, the one they have used for a decade or more. They climb laboriously until, to the shepherd, they become mere specks, then fold their wings and plummet, side by side, at extraordinary speed, until they must surely dash themselves upon the ground. They save themselves with no moment spare and swoop away, leaving the man gazing after them in wonder and the sheep, careless of life and its proceeds, chewing their way to their end.
To find ravens and see them at their best, go to the Windy Gap north of Castlebar this month, park in the lay-by at the top of the hill. Watch and wait.