Take a walk on wild side of Ireland

Q&A: Emma Bird
Take a walk on wild side of Ireland

Walking was a waste of valuable time, time that could be better spent pursuing any of the many distractions that modern life increasingly provided. But then statistics began to show a significant deterioration in public health, as convenience and fast foods, combined with a catastrophic lack of exercise, led to an alarming rise in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression.

Walking has been shown to increase bone health and a reduction in harmful cholesterol. Studies have shown that walking may also help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s. So perhaps its not too surprising that there has, of late, been a huge resurgence of interest in this most basic of human activities — for the many health benefits it can offer.

Studies have shown that walking, beside its physical benefits, is also beneficial for the mind — improving memory skills, learning ability, concentration and abstract reasoning, as well as reducing stress and uplifting spirits.

Writer philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau said in his book Walking: “I think I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through woods and over the hills and the fields, free from all worldly engagements.”

There was a direct link between Thoreau’s prolific literary output and those hours he spent walking. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that: “If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”

Of his epic walks, Thoreau said: “I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.”

I too am a walker, or to be more accurate, an ambler. The dogs and I wander through the woods twice a day, rain or shine. And sometimes, when it’s dark, raining or very cold, I would dearly love to skip the experience. But the dogs wouldn’t hear of it.

I can’t think of one occasion when I’ve come back from one of these jaunts and wished I hadn’t gone.

The Drimoleague Heritage Walkway is an excellent example of a recent project that includes some of West Cork’s most impressive scenery, historical — and pre-historical — sites and some unusual surprises.

Alpacas are obviously not native to Ireland and so the sight of several of these elegant beasts peering at you curiously through their fabulously crinkled fringes is not what you might expect But these lovely animals — and more — are what you will encounter on the Heritage Walkway’s Waterfall Open Farm Walk.

I spoke to Emma Bird, originally from Bath in the UK, who started her unusual venture in 1999.

What brought you to West Cork Emma?

>>“I fell in love with Ireland during a childhood holiday in Connemara. I’d previously worked for different animal charities and care agencies, at Bath’s Theatre Royal and I’d taught autistic children. But I’d decided to relocate to Ireland and when I got here I started looking for a small site, somewhere I could build a home. I had a friend who had moved here and for a while I lived in a tent on their land. But when I saw this place that was it. I had to have it. When my mother visited she agreed that it was beautiful, a stunning location but she wanted to know where the house was. The truth was, there wasn’t one. The place hadn’t been lived in for over a hundred years so there was no electricity or water either.”

How did you manage? And how did the Alpacas come into the equation?

>>“I lived in a caravan for a good while, made my plans and got to work. Then I was lucky enough to meet my partner Marcus, who is a skilled woodworker, and gradually, we began to get things moving. Now we have a house, two children and a growing business in a place that we love. From the beginning, I wanted an enterprise that wasn’t hard on the environment, and where I could share with children and adults the joy of interacting with animals and the environment. I chose Alpacas because they are such gentle, beautiful animals that are easy on the land. They don’t stray or break fences, and they are fantastically good at keeping foxes away from hens or other livestock. We started off with two alpacas and now we have fourteen.”

You have other animals as well?

>>“Yes, we have giant rabbits, Soay sheep — a very old breed — and donkeys. Over the years we’ve added a small teashop and our next project is working on a barn so that we can have an all-weather facility. We host many school outings and it’s great to show the children around, introduce them to the animals, tell them all about how they live, what they need, then enjoy a walk down to the river and the waterfall, where we talk about river and plant life.”

When did the Drimoleague Heritage Walkway come into the picture?

>>“When the project was being established we were delighted to become involved. There was a decent path laid for walkers, and before too much longer, the Alpaca Walk was open to the public. Walkers pass our farm on the walk and they can stop to visit us. We also cater for small groups and birthday parties. Now we are working on adding a farm shop and a workshop for felt making with Alpaca fleece, spinning and wood turning demonstrations. We’re also in the process of training the Alpacas to walk on a halter. The Drimoleague Heritage Walkway has been a great benefit to us and the area. It has also given people the chance to visit some beautiful and unexplored corners of West Cork.”

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