Nature’s harvest, food for thought

MORE often than not, this summer, we wake to skies as peerless blue as a hedge sparrow’s egg.

I step out through the French windows onto the gravel of the courtyard just to greet the day and sometimes we breakfast on the balcony above, looking across at the field of the old estate through a gap between the tall beeches on the other side of our boundary stream.

As if put there by some great movie-set designer, two horses, one large and white, the other small and black, graze together in the ankle-deep buttercups. All around them rabbits nibble the grass, bask at full length, or keep watch. They often forage in pairs, one standing alert on its hind-legs, ears popped up, while the other basks or grazes beside it. When I look again, they have changed roles. I never thought rabbits could be so co-ordinated.

Yesterday evening, at about 5pm, I went to the big beach at Broadstrand on the Seven Heads in west Cork, and swam. The air temperature was 22C and plunging into the sea was painless. I stayed in for all of half an hour. On the entire, half mile long beach, there were perhaps 10 families or small groups, some well kitted-out with rubber rings and windbreaks – but there was no wind, only a light breeze taking the edge off the heat.

At 6.15pm, I went to the pier and got a half dozen mackerel. “Take more, take more!” the skipper’s young sons urged me, and I took a couple of large pollock, one for the following day and one for the freezer – although freezing fish seems unnecessary when, almost every day – except in stormy weather – we can get it freshly caught from the pier. We greatly appreciate the generosity of our angling neighbours.

At home, I pulled out the barbecue and, with a ball of newspaper, set some twigs alight and then fed two-inch thick branches onto the fire, beech wood, cut a couple of years ago and now nicely cured. Soon, I had a bed of hot embers and six mackerel sizzling. Meanwhile, my wife had boiled our first early potatoes and made a salad of rocket and lettuces , all from our garden, and dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Mackerel barbecued over beech wood embers are much tastier than those cooked over charcoal bought at the shop. We ate them on the balcony, the tireless small birds still going backwards and forwards to the peanut feeder at 8pm, the rabbits still grazing in the field of gold and the setting sun burning a hole in the sky over the bay.

The great tits that nest in a green, six-inch diameter plastic pipe ‘elbow’ cleverly converted by a Polish gardener at Druid’s Glen Golf Course and sent to me by the secretary for trial, have raised at least six young. They now crowd at the peanut feeder, the plumage of the young less vivid than that of the adults. In all other respects, they are clones, with the same neat appearance, black head, white cheeks, and lemon-yellow breast, with a black stripe down the centre. I sometimes wonder if I should withdraw the feeder altogether. Without peanuts, tits feed their young on moth caterpillars, destructive to garden plants. In three weeks of feeding young, a pair can destroy 7,000-8,000 caterpillars and other insects.

Left out overnight, the feeder attracts jackdaws at dawn, and they create an infernal racket trying to get at the nuts. The core feeder, the wire-mesh cylinder, is protected from larger birds by a dome made of two hanging flower-baskets joined on one side by a permanent tie and on the other by a bulldog clip, so that it can be opened. This was the ingenious idea of a friend who lives locally, once a maintenance engineer at Cork Airport and, clearly, an inventive man.

In Ireland, the only protective surrounds I could find were from Birdwatch Ireland at €40 plus postage (€8). My friend bought two baskets – they are squirrel proof, too – at our local agricultural co-op for €3.50 each.

However, the jackdaws, perhaps by synchronised wing-flapping, have, once or twice, lifted the whole device off the branch and dropped it on the ground where they have some hope of reaching the reward.

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