I’m trying to stop myself falling off the back of a quad bike. It isn’t easy, as we’re careering along a pockmarked country road and I’m perched on the back of the parcel shelf with a travelling companion who has made it quite clear that if I get any closer, he’ll bite me.
Skipper, a bristly white Jack Russell, and I are being driven by Skipper’s owner, Liam McFaul, the local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) warden. We’re off to see the famous bird colony on Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island, Rathlin, a small ‘craggy, storm-scrubbed’ boot-shaped isle adrift in the raging currents that race through the 20-kilometre gap between Ireland and Scotland.
BIRDS IN THE HAND
Around these parts are some of the largest whirlpools on the planet and winter waves so big they sometimes sweep right over the top of one of the island’s lighthouses. But today, in the early spring sunshine, it’s cows rather than waves that are McFaul’s primary concern. He has some hungry ones, and we need to take a detour to feed them.
McFaul, like many islanders, has two jobs, and while he distributes some feed to his herd, and I try to keep the quad bike between me and a bull the size of a small van, he explains how his two roles recently dovetailed to help bring back a rare bird.
Northern Ireland’s small chough population has declined rapidly since 1950, but last year, for the first time in two decades, a pair of these red-legged, red-beaked crows nested on the island and went on to produce the only chicks in Northern Ireland. ‘Now it might just be coincidence,’ says McFaul, ‘but just the year before, I had turned my farm organic, partly because of what I had learned while working for the RSPB, and as the chough likes to eat the insects found in cattle dung, I can’t help feeling this had something to do with their return.’
The choughs aren’t the only birds who see the island as a good place to bring up their young. About 250,000 birds nest on Rathlin each year, many returning to the 70-metre cliffs by the West Lighthouse, where the RSPB has an observatory. We head down there as the sun is setting, driving a couple of McFaul’s sheep away from the cliff edge as we go. ‘We lose a couple off the top every year, but they like the grass up here the best,’ McFaul says.
It’s too early in the year for the main bird show, when puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes fill the air and line the cliffs, but a couple of fulmars are already wheeling around, reserving their spaces on the jagged basalt. About 15,000 visitors come to see the birds each year, but the island’s economy has been linked to them for a long time.
‘The islanders would abseil down the cliffs to collect the eggs,’ McFaul explains. ‘My grandfather was one of them. He knew so much about bird behaviour – he could tell when a bird was going to lay an egg just from the way it was acting. One of the reasons I got the job as warden was because he passed a lot of what he knew on to me.’
Rathlin’s isolation and lack of predators don’t just support bird life. Hares also prosper on the island, including a unique Rathlin type, known as the golden hare. Far rarer than the Irish hare – whose oversized ears we see silhouetted against the darkening sky – the golden has a coat like that of a ginger cat and blue rather than brown eyes. ‘They don’t know if it’s a subspecies or a mutation because they’ve never been able to catch one to find out,’ shouts McFaul from the front of the quad, although Skipper is doing his best, tearing through the coarse grasses, eyes beady, teeth bared.
In contrast to the wildlife, Rathlin’s growing human population – currently about 100 – is surprisingly well connected. Up to ten ferries run daily, and the islanders retain strong links to mainland Northern Ireland and Scotland, where many of their families originated. The same links are evident on the Antrim mainland, which, along with Rathlin, forms the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), more than 70,000 hectares of ravaged black coastline and connected glens on the northeastern shoulder of Northern Ireland.
Originally carved out by glaciers that stretched across from Scotland, the glens – now just an hour’s drive from Belfast – were so inaccessible during the early 1800s that they were described as a ‘barren waste asylum of miserable and lawless peasantry’ by the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland. A road was built soon after, but prior to that, the population traded more with Scotland than inland Ireland – a trade that has been found to go back to Neolithic times, when the area was known as a good spot to pick up an axe.
Today, Antrim’s lack of development is perceived as an attraction. ‘Our tourism figures have increased more than for anywhere else in Ireland,’ says Kevin McGarry, Moyle District Council’s head of tourism and leisure, when I visit his offices at Ballycastle, back on the mainland. ‘This is the Ireland people want to see,’ he says. ‘Donegal and Connemara have been ruined by all the bungalows people were encouraged to build to boost the population, but we still have the untouched landscapes and farmsteads.’
The authorities are trying to keep it that way, but their planning restrictions sometimes irritate the locals, who feel the rules don’t always take into account the area’s unique history. Up until the late 1800s, families here lived in clachans – small familial hamlets – but as farmers tried to pass on to their children a mix of good and bad land, farms were becoming an unwieldy collection of up to 30 or more fields dotted over a large area.
In order to simplify the system, ladder farms (strips of land that stretch up a hillside so they include good arable land and more marginal land) were introduced, and farmers were encouraged to move out of the clachans and set up farmsteads near their land. ‘These dispersed farmsteads are still a feature of the Ulster countryside,’ says local historian Randal McDonald.
‘But now, the planners want to force people into the occupied areas – a town plan, they call it; a town cram, I call it,’ says McDonald. ‘Locals feel they should be able to build on their own land. It’s as if [the authorities] have decided the countryside is perfect now. Sometimes it can feel as though we’re living in a museum.’
Local historical society member Dominic O’Loan concurs. ‘I don’t want to become like an animal in a zoo for the people in Belfast to come and stare at,’ he says. ‘They have to remember that this is a living landscape.’
Thanks to a decision made by the English government during the 1800s, many more local farmers own their land. As a result, the countryside is largely divided between small landlords rather than large estates. This can cause problems for walkers, as the farmers can be territorial, but that’s changing, says local walking guide Cowper Lynas, as we sneak over the fence of a farmer who Lynas sweetens with the occasional box of chocolates. Their arrangement means that we can walk around Fair Head, on the AONB’s northeastern corner, taking in a dolerite boulder field and walking up a hill so steep that I cut my hands and dirty my knees as I use the heather as a rope ladder.
It’s the most exhilarating walk I’ve taken in years. And I think that’s the attraction of this landscape: it’s wild and untamed, and exploring it requires a bit of effort. But in return, it gives so much back, such as glimpses of dolphins and seals, waterfalls and the sun-warmed silence on Rathlin, so total that the only sound you can hear is the blood rushing through your own ears.
Up and up
‘Just outside Glenariff, you can still see the old ladder-farm fields stretching up the hillside above the village.’
Dominic O’Loan, Glens of Antrim Historical Society member
On the wing
‘May, June and July are the best times to see the breeding birds, such as the puffins, guillemots and razorbills. By August, it’s just the kittiwakes and fulmars left.’
Liam McFaul, RSPB warden, Rathlin Island
The high roads
‘Most visitors follow the Antrim Coast Road. It’s spectacular, but if you don’t deviate from it, you’re missing out on so much. I’d suggest visitors also explore the villages en route, such as Glenarm, Carnlough, Glenariff, Cushendall and Cushendun – they all have their own unique characters – and drive up a few of the glens, maybe to see the waterfalls at Glenariff Forest Park or the Vanishing Lake, from which you can see all the different glens.’
Maxime Sizaret, natural heritage officer, Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust
Best foot forward
‘The walk around Fair Head provides great variety. It takes around three hours one way, and besides spectacular scenery and terrain ranging from grassy clifftop paths and rocky scrambles to sandy beaches and narrow shoreline tracks, there’s also the chance to see ruined churches, industrial coal-mining heritage and wildlife including peregrines, seals and dolphins.’
Cowper Lynas, local walking guide (www.walkantrimhills.com)
For more information on Northern Ireland, visit www.discovernorthernireland.com