Nature thrives between a rock and a hard place

 

'Something there is," decided Robert Frost, "that doesn't love a wall/That sends the frozen ground-swell under it/And spills the upper boulders in the sun."

Without the winter frost-heave of New England, the stone walls of Connacht tend to stay where they are put. My hillside horizon includes an empty stone cottage with a cailleach - the bed-alcove built into the wall beside the hearth. Across the road, the fields have kept a pattern of stone walls, enclosing tiny, irregular fields, that cannot have changed since the early 1800s.

Such a web of walls is commonplace in the landscapes of Aran or south Connemara. The awesome 1,500 kilometres of lace-like walls on Aran are jigsaws of limestone, a material both handily cuboid and densely heavy once in place; in Connemara, Donegal, Wicklow and the Mournes, walls of granite use the coarse tooth of the rock to lock the great weight of stones together.

The little maze of walls on my hillside stands out between the regular stripes of adjoining holdings. They were built of smooth and slippery sandstone prised out of the glaciated hillside, and the effort this evokes seems all of a piece with the long, hard lives of Maggie and her two brothers, couched beneath field-rush thatch and rafters of bog-deal. Now they're gone, the mere delineation of walls loses much of its point, but I stand, sometimes, as the sun picks out their contours, trying to allocate spaces to cows, sheep, potatoes, cabbage.

The renaissance of stone-walling in the small-farm west, whether by grace of REPS, FÁS, LEADER programme or county council road engineers, has been one of the better developments in the landscape, working at several different scales.

While Galway city surges westwards over the hills, its new suburbs erasing whole tracts of old, white-lichened field boundaries, its new Connemara highway is eased through the land on a bow-wave of hand-built stone.

In Mayo, too, new walls at the roadside have added an often quite spurious but nonetheless welcome ambience of hand-crafted history - a cottagey, theme-park grace that actually works rather well. My local crossroads, with its church and graveyard and community centre, looks visibly more friendly and less windswept with its new margins of masonry, however non-indigenous their rock and smooth style of construction.

Getting the local style right can help to fit a new wall fairly seamlessly into its setting, and the number of craftsmen who know what they're doing is growing all the time. The latest crop of builders graduated recently from a stone wall conservation course run by the West Cork LEADER Co-operative.

Somewhere in the fox-hunting exploits recounted by Somerville and Ross there was, as I recall, an account of the hazards of jumping walls in west Cork built of vertically set, sharp-edged slate. Such vertical walls, of less sinister field stone, are shown in the booklet, Stone Wall Construction in West Cork, written as a companion to the course by stonemason Conor Rush and environmentalist Feidhlim Harty.

The rarity of frost in west Cork is, apparently, the reason for the region's "vertical" tradition, but the quality and character of local stone is what has usually shaped building style. Like the pioneer book on the subject (Irish Stone Walls, by Patrick McAfee, 1997), the new booklet is intensely practical on cutting and building different types of dry stone wall, along with those which call for a backbone or capping of mortar.

Quite apart from aesthetics or good farm husbandry, stone walls have a value to wildlife that fence posts and concrete blocks singularly lack. As an ecosystem, they have sometimes been classed with the scree of high mountains, but the mild, moist Irish climate brings an even richer range of plants into their shelter: honeysuckle, ivy and ferns are among my own favourites.

Stone walls hold warmth like a storage heater, and their dry cavities and crevices offer high-rise homes to lizards, shrews and field mice. Spiders weave webs across the balconies. Wrens come rummaging after the spiders and stoats wait round corners for the wrens.

Field walls seem made for the stoat's predatory lifestyle, since they concentrate the number of rats and mice, check the rabbit's flight, and offer both a vantage point and a quick line, along the top, from A to B.

Along with the navigational aid they offer to bats and bees, stone walls may actually help to characterise the already distinctive Irish stoat - becoming part, so to speak, of what they are.

Without weasels for competition, our stoats have a wider range of food than those in Britain and Europe, and the exact niche they have carved for themselves continues to absorb Irish scientists. Unfortunately, catching a stoat with a full stomach is not easy. One hope is to gather stoats freshly killed on the road.

Some years ago, with extensive help from the public, farmers and wildlife rangers, UCC mammalogist Dr Paddy Sleeman managed to collect some 90 stoat corpses with food still in their guts. Now one of his students, Kieran Buckley, is carrying on the research.

This is the time of year that female stoats range along roadsides to feed their young. Later in the summer, the young themselves disperse. This all produces a surge in road deaths from June to August, peaking in July. Kieran Buckley hopes that helpful body snatchers will put the stoat in a plastic or freezer bag, together with a note of the date, location and roadside habitat. He will collect, or the body can be posted to him at Leamore Farmhouse, Blueball, Tullamore, Co Offaly.

Kieran Buckley's e-mail address is peridi@hotmail.com, or phone 087-6351205. The west Cork walls booklet is available from West Cork Leader, Shinagh House, Bandon, West Cork. See also www.westcorkleader.ie