Blue Skies and Hill Fires

03rd January 2017
With another day of clear blue skies and light winds it seemed a shame to stay inside so Jasmine and I headed for a walk up around Sybil Head. The last time we were up here we sat and watched half a dozen whales feeding 200m below the cliffs until the midges chased us away. It's an amazing spot that hopefully doesn't become overrun in the coming years after the film set up there last summer.

With only one extremely wild winter as a baseline for what to expect from living here the current calm conditions are hard to believe. Things couldn't be more different from last year's constant wind and rain and it's hard not to think that we'll pay for this fine weather later in the year! I'm sure it doesn't work like that, but if it does at least I can say I enjoyed the settled conditions when we got them.

We walked east from Sybil Head towards the Three Sisters, stopping often to admire the views. I wanted to come and live here because the beauty of this landscape always inspired me whenever I visited. But living in a place is different to being on holidays somewhere and the amazement doesn't be long getting worn off some bit by the humdrum of normal life. Days like today are a good reminder of how lucky we are to live where we do, as Jasmine pointed out while we were stopped looking at a glassy Smerwick Harbour reflecting the pale blue of the empty sky. Towering ridge-like cliffs stretched above a vast sea towards the mountains ahead of us.

The views were spoiled somewhat by the numerous hill fires and their accompanying clouds of thick smoke that hung in the still air. I feel very conflicted about hill farming in rural Ireland. There is a long tradition of people using the mountains for sheep grazing here. These people often live on the fringes of society in more ways than one, and I'm sure most of them feel more connected to their past and their surroundings than the majority of us do. There is a culture and history that has grown with the generations of hillfarmers that is undoubtedly a part of the identity of rural Ireland. But these days sheep farming is economically unviable and only persists because of grant schemes. The mountains are being kept barren by EU laws that require sheep farmers to maintain them in "agricultural condition." Which means there's no room for wildness. In the current climate of rapid biodiversity and wilderness loss the hills could once again be a safe haven for wildlife and a positive place where people could enjoy the many benefits of being outdoors. If attitudes changed at least. Grants could be used to pay these farmers to plant trees and help create trails, record placenames and hill stories (which are also being lost very quickly), start local tour companies and help reintroduce extinct wildlife to its former ranges, among plenty of other initiatives that would benefit the places as well as the societies that live around them.

But I won't hold my breath. Change in people happens very slowly. It's a well known truth in Ireland that most people from rural areas don't like outsiders coming in and telling them what to do with the land that's been in their families for as long as they've known. I've met plenty of farmers who have been friendly, open and welcoming but in wanting to keep the peace I've never felt in a position to voice my concerns for the state of the hills to any of them. To me it would still seem offensive to question their livelihoods when I come from such a different background. But I would love if they started changing their minds by themselves.

If you're interested in this topic then I highly recommend reading Feral by George Monbiot. He is passionate about rewilding and approaches the subject from a very pragmatic, logical and scientific (but accessible) point of view. While his focus is on the UK the situation in Ireland is very similar. His website is worth following too, and this post in particular goes into more detail about what I've touched on above.

Jas looking for distant blubber. Shot at f/1.8 on the Sigma 18-35mm. An incredible lens for APS-C cameras.

We walked on. The huge sea stretched away to our left and huge cliffs deep in shadow dropped to meet it. There were plenty of stonechats about and a distant fox, glowing red in the hard winter sun, paused to check us out before hiding somewhere underground ahead of us. Time seemed to be racing away and after a second lunch stop we turned around to be back before dark. I usually don't get too excited about sunsets on cloudless days but nonetheless I wanted to be back at Sybil Head in time to see the show. And it wasn't bad at all.

An Tiaracht at sunset. Shot with a Canon 400mm f/5.6 (which is 640mm on the 7D2). I've been oggling the new Canon 100-400mm since it's come out. It's supposedly as sharp as the prime but with the benefit of a wider focal range. I'll have to keep dreaming with the current price tag.

Left to right are the Foze Rocks, An Tiaracht and Inis Tuaisceart. I was wishing I had a longer lens with me for this but it's not a bad scene with the foreground included either.


Photo comment By brendan oconnor: Hi Richard, Love the photos,and do agree with everything you said on your Blog. Keep up the good work.

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