Ramble for Raptors – a hike to remember!

As I write this, the fire is blazing and darkness has fallen, but earlier in the day the sun sparkled in the sky and snowdrops bowed their heads, grateful for the warmth of early Spring. Last weekend couldn’t have been more different, weather and rest wise! The challenges we faced, made it all the more fulfilling. Let me take you on a journey…

Weather watching the night before, we thought it was going to be cold but when we embarked from Cladagh Glen, the fast flowing river which was traditionally used for gatherings and washing clothes, the air held an unexpected warmth. The starting point for day one of my Ramble for Raptors. Mum and I set off, armed with hot chocolate and lots of supplies with the rest of my family. When we had walked the first mile, we bade farewell to the rest of the clann and went on our way together, towards Cuilcagh Mountain Park. We hadn’t travelled 2 miles more before the morning gave us the Golden Plover and faint sunshine. The weather was much better than expected! When we arrived at Cuilcagh I was surprised by the amount of people already walking and talking…anticipating. I thought perhaps that it would mar my walk, these crowds but as we stopped to take in the already emerging views, we were locked onto a shape. It was vertically lifting off and immediately I knew! It soared and hovered between two hills. I didn’t have my binoculars or camera – I didn’t want to burden myself – but I know that shape anywhere. My heart bird was waving us off; the Hen Harrier always seems to slip in when we need it. The joy he gave, surged us forward, laughing and shaking our heads in disbelief. No one else seemed to notice, but us. Maybe he was for us.

The mist swirled around us and as we rose higher the temperature dipped drastically. The climb was tough in the high winds blasted us from side to side. We were joined a short while later by Paul Larmor, a lovely man and management committee member of Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group. We made a merry three walkers, talking when the wind allowed it. The climb was pretty tough, the snow was still in places and the rain came hard, the wind gusty and sometimes feeling perilous.

We kept on going, up the many steep steps on the ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and we made it to the top along with many others. We climbed over 650m above sea level – not quite to the summit as the path was closed. I felt amazing!

It felt good to be on the downward climb, Snipe and Raven burst out, flapped and spoke spells. When we arrived at the car park below, lots of people congratulated themselves on a good hike, we were only half way through ours and you know, it felt good, that we were doing more, for more.

We left Paul at his car and he promised to welcome us at the end point, 7 miles ahead for us. In order to get to Florencecourt Forest, we had to walk a few miles along the roadside, that was hard, pounding feet on the hard monotonous concrete was difficult, even though the surroundings were gorgeous; but mum and I chatted along the way, well I probably bored her about Warhammer characters and strategies. I was distracting myself and she never complained once, asking questions and pretending to be interested. At a point, about half way through our road journey we heard a car slow behind us. The car stopped beside us and it took me a while to recognise the familiar faces. It was Raymond and Annette Elkin, volunteers I recognised from previous Hen Harrier Days! We chatted briefly and they gave us a lovely card with a donation inside. I don’t know how they found us! So lovely and very welcome; we strode on with purpose towards Florencecourt Forest!

Our legs were feeling a little heavy at this point and not long after our arrival at the forest, we stopped for a micro break by a fast flowing stream. It soothed my soul enough to record a little video for those following the trek on Twitter.

[wpvideo gdpqd5v8 ]

We hiked on through the hilly forest amongst blackbird and robin song, the soundtrack lifting my mood and shooting me forward. The image of our earlier Hen Harrier fleeting in amongst the mist and swaying trees. Evening was falling and the light was fading and as we checked our map, we realised we only had over a mile to go. 13 down. Day One was almost complete!

As we ambled the last section of path, I saw my dad, Bláthnaid, Lorcan and Paul up ahead. We were done! I admit to feeling tired and achey but it was a really great feeling! Our heavy legs carried us the last few steps and we were greeted with much enthusiasm and encouragement! At the back of my mind, I worried about getting up and doing it all again! The evening was made up of baths and catching up with Big Cats on iPlayer. Rest. Then bed. I wrote in my diary that I was worried…the pen trailed off the page to snores, apparently!

Day two began with drizzle and stiff legs. I was tired but mum was chipper and it’s kind of infectious.

We met Paul at Florencecourt ready for bog trotting and more climbing and hiking.

The incline of the first leg of our hike was steeper than I remembered, maybe the work of the previous day made it so. We were pushing on with good speed though and as we came to the end of a farm track, opening out onto blanket bog, I caught my breath. It was beautiful, rugged and wild. Limestone jutted out and gave us a challenge. It was a brilliant part of the walk, I felt energised and raring to go. You see, nature does that, it envelopes you in positive swelling vibes. Wrapping you up, yet baring your whole being to the elements. The wind roared and the rain was getting heavier. I was happy though. I was doing this thing that had been on my mind for so long. I was doing more than just talking! I was doing! All the while, even more money was pouring in, mum getting emails to say so, that shot us forward like an arrow.

Now came the tricky bit, blanket bog. Squelching muddy depths. We deftly trotted over tussocks flushing Snipe with our whooping and yomping. It was the most exciting part of the hike, this was proper trekking! Looking out for the yellow Cuilcagh trail arrows was a challenge and it kept me focused.

All at once we were at the foot of Gortmaconnel Rock and the rain had stopped. A fluttering caught my attention! Small, square tailed with pointed wings! Black and white patterns emerged as it flew up and away from us. A Merlin!! What a find! Another beautiful raptor journeying alongside us! Two of the most endangered raptors showing themselves and commanding the sky with their enchanting wingbeats. It was phenomenal!

One of the more amusing aspects of our hike, was the diversity of stiles. I’m a bit of a geek for new details and they attracted my attention. Here’s a couple to accommodate my nerdy nature 😉

We were about half way through our day as we briefly rested for lunch among hazel trees and the beautiful feral goats. Hot chocolate warmed my aches and chocolate squares gave me a much needed extra sugar boost. The road greeted us again after a while and it wasn’t too bad this time, even though the rain had returned.

Arriving at the Gortmaconnel section of our hike, we walked a brand new path to me. It was stunning. Trekking upwards alongside the Owenbrean River was really magical, despite the heaviness of the afternoon, the mist and the rain.

[wpvideo uxq2Qa5G ]

I felt a sort of static in the air, an energy, a force pulling me forward. Perhaps it was the magical elements of landscape, wild places and the feeling that you’re doing something good. A movement grabbed my attention, a small hop, shiny skin. A frog! I pulled on my gloves to protect it and made to catch it, I can’t resist it! Nature in your hands, there’s nothing like it!

This filled me with joy and adventure. Frogs do that. They are just fantastic little creatures but I hoped though, that it hadn’t emerged too soon. Oh, it was fantastic to see and hold that slithering form, my throbbing legs forgotten.

We moved quick again through the mist and we spoke so much about what we all love about wildlife and our deep concern and passion to help it thrive. Paul and mum were such great walking companions, always cheerful and full of great conversation. I felt blooming lucky to have them!

We entered more bog and limestone crags. I wondered how it might look here in Spring. This will definitely be on the family ramble list when everything is in bloom.

As the conversation meandered like so many of the paths we had walked, I realised we had only a few miles to go! The last part of our walk, was a short stretch by road and then on to Cladagh Glen, to where we started from the previous day.

Paul was really taken with Cladagh Glen. In Spring it is carpeted with bluebells, wild garlic and wood anemone. The rushing waterfalls and river make it such a beautiful and enchanting place. We stopped for a while to breathe it all in and I decided to make another video to share with Twitter. We were almost there! Only a short walk ahead. Our ears pricked up and we could hear familiar voices. My family had walked ahead of the end point and were joined by Dr Eimear Rooney and her mum! We had done it!! We hugged, chatted and walked to the car park. We had hit over £5k on the JustGiving Page. I felt so proud!!

As a young person, I’m often asked what I want to do when grow up. I think I am already doing, or at least starting to do, what I want to do later in life. Conserving and protecting wildlife. As I write, I have raised over £6k – the page closes tonight and I can’t begin to express how amazing it feels. To do something concrete to help, contributing towards something which will really make a difference to science and conservation. What is also really astounding? That I’m going to be part of the satellite tagging programme! I am going to learn so much, survey work to include nest finding. Learning about raptor ecology, distribution and lesser known information which the tags will give us. I’ll be getting up close to birds I’ve only saw at a distance, seeing them in a new light. I’ll be so much a bigger and better person. I never dreamed this would happen or had an expectation that it would.

I’ll be keeping everyone updated as the plans finalise and ‘Hawk Eyes’ reach the field and into the community. It’s going to be fab!!!

Thanks to all of you for all your support and generosity!

Oh, here’s a map for those who would like to track the journey.

Thanks to Marble Arch Caves Geopark for providing us with all the information we needed, to hike these amazing landscapes- mountain, bog, woodland, forest and limestone hills. It was an adventure that I’ll never forget!

Thanks for reading


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20 Responses

  1. Beautifully written! I felt like I was on the walk. Some wonderful birding encounters but I was quite taken by the irresistible urge to catch the frog. Almost all the wildlife lovers (myself included) that I know were at some stage enchanted by the humble frog or toad. We learn so much about the cycle of life from them. As for what you want to be when you grow up, I can tell you this. Enjoy what you are now. When you ‘grow-up’ someone will be asking you what you want to be in 5 years time. We spend so much time waiting for what we might be that we risk missing who we are. Thanks for your fund raising efforts and for raising awareness of conservation concerns.

  2. A wonderful read Dara, so well written I felt I was there with you. Many many congratulations on your achievement.
    Oh and well done Mum too!

  3. Thank you for writing about your ramble, it sounds like it was hard work but also exhilarating. All those birds you saw – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a snipe! Thanks for including the pictures as well. One in particular reminds me of a landscape I’ve known since childhood: the so-called “high fens” (or Hautes Vagnes, as the Belgians call them), near the German/Belgian border. It’s basically bog with wooden walkways. My aunt lives in that area, and I’ve visited often. Your photos looked quite tempting, maybe another reason why I should visit your neck of the woods some time!
    Congratulations on accomplishing your ramble, and I look forward to hearing more about the tagging project.

  4. Thank you Dara for taking me through your very long walk. I felt as though I was there with you, seeing through your eyes, experiencing your excitement, squelching through the boggy bits with you, tasting the chocolate (!), feeling the sense of satisfaction of doing something close to your heart, and of taking action. I love frogs too and am pleased they live in and near my garden pond – but I’ve not seen any yet this year, so yours was a bonus. Frogs are symbolic of change and transformation, exactly what you are hoping to bring about by putting your energy into the cause behind this memorable walk. Congratulations – and may all your aches and pains prove to be very worthwhile! Joyce aka Nannybirds on Twitter.

  5. Thank you, Dara, for enabling us to share in your journey. What a fabulous weekend, through beautiful country, and an enormous achievement! The Hen Harrier flying to send you on your way brought tears to my eyes! And what a Mum and supportive family!

  6. Beautifully evocative writing Dara and congratulations on a truly massive achievement, you will look back on this as a milestone, a stepping stone, in the adventure of your life. When we follow our hearts we walk with happiness however tough the journey. Well done you.

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