« PreviousContinue »
and when rotten is good manure for land : * and from this sweet grass it is supposed proceeds the sweetness of their flesh ; they are taken by nets set in proper places on the shores. 'Tis observable that the divers and wigeons, which are very rank and unsavoury elsewhere, undergo the same change of their flesh when they feed in this place” (p. 192).
Harris, in his · History of the county of Down’ (1744), says of the “ Barnacle, called by the English, Brant Goose,”—“All along the flat oozy sands, from Three-mile Water to Belfast and Holywood, grows a very sweet grass affording food to great flocks of these birds, as well as to duck, wigeon, and teal, all which are as good here as in any part of Ireland, and some imagine them better than in the neighbouring loughs of Strangford and Larne; but this is only the effect of fancy, for they often fly from one lough to another, and feed promiscuously.
“They are birds of passage, and know their seasons so well that they arrive every year in the north parts of Ireland, on or very near a certain day, that is, the first flights of them, for they do not always come together. They are seldom seen sooner than the 24th of August, and are rarely missed about that time. But they are not so regular in their flights from this country, some going away in April, and some staying till the middle of May. * * * After their young are ready for a strong flight, they return to us, by which time they find a new harvest of sea-grass ready for them here” (p. 234).
Smith, in his ' History of the county of Waterford,' completed in 1745, speaks of—“Barnacles, which we have in plenty in winter, being of as good a relish as at Londonderry, Wexford, or elsewhere; we have the same kind of grass described in the appendix to Boate's * Natural History of Ireland,' which it is said they feed upon, and which gives them that peculiar sweetness in those places where this grass is found. The roots of this grass are white and tender, and of a sweetness resembling liquorice; great quantities of it are often cast up on the coast after a storm."
In Mason's 'Statistical Account of Ireland' (vol. iii. p. 400), published in 1819, the following notice of wild-fowl appears in a history of the Union of Tacumshane (county of Wexford], by the Rev. Wm. Eastwood, Rector :'-“Besides the advantages already described from its local situation, this country has the peculiar benefit of possessing a certain grass or sea-weed which maintains myriads of wild-fowl, and gives them a taste and flavour superior to those of any other place or country. The most abundant crop of this grass is found inside the harbour, from the island of Woodtown to within two miles of the town [of Wexford), and to the extremity of the bay eastward. There are two loughs at some distance, where it also grows, though not so profusely, and to these outposts the birds take their flight when the tide rises in the bay above the weed, and make a pass through the air as regular as if it were meted out, from which they never deviate. Under these lines fowlers take their stand, often with great success, particularly in dark and blowing weather. The number brought to market is not easily ascertained ; it is, however, reasonable to state it at 200 couple a week for six months every year. The average prices may be thus—barnacle, 6s.; whinnard, 3s.; wigeon, 2s. 6d. ; teal, ls. 8d. ; and duck (least liked), 2s. a pair. Besides these, there is a great supply of sea-fowl of an inferior quality, which are bought up and considered very good; this sale produces £80 a month, or above £1,000 a year [£500 for “six months”]. They are purchased by carriers, who convey them through the country and into the adjacent counties, and make a good livelihood by retail. Some are despatched in the mail and day coaches to Dublin, where they are esteemed, and, as it is said, many baskets are sent across the channel."
* This plant, the grass-wrack (Zostera marina), or sleech-grass of Belfast Bay, is still used most extensively as manure by farmers, both poor and rich, who are little aware how much they are indebted to the brent geese, wigeon, and other wild-fowl, for rooting it up. Partaking themselves of but a small portion of the plant, these birds let the remainder float off to the shore, where it is appropriated by man to his use. * Their appearance in this month is of common occurrence. The three latest notes I made on the subject are-August 27, 1845. Brent geese have arrived in Belfast Bay ; - August 24, 1847. A flock observed on wing above Larne Lough ;August 25, 1848. Four killed in Belfast Bay; the earliest this season, and no more yet seen.
All the statements respecting the habits of the brent goose contained in these extracts is not correct ; but as it is pleasant to see that the subject has long since engaged attention, I shall not be so ungenerous as formally to criticize them. I shall, instead, describe in full detail, as at present known, the
Habits of the Brent Goose in Belfast Bay. The old accounts of the time of arrival and departure are correct. The earliest period I have noted is the 20th August ;* and
by the first week of September they are generally here. They sometimes remain until May; and in 1841, a few were seen so late as the 20th of that month. In Wexford harbour, also, they are said to arrive in September and leave in May.* They come later to the Northumbrian coast in the autumn, and depart northwards earlier in the spring. Mr. Selby, writing of it, remarks :-" In this locality tolerably-sized flocks usually make their appearance in the early part of October, which are increased by the repeated arrival of others till the beginning of November, at which time the equatorial movement of the species in this latitude seems to be completed. * * * In this haunt they remain till the end of February, when they migrate in successive flocks, * * * and before April the whole have disappeared” (p. 272). A flock of these birds, supposed to be on migration, was heard on the 9th of September, 1845, at 12 o'clock in the night (which was very dark), flying over Holywood bank, Belfast Bay. The weather being calm, they were heard from a great distance as they approached, and afterwards as they passed overhead ;-they kept a direct southerly course.
Owing to their being so much disturbed of late years in this locality, chiefly by the increase of shipping, they have not (unless in severe weather) been in such abundance early in the winter as formerly; but in Strangford Lough they are as numerous as ever at that period. About the month of March, the greatest numbers now appear in Belfast Bay; and wild-fowl shooters believe that they leave the comparative quiet of Strangford Lough after having exhausted its Zostera pasture, as they have remarked the banks to be closely cropped of the plant at this time.
Dr. Fleming mentions this bird as "a winter visitant, frequenting meadows and grass-fields ;”+ and Mr. Jenyns says it “ frequents the sea-coast and also inland marshes” (p. 224); but is not the bernacle, instead of the brent goose, the species thus alluded to ? Those of Belfast Bay at least are strictly marine ; and I have never heard of a single individual here, even when wounded, flying to land, or to fresh water, as other marine birds in that case do. Their nearest approach to land known to me was during the night of a hurricane, when a great number remained on the Long Strand, within half a shot of the fields bordering the bay :-they were known to do this only in the one instance.*
* Major T. Walker.
+ Brit. Anim., p. 127.
Although they may occasionally feed by night, such is not their habit : they are day-feeding birds. When a south-east wind drives them towards the Antrim side of the bay, they may sometimes be seen with the naked eye busily feeding, and in so doing, dipping half the body under water, and exhibiting, conspicuously, the white under plumage from the legs to the tail. They likewise feed while walking on the Zostera banks, left bare by the falling tide. In seasons when there was a continuance of easterly winds, opportunities were daily afforded during several weeks in spring, of observing great flocks of brent geese going through all their evolutions within about three shots of the road which borders the bay on the western side, and at a distance of from one and a half to two and a half miles from town. A railway embankment, constructed within the last few years, has, however, shut out this prospect; and fields of corn now wave where banks of Zostera then prevailed. They fly to the deep water in the afternoon, and remain there during the night. At sunrise—not before dawn, like the wigeon-they commence flying to their feedinggrounds, at which time, particularly in March and April, they were formerly shot at low water by fowlers, using ordinary guns, and having their small boats in the creeks. These men required to be cautious of exposing their countenances, as the “human face divine” alarmed the birds much more than the body of the shooter. Many brent geese were commonly thus killed before swivel-guns came into use, but that mode of shooting has since been rarely followed. Another method, chiefly practised late in the season and during the day, has likewise been discontinued. I allude to fast-sailing “cots”* and yawls—the latter being preferred,—which, with a brisk wind, would sometimes bear down upon large flocks before they were aware of their danger; and in such case, the brent geese, by rising against the wind as they always do, and the boat still bearing on them, would be half a shot nearer to the fowlers than they were when swimming. As they fly at a later hour in the morning than the wigeon, so in the evening they retire earlier than that species. They were sometimes sought for when on their seaward flights, by fowlers awaiting them in their boats in the creeks; but as they were then in large bodies, fewer chances were afforded of getting shots.
* Mr. R. Davis, jun., writing from Clonmel, in 1842, remarked ;-“One of these birds was shot in our river by an uncle of mine some fifty years ago.” A friend of Mr. J. Poole's (as noted in his journal in January 1848) informed him that “he once shot a brent goose from the bridge of Enniscorthy, a town nearly twentyfive miles up the Slancy. A heavy snow-storin, which made it impossible to discern objects at any considerable distance, may account for these geese finding their way such an unusual distance from the sea.”
They very rarely appear “up the bay” in moonlight nights. When seen there, some of the shooters imagine that when the moon rises it is mistaken by them for the morning dawn. In stormy nights they will occasionally “come up" for shelter, and I have known them, at least once, to be killed, but they are never sought after at night like other wild-fowl.t It should be stated, that when flying up in the morning, they generally proceed in small flocks, and alight altogether about the same place, thus, after the flight has continued for a long time, forming a great multitude ; but in the afternoon, this whole body will rise en masse to retire to deep water for the night. If high water, early in the morning, at their usual hour of flight, they await the ebb before leaving their night quarters. They are very wary, and avoid in their flights approaching objects with which they are unfamiliar, as new beacons, &c., erected in the harbour. A branch of a tree brought down the Lagan by a flood, and covered with sea-weeds so as to give it a dark appearance, will alarm them, as will the smoke of the steam-vessels even from a distance. Any thick smoke seen overhead by the Anatida generally, when on the water, excites their fear, and prompts them to take wing.
* Small flat-bottomed boats.
+ Sir Wm. Jardine observes that:-“In Ireland this goose is also abufdant, and furnishes most of the night-shooting which is much followed on various parts of the coast."--' Brit. Birds,' vol. iv. p. 81.