The slobs of Wexford

On Ireland's southern coast the sloblands, or polder-lands, are a mecca for geese - and twitcher Peter Cunningham
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The Independent Culture
IT'S SEVEN in the morning and a stiff wind is whipping in from Rosslare. An hour beforehand, the folks in White's Hotel - well used to dawn antics - had cheerfully served up an heroic cooked breakfast in front of a blazing fire. It's needed. Overhead, among the waning stars, silver sun-kissed planes from the States reach for Europe, but down here in the pitch black behind the dyke, 6ft below sea level, it's numbing cold and the only sound so far is the rustle of wind and, once, the shriek of a coot bagged by a home-going fox.

Dawn, one of the few certainties in life, is a magic time on these Wexford sloblands - the name given to the polder-lands, protected by dykes, which have become a birdwatcher's paradise. You can feel the magic. So too can the tens of thousands of birds who have spent the night in the safety of the sea, and are now waiting for the light to come in on to the slimes where they feed.

"Listen!"

Ranger Alyn Walsh holds up his hand. To the untrained ear nothing has changed, just the shifting breeze sound and the waves lapping outside the dyke. But then you hear it. A low, background chuckle. Up gets the wind and out of the corner of your eye you catch what might be forms blacker than the grey sky.

"Scout parties," Alyn says.

Suddenly the horizons leap out and we are lying, not just in the snug cover of the dyke but on a sea wall that is the boundary between a bleak wilderness and a grey, endless sea. Way out east against a dawn that is a dead straight, faintly yellow line, strings of geese are becoming airborne, whiplashes against the sky. Now they are crossing overhead at less than a hundred feet, distinct family units, the father calling, the family answering, before whiffling down on to the grasses. The older birds have horizontal black bars across their grey chests and a white patch above their beaks from which their name is derived.

Just 150 years ago, Wexford Harbour comprised thousands of acres of mud- flats and sandy islands. Dykes were built and two enormous sloblands were created. The result produced an unparalleled avian utopia which today is the winter homeland to one third of the world population of Greenland White-fronted Geese. It was not until 1947 that they were distinguished as a unique sub- species by Sir Peter Scott.

Alyn Walsh has lived and worked on the North Slob for 15 years. He and his colleague, Christian Glahder, monitor the Greenland White-fronts in both Ireland and Greenland as part of an international study. "The geese arrive here every year like clockwork between the first and third of October," Christian explains. "In the second week of April they leave. It takes them 17 hours to fly to Iceland where they stage for two weeks. Then they cross the icecap to the western coast of Greenland."

With the aid of a powerful telescope, Alyn is identifying specific birds that he fitted with numbered collars in Greenland the year before. He hopes to fit the birds with satellite packs, already in use on swans, which will be invaluable for learning more about the migratory habits of the geese.

Half a mile inland, Bill Fiske is feeding his ducks. A north Essex man who came to Wexford 30 years ago via Kenya where he was an agricultural officer, Bill farms a dairy herd on the North Slob and also runs a shoot. He's concerned about a nearby carrot farmer whose gas bird scarer is frightening away the game.

"All that's left over there is 80 swans and four deaf ducks," Bill remarks.

He likes the life but keeps abreast of matters across the water. "If I was back there I'd vote for Paddy Ashdown," he says as a flight of 10 Bewick's swans come over like 747s and immediately after them, riding the wind in the opposite direction, a flock of eight teal dart along the channel. As we follow the teal towards the sun and catch a glint of their green, across the sky explodes a dust cloud of lapwing, easily 1,000, dispersing over the town.

Established by Norsemen in the ninth century (Weiss Fiord), 300 years later Wexford was a Norman administration by virtue of the mercenaries hired from France by the Irish king, Dermot MacMurrough. Today, clinging like a barnacle to Wexford Harbour, it's a charming town of twisting streets, ancient walls and a long quay. Along this waterfront, before he emigrated to America, walked young John Barry, founder of the US Navy. The tiniest parish in the world lies here, Saint Doologue's, a mere two hectares small. At one end of the main street, cosy White's Hotel can boast that Robert McClure - who discovered the North-West Passage - was born upstairs, while Kelly's pub at the other end can claim one William Cody Sr, father of Buffalo Bill.

Out on the South Slob Bill Fiske's neighbour, David Gallagher, also runs a shoot. David has been here since 1959. Both Bill and David rear mallard for their shoots and rarely bag even a half of what they release. There's a waiting list for guns, but some vacancies do occur. It's not like it used to be 100 years ago when punt gunners like Larry Duggan's grandfather crept out, lying belly-down in their flimsy floats, and with a lanyard discharged two pounds of shot from the 10ft cannon mounted on their bows into flocks of birds.

"He once killed 160 teal in one shot," Larry says. "He sold them afterwards. There was good money for game then."

Nowadays Larry's son, also Larry, a keen ornithologist, acts as a guide for David Gallagher's guns, bringing them to the hides in the pre-dawn.

Back on the other side of the harbour on the North Slob, the visual and orchestral feast is only beginning. Stately Bewick's swans who summer in northern Russia are grazing nonchalantly on pasture. We come upon an inlet and see in one take, sedate mallard, snug-looking wigeon, teal, pochard, tufted duck with purple crowns, whooper swans, Brent geese, a black- headed gull, delicately feathered pintail, stern-eyed golden eye, coots, moorhens and a rook. The day is now as full of their diverse call as two hours before it was empty. Locals have regular "bird races" in which the object is to sight as many separate species as possible in the slobs over an eight-hour period. There are regular scores of 100 and the record is 119.

But because this is a real avian United Nations and not just a haven for ducks, geese and waders, you can also find peregrine, merlin, short- eared owls and, on occasion, a gyrfalcon. Ruddy duck from the States have dropped in, as have snow geese, Canada geese and most recently, a lone Western Sandpiper which should have been in South America but ended up in Wexford.

Things are quieter in summer with the White-fronts gone to Greenland, and the rest of the migratory species to countries in an arc from Canada to Siberia. They leave behind the Great Crested and Little Grebes, the oystercatchers, curlews, redshanks, shelducks and many more.

And it's all just at the other end of a 75-mile, three-hour ferry trip from Wales. What's more, when you get there, it's free. The Wexford Wildfowl Reserve lies two miles north of the town and holds a new centre with audio- visual displays and exhibits of the most commonly occurring birds. Just bring an alarm clock and a pair of binoculars. The birds will do the rest.

GETTING THERE: Return flights to nearby Waterford are available from British Airways (0345 222111) from pounds 89 return, flying from Stanstead, or pounds 102 with Suckling Airways (01223 293393), flying from Luton.

Stena Sealink (01233 647047) operates a three-and-a-half hour crossing between Fishguard and Rosslare. Return fares start from pounds 155 with a car, or pounds 40 per person for foot passengers.

B&I Line (00 353 53 33311) is currently offering a special pounds 49 one-way fare for a car and up to five passengers on daylight crossings on the four-hour Pembroke-to-Rosslare route.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Wexford Wildlife Reserve (00 353 53 23129), Wexford, Ireland.

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