THE words of WB Yeats poem, The Song Of Wandering Aengus came flowing back as I stepped on to Fiddown Island on an usually sunny Wednesday morning in early May.
The great bard wrote:
I went out to the hazel wood;
Because a fire was in my head;
And cut and peeled a hazel wand
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
Hazel is by no means the most prosperous tree in the 150 acre, Sicily shaped, island sanctuary on the lower reaches of the River Suir. It is more closely associated with the willow (sally). Many people still call it the Sally Island to this day. And there was a huge tradition of basket making from the sally in the area and in the summer months, residents would go in large numbers to the island and sometimes make a day out of it with a working picnic and maybe, stop off for a few drinks in Meade’s famous Toll bridge tavern on the Kilkenny side of the river. The sally rods were also used as a building material in the thatched cottages we spoke about in this series, located in Lickettstown and surrounding villages and many of these rods were sourced on the island.
However, Fiddown Island is far more famous in biological, botanical terms than all the thatch cottages in South Kilkenny. Fiddown Island was part of the blanket of forest which once covered the entire island, long before Christianity, going back to the Tuatha De Danann who have a strong association with the island.
When the glaciers came and the rivers formed afterwards they were responsible for the Suir going both sides of this woodland and in so doing ensured that what was there remained as it always was. All around it changed in the millennia that followed and especially in the last 500 years.
As well as the tidal river, this riparian woodland is of particular significance for biodiversity. This type of wet woodland along a river is rare in Ireland and the example found at Fiddown is the best in the country. This type of woodland is declining across Europe as a result of drainage and reclamation.
It is an anachronism of sorts and one we are delighted to have. There is an oral tradition that it was used by the druids (Irish witch doctors) who concocted potions and remedies from the plants still found there from plants like water figwort, wild angelica (which you a pay fortune for in cosmetic shops), ragwort, marsh marigold, hemlock water and dropwort, summer snow flake and the sweet smelling wild garlic. It is certain that monks used it. Reclusive hermits were sent here from a nearby abbey and this has been referred to by that wonderful local historian, Mary O’ Shea.
There is also a shocking rumour that in the past the island was used by poachers to avoid detection by the authorities.
But it is the native trees that still grow here that are probably one of its most important resources.
Goat tree, almond and osier willows, guelder rose, hazel and greater pond are the main species. People living on the Portlaw (Waterford) side and on the County Kilkenny side of the river say that on a summer’s evening, they can see the otters feeding on trout, salmon and other rarer fish species making their way up and down the tidal River Suir and using the dense vegetation from the trees as camouflage. The alluvial soil here is like a dark sand and while it is great for drainage on river bank fields, here it is hard to move in.
And feathered visitors to Fiddown have just arrived from Africa. The appearance of the willow warblers and the grasshopper warblers to the island marks the beginning of summer and that is how it felt on Wednesday morning and after walking 20 yards off the busy Fiddown bridge, the noise of the traffic fades away as you plod your course through the vegetation and into an unknown world, like something out of the South American rain forests without the heat or the leeches.
Swallows also stop off here on their way back from North Africa before heading to the exact place where they were hatched and return year after year - in what is a migratory miracle. Other birds like owls and fowl use it all year long while wintering teal, cormorant, greylag goose, whooper swan, golden plover, water rail, long-tailed tit, breeding blackcap and of course, another protected species, Daubenton’s bat are regulars.
Seasonal visitors include reed bunting, sedge warblers, mute swans, whitethroast, chiffchaffs, grey wagtails, rails, moorhens, coots, little grebes, herons and little egrets.
Greylag geese are known to use land further downstream on the Waterford side of the river. Golden plover and lapwing are found in the area in winter.
The River Suir is rich in nutrients and with water quality improving every year in the last decade, it supports migrating Atlantic salmon and Twaite shad, which migrate upstream to spawn in the Carrick-on-Suir area.
These latter two species are internationally protected. It is also likely to be significant for resident smelt and ‘slob’ or estuarine trout. And of course there are the Fiddown Island snails.
There was a lovely sign on the bridge highlighting the nature reserve but, I was informed by Jimi Conroy, the excellent Conservation Ranger with the National Wildlife and Parks Service, that it was stolen, probably because it was so attractive. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was returned.