WHERE HARES SHINE GOLD
BBC Wildlife|November 2021
Ireland’s Rathlin Island is famous for its expansive views and puffin colony. But there’s another secretive, almost mythical creature found on this emerald isle.
ANDREW MILLHAM
Sailing north from the small port of Ballycastle soon brings you to the sheltered crook of Rathlin Island. Shaped like an ‘L’ and part of County Antrim, this is a land of rocky causeways and grassy glens, rich in Northern Irish mythology that tells of fierce battles and legendary creatures. Even the famous Giant’s Causeway, which stretches under the Sea of Moyle to Rathlin, is said to have been formed by an angry ogre hurling rocks into the sea.

How could such tales fail to capture the imagination of an eight-year-old from deepest Essex? That’s how old I was when I first visited Rathlin on a family holiday. Little did I know when embarking upon that trip that I would stumble across a real-life animal that would rival any fairytale being.

As you approach Rathlin, the skeletons of abandoned stone buildings contrast with the inviting harbour of Church Bay, serving as a tangible reminder of the island’s centuries-old history. Neatly stacked drystone walls dissect the greenery and are adorned with a layer of scaly, yellow-green lichen – a sure sign of the clear air.

On this remote isle, where the population numbers just 150, wildlife is a wonderful source of entertainment. If you love nature, you’ll never be bored here. Open fields and wildflower meadows hum with insects and nod with delicate blooms; common and grey seals inquisitively pop up their wet, shiny heads offshore. Seabirds including common guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills patrol the cliff stacks; Irish hares – dark-coloured descendants of the mountain hare – dance across the meadows.

My first outing on Rathlin was a trip to the RSPB West Light Seabird Centre, where many a puffin (and puffling) had set up shop for a few summery months before returning to sea. Viewing the seabirds so closely made an indelible impression – rainbow beaks against greyscale feathers; wise, orange rimmed eyes surveying the best spot for sand eels. But even as an eight-year-old, I wanted to get off the beaten track and find something for myself.

I didn’t have long to wait. On the fourth and penultimate day of our stay, just as the emerald green fields and the rattle of the gravel tracks were becoming a calming predictability, I was hiking with my father and two brothers across an open grassy plain on the northern side of the island. Visibility was good, and we could just about make out the Mull of Kintyre, 18km in the distance. Suddenly, something caught my eye. An ankle-high flash of yellow zipped across the chalky clifftop 30m in front of us, and dipped into the purple heather. My brothers thought it might have been a trick of the light, but it was – according to my father – a golden hare.

My mind whirled as we completed our walk, my interest piqued all the more for having only had the briefest of glimpses. It was a flash of dazzling colour, a millisecond of movement silhouetted against the greyblue peaks of water. What a backdrop. What a moment!

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