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Holly berries in Brackloon

The walk in Brackloon Wood on an overcast winter morning with the ever-present threat of more rain indicated a brisk dash around the looped trail rather than our usual ramble and dally savouring the delights of nature.

Squelching our way over a carpet of sodden leaves along the winding forest trail, edged with sessile oak, silver birch, hazel and hollies, it occured to me that there were better times to visit Brackloon Wood.

Like the early summer day some years ago when nature was springing into life once more – a woodland of unfurling green and flushes of delicately coloured wildflowers, all majestically serenaded by the unmistakable call of a lone Cuckoo, warming our heart at the thought of the migrant’s return.

But true to form, the capricious Mayo weather in its whimsy lifted its veil of grey. The mid-winter sun, casting its warm, low angled lance through gaps in the cloud, directed its beams of light to glow briefly on the shadowed forest floor of another of Mayo’s Celtic Rainforests.

The Owenwee River flowing through Brackloon Wood, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Lush green ferns clinging to the crumbling banks of the Owenwee River contrasted with the faded ferns fringing the trail under an archway of leaning silver birch.

Our curiosity drew us to the sounds of the rushing river, swollen after weeks of rain, as it raced along its sinuous flow to nearby Clew Bay.

Stooping under leaning tree-trunks, we had entered a shadowy woodland of tangled branches, the shaded undersides as black as charcoal. A wet and dark jungle where the cycle of life and death was everywhere.

Even in lifeless winter, the forest floor of sodden deadwood and cushioned with beds of leaves creates a habitat for luxuriant mosses, flourishing ferns and leafy liverworts encrusted on fallen branches.

The slippery banks of the Owenwee needed to be navigated carefully. Under tangled skeletons of overhanging and unmoving trees, the river was a rushing torrent tumbling over mossy rocks and fallen tree stumps.

A tangled web of branches overhang the Owenwee River, Brackloon Wood, Co Mayo. Photo: Anthony Hickey

In places, stilled in pools, waiting to gush through a gap in the rocks, the water seemed to be caged by bare, overhanging branches. The last traces of the faded colours of fallen autumn leaves of purple, yellow, gold and brown daintily decorated the mossy river rocks.

Back on the trail, the hollies were stealing the arboreal show with their ruby red berries adorning burnished bushes of emerald green leaves, beautifully backlit by the forest’s ragged remnants of autumn colour.

Holly bushes have grown here for thousands of years. Right back to when Neolthic man first arrived in Mayo. In old Gaelic Ireland, holly was among the protected trees and in medieval times, it was classified among the most precious species of trees.

Holly berries in Brackloon Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Brackloon may well be the oldest wood in Mayo. John Brown’s map of Connaught and his associated map of Co. Mayo, dated 1584, shows woodland depicted west of the Owenwee River in the Brackloon area.

So it’s heartening to know that the future of the forest is secure. The Government has a plan in place to protect and maintain the woodland’s natural habitat and for recreation, a new access into Brackloon Wood is being developed.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.