I’m not one prone to exaggeration but my visit to Wild Ireland near Buncrana in north Donegal was truly fabulous. I stayed overnight in the Inishowen Hotel, Buncrana, which was a lovely treat, great value for money and I thank the staff there for their commendable service, especially Oisin who kept the gin and tonics coming!
After a delicious breakfast I journeyed a few kilometres to Wild Ireland, a sanctuary for animals, many of which were once native to Ireland, years before man found his way to the Emerald Isle.
The highlight of my recent visit on a very cold, but reasonably dry day in February, were the two brown bears, Donnacha and Reena, rescued from captivity in Lithuania, where they were being kept in small cages and used as a tourist attraction.
Their keeper, Joe, told me that the bears had come to Wild Ireland in a very poor condition. Their teeth had been worn down due to them biting the bars of their cages and on arrival they were terrified of venturing out into their new home, having never seen grass before.
Today the bears are flourishing, the proof seen in the marked hump on their backs. Despite being in partial hibernation they were relatively active, playing, scratching a tree trunk and semi-interested in the presence of visitors, but not in the consumption of food. Joe tossed Donnacha some fruit, but the brown bear sniffed it and walked away. Joe explained they were only eating about 500g of food a day at this time of year, but in the height of summer would consume much, much more.
Bears used to roam the forests of Ireland along with wild boar, lynx and wolves. The wolves were majestic and I have to say they were real drama queens. Two vied for position on a rock to pose for photographs. Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell couldn’t have done better!
The lynx living next door wasn’t as vain, preferring to tease the wolves running up and down her enclosure possibly wanting to play. She wasn’t as easy to photograph because she also likes to hide in the long grass and behind trees. She wasn’t at all interested in the human visitors!
The monkeys were hiding too and who could blame them. It was cold, only one deciding to check out what was happening before disappearing back into the warmth of his habitat, an island on the sanctuary.
It was perfect weather however for the arctic foxes and snowy owls who slept quite happily out in the elements after their morning feed.
The animals are given a varied diet, something different each day and are encouraged to forage for their food. Tree trunks are stuffed with fruits and vegetables for the bears to dig out when they are fully active, and feeding the foxes was amusing as Igor, well used to humans, was quick to welcome Joe who strategically put down piles of mince mashed up with dog biscuits around their enclosure.
Igor chomped down on two piles in rapid succession, whereas his three companions were a little more wary, keeping their distance from the keeper and the visitors, but Joe made sure they had their fair share.
The wild boar were up and about rooting through the earth seeking out their food before deciding it was time for a nap and the Old Irish goats were content to look at visitors from a distance, concentrating more on their late breakfast.
A red deer did come up to the fence to say hello before returning to the long grass and I know there are wild deer near where I live as two were sitting comfortably in the roadway at six o’clock one morning when I was up and about a little earlier than usual.
An assortment of birds can be seen around the sanctuary and I was particularly interested in the curlews as they used to be seen on two lakes near where I used to live: Lough Key and Lough Arrow. The former previously featured in one of my blogs.
I have never seen or heard a curlew in the wild. Not until I visited Wild Ireland.
There are smaller animals at the sanctuary too: guinea pigs (above), rats, rabbits,(below) ferrets and otters. The latter were more intent on remaining in the water than exploring the land, thus I didn’t get a good enough picture for this blog. Next time perhaps.
And there will be a next time. Wild Ireland works closely with other agencies to save animals sorely mistreated for profit. Two more bears are expected in the near future and there are definitely plans afoot to conserve and preserve more animals for generations to come. What is more I need to learn more, especially about this black fox pictured below. He must be in training, as he hasn't quite reached the panache of the wolves, but he's getting there!
I’d like to thank all the staff who greeted us with a friendly smile, especially the lady in the coffee shop who made me a warming honey bear coffee (don’t ask, find out for yourselves), and Joe for terrific insight on how the animals behaved and were kept.
Special thanks to Donnacha and Reena who decided to wake up for a few hours and brave the cold. They join my other favourite bears: Paddington, Yogi, Rupert, Winnie the Pooh, and the Peruvian bears in Belfast Zoo.
See you soon everyone and keep up the great work.