PLEASE SIR, THE DOGS ATE MY HOMEWORK

                                     

This dog, and its brother, have a lot to look guilty for.

My chances to fish are so infrequent because of work and long periods living in the Middle East, that a lengthy stay at home in Ireland risked turning into a raging binge-till-you-blackout angling rave. There’s the estuary a few hundred metres away, full of bass, bream and pollock, a lovely little sea trout river that feeds into it and where I can be sooner than it takes to make an omelet. A first-rate salmon and trout river 30 minutes of leafy lane and dual carriageway driving  away. Lakes galore. If fishable water were alcohol, I’d have been in rehab on a vitamin and lithium drip weeks ago. With a horrible headache.

But that’s not what happened. I think two weeks of enforced isolation on arrival was to blame. I could have snuck out at dusk and gone night fishing for sea trout or wandered down to the deserted estuary with a spinning rod and lure, but I didn’t. It would have felt disloyal. Ireland’s former prime minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar and his Health Minister Simon Harris took Covid-19 really seriously and enforced measures on isolation, self-distancing and mask-wearing that put the UK government’s bumbling, mendacious TV theatrics to shame.

I stopped at a late night supermarket on my way home from the airport and, in my mask, bought enough food and supplies to enforce a reorganization of my fridge and freezer before I even unpacked my toothbrush, let alone my fishing rods. It also slotted me into a groove of unaccustomed domesticity. I plotted and planned a garden of plants in pots; reorganized everything in the living room and kitchen; started a still unfinished programme of de-cluttering.  Sorry, Trout and Salmon magazine, but there were no takers for five years of back issues. My Kindle and my laptop provided entertainment.

When I eventually broke out of self-isolation, the first fish I caught, and returned, was a small bass in the estuary. So was the second. My first sea trout were small, feisty things that I caught at night, which is when we traditionally seek them out, using flies cast across and downstream. But they can also be caught in the daytime, our club anglers are discovering, if you are as stealthy as a cat burglar and cast tiny, tiny flies at them upstream. This technique has been used for decades the world over for other varieties of trout and is called nymphing or upstream dry fly fishing.  But it’s a novelty on our little river and has caught on.  The second best thing to fishing is to watch somebody else fishing, so it’s a pleasure to lean over the bridge and watch someone tease trout out in this way, or not.  It also allows us to fish in the daytime as well as at our normal nightly gatherings, when we fish to the hoot of an owl, lit only by the moon and stars.

Eric Long nymphing.

There’s also the chance to use a spinner or lure when the river is flooded and coloured and this can happen often in the summer storms. Taken together, it means the river is fishable much, much more often than at night, which was what I thought when I first joined the club 25 years ago.

One caught by day

One morning, for instance, I found I was out of Greek Yoghurt for breakfast and drove off to the nearest shop to get some. On the way home I passed by the river and it was in that peaty brown stage after a flood which makes the use of a flashing spinning lure appropriate. So I pulled out the rod, swapped shoes for boots and fished for 20 minutes. I caught nothing and saw nothing. Then I went home and had breakfast. This is uncommonly mature behaviour, as my son will attest. In the past I might easily have stayed at the river most of the day and come home without the yoghurt.

The river has been difficult to fish this season; nobody knows with any measure of certainty why our fish no longer dwell in the lower pools for a while like they used to, before heading upstream to spawn. For me the best of the fishing has been in the daytime after a flood and using a lure, not a fly, which detracts from the enjoyment just a little. There has been some night fishing, most memorably when I caught a total of eight “junior” fish; the last two took both flies on my line and made such a tangle of it that I stopped, content, for that evening. I’ve done much more sea fishing of late, learning skills that have rusted since my Sussex seaside boyhood.

One day I joined my old friends Peter, Jeremy and his wife, Annette, on the beach early in the morning to bait fish for bream and bass. It meant going out the afternoon before and digging up some lug worms for the purpose.  The agreed hour to meet was 0700 on the beach, two hours before low tide. But at 0600, over strong coffee, the rain was biblical, squally and cold. I messaged Peter to say I wouldn’t come. His reply was brief. “It’ll be over at 0745.” And it pretty much was. The squall moved further inland or up the coast.  We were all fishing by about 0830, our rods lined up on stands so that we could stand around and enjoy the craic, an Irish word which requires several English ones to explain. Fun, banter, company, for instance.  And Jeremy is a natural comic.

We were fishing for Gilthead Bream, a species that arrived relatively recently in Irish waters from warmer spots such as the Mediterranean. Hence their presence in summer months. They are said to be among the best fish to eat you can get, although I have no knowledge of this. Jeremy is a bit of a Bream Whisperer, having spent much of the summer when not WFH (working from home) fishing for them around our coastline, with great success. I am told when he got one near the magic 5lb mark you could hear his joy in the next town. There are also bass and Jeremy got one that was ounces shy of ten pounds.

We all got fish that squally morning before the tide turned and stringy green seaweed started to snag our lines and foul our fishing. It’s easy to blame farmers for using nitrate fertilisers to make the grass grow quicker for their dairy herds for the presence of this smelly nuisance every summer.  The nitrates do run off the fields and into the sea and the sun makes this weed grow and float around. But fertilisers are a widespread practice throughout the EU and if you think the roses at my front door just bloomed into the beauties they are because of rain and sun, then you haven’t had a look at the chemistry set on the shelves in my garden shed.

The shed, a metal construction on a concrete base, is where I store a great deal of fishing and outdoor equipment. When I got back here last autumn, briefly, I was mortified to discover that rats had moved in and made themselves a winter hangout. They chewed up expensive fishing luggage to make nests; took a great liking to my sleeping bags, which they chewed like candy floss.  A lot of my outdoor walking and fishing clothes had holes where costly Goretex fabric used to be. They gnawed their way into drums of bird food and gorged themselves. The place stank like a public toilet during a council cleaners strike. There was shit everywhere. In two days I salvaged what I could, hosed it down with disinfectant and moved it into the house. The rest had to go to the recycling centre, or was burned.  Then I went back to Dubai.

Reinstating everything I had removed from the sheds was my first job on return to Ireland. I couldn’t have done it without the help of Nadia and Dmitry, my immediate neighbours, and their power hose.  By the time we finished cleansing it, you could have hosted dinner for a germophobe inside. The holes the rats used to gain entry were blocked off.  Everything that was returned was put into some kind of plastic storage box. It was so uncommonly tidy and organized that it took me a week to find my favourite spinning reel. I had forgotten the special box for spinning reels inside the special box for fly reels inside the trunk for fly fishing tackle…… By this time Nadia and Dmitry had become fishermen too.

The reorganization finished, I began to relax. Plants were bought from nurseries, as well as pots and planters. Instead of flicking a fly across the stream I found myself fashioning furrows in store-bought compost. Instead of eating my dinner in my armchair in front of Netflix I found myself eating outdoors at the dining table I had bought online.  It was like that moment in a precious relationship when you realise that there is no reason to fear imminent breakdown; that there is a world of difference between revelling in what you have and taking someone for granted. No panic required.

I’ve spent most of my working life in big cities all over the world, so Country Life still takes getting used to; distances, for instance. There’s no corner shop at the end of my lane.  The nearest is a 15-minute drive away and doubles as a garage. So if I forget a key ingredient for dinner, then dinner has to be created without it or some other way. Then there’s the vast quietness of the evening and the night, a noise in itself.  And the weather. Do I have rubber boots in the car in case it rains when I am tramping the High Street of our local town between the bank at one end and the supermarket at the other? These are perhaps trivial examples. But as a townie it’s easy to romanticize about Country Life, that little cottage beside the sea with roses growing beside the door (and rats breeding in the garden shed.)

The main reason I have rats is because of this dewy-eyed I think I’ll plant wisteria romanticism.  It’s because I feed the garden birds. I spent a small fortune on a little bird house on stilts and three devices that dispense peanuts, seeds and seed balls so that I can sit at my Ikea dining table under my Ikea umbrella and watch the Blue Tits, every variety of Finch, Blackbirds and Robins eating. There is zero justification for feeding birds in the summer, when every hedgerow is a Shopping Mall Food Court for them. But I do it so that I can look at the pretty creatures. I am feeding my appetite while kidding myself that I am helping theirs. It’s winter when the birds need feeding. Not the summer or autumn.  That’s why I had drums of peanuts, bird seed and seed balls in my shed.  That’s why the rats moved in. That’s why even now, in high summer, the rhododendron under the bird house occasionally parts and rats the size of rabbits move in to hoover up any seed that has fallen and which the birds have missed. They are big brown rats with tails the length of school rulers and they are utterly contemptuous of the man who paid the mortgage on the bird house and the cottage.

I had hoped that the dogs owned by my neighbour, a farmer, would keep them away. The dogs visit daily, also hoping to cash in on the urban compassion of the visiting chump. One of the dogs is special to me as I have known her for 15 years or so. Her name is Lady and she is a shaggy old sort-of-Collie with the manners of a Great Aunt. She visits daily for a snack, never comes in the house unless invited and, even then, confines herself to a doormat put there for the purpose. In the winter she will also sit by the fire, providing I put the mat down first. I think she must have been to a Cheltenham Ladies College for dogs. She may be old and arthritic, but Lady can still catch rabbits and there are dozens around. She does have the grace to leave the corpses, though, at some distance down the lane.

But there are two new dogs as well, which also belong to the farmer. They are near identical twins and move everywhere together. I do not know their names as we have not been formally introduced. I call them The Brothers. I have become used to seeing them use my patio like a shortcut to the rabbit hunting grounds and sitting on my wall as their snipers’ lair. They are boisterous, undisciplined and as domesticated as Cape Buffalo. I often spot them on the beach chasing crabs or having fights with pieces of seaweed. I guess you could call them spirited. They are good looking dogs, one friendly, the other very timid. But both have a maniacal Muammar Gaddafi-type glint in their eyes. I can imagine them quoting the late Libyan leader as saying: “The owner of the house is he who resides in it.” These two dogs roam a vast area of a dozen acres or more, as well as the beach, and regard it as their domain. For them, fences are just hurdles in a life of Crufts for Scruffs.  A No Trespassing sign is a laissez passer.  No Entry means : ”Come right in.” The friendly one occasionally visits me hoping for snacks. The timid one ghosts away the moment it sees me. .

The other morning, when my Thoreau-esque musings over Lavazza coffee and brown toast were lashed by the appearance of a long tail, robust brown body and hoovering snout under the bird table, I decided enough was enough. I drove to the Farmers’ cooperative store on the other side of the bay and bought the two most elaborate rat traps they had, together with a pot of poisoned bait. These traps are a sort of minor maze; the rodent enters, squeezes into the compartment where the poisoned bait is, eats it, goes into convulsions and dies. The boxes are lockable so you can poison your foe, drive a distance and drop his corpse into the hedgerows at your convenience.

I duly baited both boxes and left them outside; one under the bird table and the other beside the shed.  I felt a little smug, I have to say, as if a private detective had brought me evidence that my partners were embezzling our money.

The next morning I went to examine the boxes. They were not there. Neither of them. They had been spirited away. I wondered if, perhaps, a dying rat had found the strength to gnaw away part of his prison to drag the box down the lane before succumbing. It seemed plausible. But that this should happen to both boxes made me suspicious. I started to look around the property to see if the rats had somehow crawled off somewhere, perhaps with two front feet dragging the black polyurethane boxes behind them.

It was then that I noticed something like a crop circle in the grass growing in the farmer’s field right in front of my house. It was oval shaped and about the size of a child’s paddling pool. The grass is newly-nitrated and quite high, but I thought I saw a glint of something at the edge of the circle and hurdled the electric fence to investigate. Sure enough, there was a rat trap. Completely empty of rodents and of poison. I felt a quiver of guilt, not that little tingle of guilt you get when you walk through customs with five times your cigarette allowance. This was honest-to-god I think I have committed a sin-type guilt. Because the only beasts capable, in body and in spirit, of nicking a rat trap and then running around in gleeful circles in the grass, tossing it around to shake the contents out – were The Brothers.

I looked up the lane. Normally they are on Nadia’s wall in the daytime spotting rabbits. But they were not there. No, Nadia said, she hadn’t seen them today. Only Lady.

The rat traps and poison

I knew a guy who worked for VSO and went to Malawi to do good things in a small village. He decided the village would grow potatoes and duly bought seed potatoes and got the villagers to plant them in smart rows. The seed potatoes were eaten by slugs. So on his next visit to town, which was about one month later, he got slug poison. He got the villagers to plant out the slug poison first and said they would plant the crop the following week.

The next day he was awoken in his hut by anguished cries and hubbub of an alarmed variety.  He dressed quickly, went outside, and found that every dog in the village, and there were many, was lying on its back with its legs in the air stone dead. They had eaten the slug poison. Every dog in the village was dead. Every single one. Most died in the dusty street, but some had not made it out of the putative potato bonanza field.

I had an attack of the Malawi-village variety. I had killed The Brothers. They were somewhere around the farm or nearby fields with their legs in the air. Would the farmer take them to a vet for an autopsy? Would my rat poison be traceable somehow as something commercially available nearby?  Was I already a suspect? What of the farmer’s kids? Were they inconsolable? What would their parents tell them? Would they be allowed to see the corpses, and would there be a befitting burial? Would it be a Catholic ceremony?

It was an anguished day. My son’s advice (which I usually take) was “say nothing. Act innocent.” It was while acting innocent over a sparkling water with lime hat I spotted the second missing trap, also in the field, also in a miniature crop circle. Also empty. I put the boxes on the garden bench and went fishing. Concentration was difficult.

It was raining again the next day when I decided to have a look at the river to see if the flood had eased enough for me to fish later in the day. It hadn’t. I bought a fresh brown loaf at the garage, where fresh bread is delivered or baked daily. I went home and resolved to do some overdue-filing at my new desk.  Then the rain stopped, and the grey sky lifted, and I opened the door and went outside to smell the day and fill the bird feeders.

That’s when I noticed. The moment I got outside. The rat traps were no longer on the garden bench where I had left them.  They were completely noticeable by their complete absence. I walked to the terrace wall. There was one new crop circle. Still wearing my slippers I walked out through the soaking wet grass and down to the crop circle. And there it was. Rat trap number one. Rat trap number two was in one of the previous day’s crop circles. Both had been empty of bait. They had just been tossed around for fun.

I caught sight of the Brothers about an hour ago. They were chasing down a rabbit near the Scots Pine in the middle of the field, working the poor beast like sheep dogs, one in charge of the forward run, the other of the sideways motion. Then they were side by side with the rabbit in front of them, hurtling through the long grass because its life DID depend on it. The rabbit made it to a hole in a bank beside the road. The Brothers barked for a bit, then made their way slowly up the lane back to Nadia’s wall for a rest. I was happy to see them.

How they survived the rat poison I will never know. They clearly were smart enough to toss the traps around a bit so that whatever was inside would fall out, and I haven’t found any lumps of rat poison in the field or anywhere else. Perhaps they have bona fide Country Life constitutions and it didn’t affect them. I hope the cows don’t find any in the thick grass.  Accidentally killing a farmyard dog is one thing.

Popping a cap in a four-legged EU-subsidised milk machine is probably a criminal offence.

I’m just going for a wander in the grass, again, to see if I can find anything……

Ireland, August 2020

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