Nature’s wonderland at Ballymountain Ark

Situated between Bandon and Innishannon, the townland of Ballymountain North is, for the most part, made up of vast parcels of green and brown agricultural farmland. Travel the highroads and byroads for long enough however and you might just happen upon an oasis in the midst of this intensively farmed land. Word of mouth brings Mary O’Brien to discover a place that has become fondly known to locals as Ballymountain Ark, where 82-year-old landowner and nature lover Willie Kingston, has spent over half of his lifetime reclaiming 143 acres of farmland and encouraging native plants to create a thriving ecosystem and safe habitat for pollinators and wild creatures.

Ballymountain Ark is a veritable place of wonder where, to borrow from Keats, “the poetry of earth is ceasing never”. There are nine lakes carved into the landscape, over 70 acres dedicated to woodland and a reedy wetland area providing valuable habitat for a range of species. With nature allowed to freely work its magic here, it’s difficult to imagine this property as ever being farmland.

Willie grew up here, inheriting a small dairy herd of 40 cows. Today there are only 30 of the 143 acres used for grazing a herd of nine beef cattle. “I think most farmers would see this as the greatest waste of land,” shares the landowner “but to me there is a great beauty in it.”

Soft-spoken and humble, Willie’s love and respect for nature is evident, as is his infectious sense of fun. The twinkle in his eye is reflected in the fantastical world he has created within this natural haven: sculptures and structures peep out from behind vegetation: there are animals, great and small; mythical nymphs and sprites; goblins and fairies; prehistoric creatures; totem poles; two giant carved stags rearing on hind legs ready to do battle; a statue of a little dog digging up a bone marks Willie and his wife’s burial plot! There’s humour too in one bridge over the lake leading to an island pub and the other to a tiny church.

Inside the pretty thatched pub, named after Willie’s wife Patricia, and lit only by candlelight, it doesn’t feel at all out of the ordinary to be watching Willie pour a drop of whiskey before noon and listening to him give his rendition of ‘The Second Hand Trousers of Macroom’. A great lover of company and Irish traditional music, he has played host to many sessions and even weddings on his property over the years. The renowned touring Traveller singer and seanachaí, the late Pecker Dunne, was known to stop by often. His portrait now hangs in one corner of the bar. “Pecker was a good friend, I was very fond of him. His songs have great meaning,” says Willie.

Outside the pub, by the side of the lake, a male swan hovers protectively near a nesting female, her eggs not far off hatching. There are a number of swans residing at and visiting the lakes on the property, as well as ducks such as mallards and mandarins.

Ferns and trees provide a dappled shade on the creeping green carpet of moss and ‘mind-your-own-business’ underfoot. This time of year bluebells have replaced spring-flowering primroses and pretty pink campion is just about to break into flower. The only sounds are the birds and Willie, as he points out an area where the dawn chorus is best heard each year. Amazingly he has a recording of it to hand, and within seconds the symphony of birdsong fills the air from a speaker attached to a tree.

Otters, badgers, foxes, squirrels, buzzards and other wildlife are all welcome here at Ballymountain Ark. Predators and herbivores keep the balance in the ecosystem. There are Fallow and Red Deer that take shelter in the wetlands. Prairie dogs, introduced by Willie, and kept in check by the increasing population of buzzards, happily tunnel in their own patch, their cheeky heads furtively popping in and out of burrows.

In another part of the property, Willie has built his own earth house or souterrain. In the past this below ground archaeological feature unique to Ireland would have served as refuge or storage. Without hesitation, Willie casts his walking stick aside to lead the way in on hands and knees through the tiny damp tunnel. As eyes grow accustomed to the underground darkness, it becomes apparent that Willie’s version of a souterrain has been built to house a music session; there’s an open hearth, wooden stools and a whiskey dispenser secured to a dead tree. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the sweet tones of the fiddle and feel the feet tapping in time to the music. “It’s a mighty place for a session alright,” says Willie with a laugh.

A small opening in the souterrain leads out to a sky garden, a crater dug into the landscape. Each chapter of this property leads further into a fairytale.

In the distance there’s a Martello tower with emus roaming around it. “I thought it would go well there,” says Willie. “and I like emus, they’re curious and friendly animals.” A map of Ireland has been cleverly cut into the grass, each county marked out. It’s close to a dance platform surrounded by seating. There’s never a bad time for a hooley at Ballymountain Ark!

Willie has help from local forester Martin Brew in maintaining the property – planting, thinning, rewilding.  “I think it’s fantastic what Willie has done here,” he says “I’ve worked in forestry for many years and most animals run for their life when they see you coming. Here they’re calm, more relaxed. It’s a safe haven for them.”

He’s excited about the possibilities for the future of the property with more native tree species being planted all the time.

“If you create the habitat, the wildlife will come,” says Willie. “Each morning I wake, I thank the creator for giving me life,” he says “for giving me sight to see the great beauty of all living things.

“There is also the great joy of meeting friends and having entertainment and craic.”

A little bird mentioned that Willie’s birthday is approaching so no doubt there will be a short break in tree planting, as friends gather for a session, and the whiskey, music and laughter flows freely at Ballymountain Ark, to celebrate this gentle giant of a man and the wonderful legacy he has created.

Mary O'Brien

Next Post

Everyday nautical terms from the ‘Age of Sail’

Thu Jun 20 , 2024
It is surprising the number of phrases, which were once used only in nautical situations, that have been adopted into everyday speech. Many nautical terms derive from the ‘Age of Sail’, the period of time between the 16th and 19th centuries, when masted ships ruled the seas. Ahoy – This […]
Watercolor hand drawn nautical / marine illustration with anchor