Lough Carra and the Swallows

There’s a lake near my home in County Mayo that’s a very special place. I feel a strong
connection to this lake and its rich biodiversity. This special place is Lough Carra. Lying
beneath the water is a thick bed of marl, soft chalky mud. Around the shores of the lake
there are still a few precious patches of native woodland with their displays of bluebells and
wood anemones in the springtime, and unspoiled limestone grassland which have a rich
diversity of wildflowers and insects. Here you can find orchid species with wonderful names
that belie their appearance such as Bee, Fly and Frog.
Lough Carra has many inlets and bays creating hidden locations to discover. There are large
areas of reedbed in the bays. In late winter are a striking golden blond as the sunlight
catches them and in summer they are stand strong with new growth. It is these reedbeds
that bring together Lough Carra and a bird that is very dear to my heart, the Swallow.
Each Spring, when the Swallows return from Africa, they come to nest in the sheds at our
home. I get so much pleasure from watching them flying around apparently so carefree.
Our 5 acre small holding is just a few miles from Lough Carra. We care for the land so that it
is ‘wildlife friendly’ and free from chemicals and artificial fertiliser using organic methods to
ensure a rich insect life. We have a rich mosaic of pesticide free land with trees, grassland
and a wide variety of wildflowers. The swallows nesting in our sheds have benefited from
this and now have a rich source of insect food for their growing chicks.
As soon as the first chicks fledge from the nests they join other young swallows in the area
and each summer evening, a few hours before dark, there is an extraordinary swallow
gathering on Lough Carra. We discovered this gathering 20 years ago on a July evening
when we were fishing the ‘evening rise’ in one of the many bays around Lough Carra. An
hour before sunset we noticed hundreds and then thousands of swallows flying low over the
water. We stopped fishing so that we didn’t disturb them but sat quietly in the boat in awe
at the spectacle taking place all around us. The numbers of swallows grew by the minute
and we noticed that they were all young birds as none of them had the long tail streamers
that adults have. They were occasionally landing on the bulrush stems to feed on the
insects. As a bird landed on a stem it would slowly bend over until the tips was almost
touching the water. All of sudden the birds would alight and fly around, skimming the water
and chattering in an excited tone as they flew with the ever growing number of birds until
there were many thousands of young swallows. Just before dark the birds started to fall
from the sky as they descended into the reedbeds. We realised, to our amazement, that
each reed stem would become the sleeping place for one or two swallows. In the space of
ten minutes all of the swallows had found a reed stem and were chattering to each other in
That first summer we went back to the Lough Carra reedbeds on many evenings to be with
the swallows and have continued to do so every year since.
It is one of the highlights of our year to spend summer evenings on beautiful Lough Carra
watching thousands of swallows.