Hazel nuts are a vital source of food locally
Hazel nuts have been an important human food resource from Neolithic times in Ireland
There is a forgotten Irish war of the twentieth century -the economic war of the 1930’s when the government refused to pay annuities due for the purchase of land in the land acts and consequently, Irish agricultural produce could not be sold on the British market.
Calves died at the side of the road, thousands emigrated and young people from large families on small farms went hungry. It gives us some idea of the effect of sanctions, put into place by the stroke of a pen, on hard pressed ordinary citizens in today’s world.
The economic decline lasted for decades and even by the middle of the 1950’s, Ireland was about five years behind the countries of western Europe although these had suffered the devastation of the second world war.
I have often thought of this in the context of a visit on foot at the beginning of the thirties by the sixth class girls of the Presentation convent, Thurles to Killough Hill for the purpose of gathering hazelnuts. They were accompanied by an ass and cart to carry the sacks of nuts and perhaps some tired children.
At this remove, it is difficult to ascertain whether it was an outing, a nature trip or a food gathering exercise. Hazel nuts have been an important human food resource from Neolithic times in Ireland. Hazel was the dominant understorey tree in the great afforestation after the last ice age 10,000 years ago and it grows particularly well on limestone. Its rapid colonization of the Burren is currently becoming a problem and its removal is a cornerstone of the innovative Burren farming scheme under Brendan Dunford where farmers are paid to farm in an environmentally friendly fashion.
In Celtic Ireland there were legal restrictions on gathering and normally it was an offence to gather wild fruit or herbs on another person’s land. However a law abiding person was entitled to gather medicinal herbs required by an invalid wherever they might grow and similarly, a hungry person may take a handful of hazel nuts from a privately owned wood.
On common land there was a general entitlement to “the pickings of a wood” but the appropriation of wild apples may have been the prerogative of the king or lord. A good crop on the trees was one of the signs of a just ruler!
The annals distinguish the nut crop for human consumption from the acorn crop for pigs (pannage). The wild apple tree is included in the “seven nobles of the wood.” Blackberrries, fraughan, strawberries, hips and rowan berries are also mentioned. Archaeology from Armagh in the 8/9th centuries and 11th century Winetavern Street in Dublin confirm the widespread use of these berries and nuts.
There is only the very odd hazel growing in Cabragh but Killough Hill is covered with them. Hazelnut remains tell us of the presence of a wide range of birds and mammals even though the thick hard shells render it a difficult fruit to deal with. Mice and voles find a spot on the surface of the nut with a bump or groove to act as an anchor for their upper incisors and they scrape loosely at the shell. As soon as the small rodent has made a hole in the nut, it begins to eat, pulling pieces of the kernel out using its lower teeth and holds the kernel fragments in its forepaws while eating.
Mice and voles usually eat at special feeding spots, well hidden, where they can sit in peace and quiet. Birds eat nuts by pecking at them, great tits prefer nuts that are scarcely ripe with relatively soft shells.
Squirrels are the major nut eaters. It holds the nut firmly in its forepaws, gnaws an incision across the tip so a small opening appears, sticks in its lower teeth and using them as a lever, breaks the shell into pieces. You will recognize the presence of squirrels by shells broken in half vertically. Like so many other rodents in autumn when food is plentiful, squirrels may hide away a reserve. It usually consists of beechnuts, acorns and hazelnuts which are buried or tucked away in nooks and crannies. There seems to be little method involved in such hoarding and it is often pure chance if the hidden food is found again.
You can watch our Autumn Equinox programme on You Tube.
Slán go fóill.