Today was a relatively short cycling day, distance wise only about 70 km, but it took me along challenging terrain. The route from Bushmills to Cushendall cuts across the enchanting Glens of Antrim, an upland plateau dissected by nine lovely picturesque glens. From Bushmills, and before arriving at the Glens, the road follows the beautiful north Antrim coast where there are many scenic vantage points overlooking the ever changing coast line; the stacks at Dunseverick, the beautiful wide sandy beach at Whitepark, the grassy cliffs at Carrick-A-Rede and the more dramatic cliffs at Fair Head.
The road rises on the Glens plateau, a wide expanse of sheep grazed pasture and upland peat. I saw a signpost to Murlough Bay Nature Reserve and took the detour. The Reserve is situated in a beautiful bay set against a backdrop of cliffs, deciduous woodland and grassland. Getting to the Reserve involves a precipitous decent to sea-level along a narrow winding tarmac road, but it is worth the trouble for it is a stunning site. I had planned to spend some time walking the reserve to get a sense of its habitats and species, but this was one occasion when my interest in wildlife evaporated and that of cycling took over. Tired legs or not, I became transfixed by the challenge of tackling the ascent back out of the reserve, just to see how I got on. And tackle it I did, all 2km of it, with an average gradient of 12% but parts as steep as 23%. Can’t say it was pretty, but good sense of satisfaction to get to the top.
The remainder of the day was more of the same, dipping down into glens only to climb back out of them, cycling along tortuous winding roads, set in dramatic landscape and scenery, but making for tough, tough cycling. But cycling is the way to immerse oneself in the landscape, and I can safely say that today, I experienced the Glens of Antrim.
I felt a bit like a Storm Petrel visiting Inishowen, coming and going largely unnoticed. It was the one part of the country where I got the sense that there is a great amount of interest in wildlife, yet I was able to stay just the one day, so could not do justice to its wonderful wildlife or those actively involved in promoting it. But I headed for Greencastle in the rain and the wind, to complete my cycle along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Before I left home I was ambivalent about the Wild Atlantic Way, but having cycled along it, I am a convert. This is an extraordinarily good marketing campaign of an extraordinary landscape. The investment in branding and signage, marketing and on-line resources is exactly the kind of infrastructural support that is needed to bring the concept to life. And rather than detracting from the experience, the branding adds to it. One still gets the sense of a beautiful rugged landscape being discovered for the first time. And as I boarded the ferry for Northern Ireland, I wondered, am I first person to have cycled the Wild Atlantic Way?
At Magilligan in Northern Ireland, I met up with colleague Úna Fitzpatrick and her young son Micheál. Úna doesn’t realise it, but she has a very important job. She is the Moody’s and Fitch of the pollinator world, collating data and tracking the health of Ireland’s pollinators. And pollination is of vital ecological and economic importance to Ireland – the horticultural industry alone contributes €153 million to the Irish economy each year, but of course pollination services are far more valuable than that. Pollination is principally done by the 101 bee, 20 bumblebee and 180 hoverfly species that occur in Ireland. Over countless generations these insects have carved out different niches for themselves to make best possible use of the resources that are available in the Irish countryside at different times of the year. But with the reduction of flower-rich meadows bees are finding it increasingly difficult to find conditions which allow them to flourish, so much so that more than 50% of all bee species have declined since 1980, and a massive 30% are threatened with extinction. It is an indictment of modern Irish society that we think we can ignore the plight of creatures that are of such enormous benefit to us.
Magilligan Dunes, on the eastern short of Lough Foyle is an amazing site and one of the largest dune systems in the UK. One bee species found here is the Northern Colletes bee. Ireland supports a significant proportion of the world population of this species, and here it appears to be doing well, bucking the trend across Europe where populations are in steep decline. Why this is so, we don’t exactly know. But thanks to the work that Úna is doing, we now have a much better picture on where rare species occur, and how populations are changing. She is also building an important database of the food plants of pollinators, so we are much better placed now, to take actions to conserve these amazing species and the astonishingly important services they perform.
Further east along the north Antrim coast is the iconic Giant’s Causeway. Ever since I can remember, I have been enchanted by the amazing hexagonal shaped columns of basalt formed here. It is a World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in the island of Ireland. The relatively new £18 million Visitor Centre is a fitting monument in its own right to this remarkable site.
And living along the coast here, undetected until relatively recently, is a large healthy population of Grayling, a butterfly of rough grassland and bare ground. Such finds are being increasingly made in Northern Ireland thanks to the work of the ebullient Catherine Bertrand. Catherine is the only person in Ireland employed to work on butterfly conservation, and she is making a real difference. Employed by Butterfly Conservation, UK her post is paid by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to help that organisation meet its conservation priorities on butterflies and moths in Northern Ireland; in all there are nine species of butterfly that are conservation priorities here.
Catherine is the catalyst for butterfly recording in Northern Ireland, and the interest in butterfly recording has grown significantly in recent years thanks to her energy and enthusiasm for the job. There is strong collaboration between Catherine and the National Biodiversity Data Centre as we manage the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme where volunteers walk a fixed route each week counting the butterflies seen. About 150 volunteers participate in the survey at the moment, both north and south of the border, and thanks to their efforts data on how butterfly populations are changing across the island of Ireland is generated. There is a perception that interest in wildlife in Ireland is not as great as that in Britain, but the butterfly and bumblebee monitoring schemes in Ireland have greater participation, per head of the population, than in Britain. So we are right to be proud of these two monitoring schemes.
Before leaving the Giant’s Causeway I couldn’t resist the temptation of having a photograph of my bike on the famous basalt scene. So taking the bike on my shoulder I clambered over the basalt columns struggling with awkward cycling shoes, no doubt, a sight for sore eyes. For those few minutes, my exploits entertained the throngs of Japanese tourists visiting the Causeway, an unexpected piece of entertainment. The National Trust staff did approach me to enquire ‘..if everything was alright, Sir’. At that stage, though I had better behave myself!
Today was earmarked as a rest day, but I thought it worth cycling the Malin Head circuit to experience it properly, and all the better as Emmett Johnston agreed to keep me company. Ostensibly this was to be about Basking Sharks, but quickly it became apparent that Emmett knows this area intimately and wanted to tell me all about it. We headed north-west towards Lagg beach, climbed to a vantage point overlooking Five Fingers bay, and dropped down to White Strand Bay, before rising again on our road to Malin Head. Emmett pointed out dune systems where different conservation priorities can become entwined. For example Chough like tightly grazed dune grasslands whereas the conservation of the dune flora probably does best with light grazing. He pointed out a small overgrown haggart beside a derelict house where a Corncrake had set up territory. It didn’t matter to me that I could neither see nor hear them, just knowing that there was a family of Corncrakes so close by was a thrill in itself. This was one of nine calling male Corncrakes in Malin Head this year which is up on previous years. The whole route out to Malin Head was just one special nature conservation story after another. Dunlin, richly vegetated hill slopes and verdant bog pools added to the experience.
Yet I get the impression that it frustrates Emmett that the local community living here can’t benefit more from their really special surroundings, surroundings that are to be found nowhere else in Europe. Rather than politicians trying to bring employment in the shape of Call Centres and the like to these wonderfully diverse natural areas, could employment opportunities based on those special natural resources not be found? After all, the people here are of the land and of the sea, it is what they know best and are best equipped to capitalise upon. The key is to find ways in which management of our unique natural heritage can be predicated on a reward’s system, rather than just becoming an additional burden on an already stressed socio-economic community.
Emmett holds out hope that Basking Sharks might be one of the keys to the area’s survival, or even revival. For a long time no one paid much attention to Basking Sharks. The local crab and lobster fishermen in these areas were used to seeing congregations of Basking Sharks at certain times of the year, yet no interest was shown in these majestic creatures, as they were neither a conservation not a commercial fishing priority. Having his interest tweaked by Simon Berrow, Emmett set about finding out more about these animals and is doing really seminal research. He has tagged Basking Sharks to understand more about their movements, and working with colleagues, he attached short term video capsules to a small number of animals to observe their behaviour close up. He also engages with the fishermen to learn from them and to gain their support.
And he is finding out that Malin Head is of world importance for Basking Sharks, the world’s second largest fish. They pass Malin Head early in the summer in great numbers, not lingering but moving through at speed. At this time of year 1,000s pass through in the space of a few days; which if current global population estimates are to be believed would make the waters of Malin Head probably the most important route for Basking Sharks in the world. Later in the year, around this time, Basking Sharks return to these waters, but this time their movement is leisurely, with animals in no hurry to move on. Some animals have been seen in the area for weeks at a time. Many theories are advanced to account for this behaviour, but it is mere speculation at this stage. What I also found surprising is that Emmett tells me that the usual picture of a Basking Shark swimming slowly through the water, mouth-open hoovering up plankton, is only one aspect of their behaviour. Having completed a first sweep of a plankton swarm, they dart back at speed to the start of the swarm to begin over again. They also breach, apparently.
There is a fantastic story to be told about the Basking Sharks, and Emmett and some colleagues think that Malin Head is where that story should be told. They have developed plans for a Marine Ocean Centre adjacent to Malin Head, where research, local fishing and tourism interests could merge. Already two young students from the locality who have been bewitched by the Basking Shark work have gone on to study marine biology, which Emmett sees as a good sign. A great deal of work is still needed if this Marine Ocean Centre is to become a reality, but it is ambition and foresight like this that might just save special places like Malin Head.
As Bella and I sat with Emmett near Malin Head looking down onto the sea stacks and the ocean beyond, listening to the unfolding story of Basking Shark behaviour, it made me appreciate that there is such a wondrous natural world out there that we are still only beginning to understand and appreciate. I had earmarked Malin Head as the place I would see Basking Sharks on the Wild Ireland Tour, but in a strange way, I was kind of glad that the sea was too rough to see them, for it means that it will give me an excuse to come back again. And, I get the sense that this is one species that Bella might come back with me to see too.
Today’s journey took us from Falcarragh to Malin, covering a large swathe of north-west Donegal. Immediately after Falcarragh, the landscape became greener, and less wild. Muckish Mountain provided an impressive backdrop of the cycle to Ard Forest Park, the first stop of the day.
Ards Forest Park is a large 480 ha site managed principally for its recreational value. The Park backs onto a wide expanse of beach and has a series of looped walks through the woodland, the longest being 13km. This is a site that one could explore for a long time. It has some fantastic woodland habitat, in particular areas of old oak and wild wet woodland. Around the coastal fringe there is a nice dune system, salt marsh and both salt and freshwater lakes. When we visited, the weather was cool and windy, but in sheltered spots we saw large numbers of Sliver-washed Fritillary, a butterfly of deciduous woodland. If the weather had been better we would have spend longer exploring the wildlife delights of the area. Ards Forest Park is one of 10 Forest Parks that Coillte operate as part of its recreational role, and they really are worth visiting.
After Ards, the route took us around the convoluted coastline of Mulroy Bay, an extremely important bay in conservation terms. What makes this bay special is that it is a large shallow bay with a mixture of sheltered areas with weak currents, and other areas exposed to strong currents. And growing hear are reefs, made up of a kind of living red coral called Maerl which have adapted to both extremes of conditions. And just like the Great-Barrier Reef, the reefs here support a bewildering variety of specialised and rare marine life, including species found in few other locations in Ireland. Apparently, an underwater dive will reveal a myriad of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, bristlestars and countless varieties of molluscs and fish. It is the only Irish location for extensive beds of a small beautiful red-coloured saltwater clam called the Flame Shell and many other exotic species. But one needs a mask and snorkel to enjoy these sights, which I didn’t have.
I cycled the Fanad loop, a lovely picturesque part of Donegal, but didn’t go as far as the lighthouse. South of Portsalon stretches a beautiful long beach to Saldanha Head. The small road loops up around this headland, making for a difficult cycle, the toughest climd I’ve encountered since leaving County Kerry.
The car ferry from Rathmullen to Buncrana no longer operates, but Aengus Kennedy, a sailing instructor with a background in nature conservation and his colleague, Jack Gallagher, kindly offered to bring me across Lough Swilly on a rib. Delighted to have the shortcut, as it took at least 50 km off my journey. Bouncing across the fjord on the rib in choppy conditions gave me a good sense of the coastal environment in these areas, and the importance of the relatively sheltered bays for wildlife, boating, aquaculture and other marine activities. In winter, Lough Swilly is home to large number of migratory swans and geese that arrive from northern breeding grounds.
The last part of my journey for the day took me onto the large expanse of blanket bog on the high ground between Buncrana and Carndonagh. Couldn’t help but be struck by the large amount of peat being cut for fuel here, with plastic fertiliser bags full of peat stacked all along the road.
Was pleased to see the compact village of Malin where we stopped for the night. The long day’s journey had taken us over very varied landscape, with contrasting character. We sometimes lose sight of the fact of just how varied the Irish landscape is, and how quickly the character changes from one valley to the next.
It was a bit of luck that Maria Long and John Brophy just happened to be surveying in Glencolumbkille while Bella and I were there. Maria works part-time with the Irish section of the Botanical Society of the British Isles and is also one of Ireland’s leading experts on non-marine molluscs (snails and slugs to you and me), and John is highly skilled in this group too. It is a failing on my part that I don’t give these creatures more consideration, for this is a group that shouldn’t be ignored. Molluscs come in a rich variety of types; readers of this blog will already have been introduced to two, the Kerry Slug and the Freshwater Pearl Mussel. 150 or so native species occur in Ireland and for at least 10 species, Ireland supports globally significant populations. And two species Ashfordia granulata and Leisotyla anglica, are near endemic to Ireland and Britian, and Ireland supports about 20% of their global world population. But all is not well in the non-marine mollusc world for 46 species have been found to be threatened with extinction in Ireland. So we should be worried about the reasons for this.
Six species are afforded protection under the EU Habitats Directive, but three have become infamous in Ireland for impacting on the Kildare Bypass and the Doonbeg Golf Course developments. The three are species of Vertigo, tiny little snails, only just about the size of the head of a pin, but with very specific habitat requirement. Maria and John were in Glencolumbkille as part of a survey to monitor the habitat quality of sites protected for these species. This particular site was surveyed on two previous occasions, and a quick read of the earlier surveys sheets showed that the vegetation at the site has changed signficantly; the vegetation has become less diverse and probably unfavourable for Vertigo angustior.
And of course at one level it is rediculous to be arguing for the conservation of this species when multi-billion euro projects are being planned, but these little creatures are like sentinels of the health of our environment – if we don’t cater for the needs of these highly specialised species, then our environment becomes less diverse and the countryside blends into a state of sameness. Planning for the needs of these creatures, not just the Vertigo but all protected species, presents the opportunity to ensure that we maintain diversity within our environment, which is a good thing for us all. Our decision-makers need to see it in these terms.
Later in the day, I visited the magnificently diverse site at Sheskinmore. This site has a massive dune complex which looks to be in good condition, but it also has a shallow lake, calcareous grasslands, saltmarsh, intertidal sand flats, swamp, fen and wet grassland. Hardly surprising then that this is one of the most important conservation sites in the north-west, crammed full of rare and specialised species, in both summer and winter.
While at Sheskinmore I gate-crashed a workshop on monitoring Marsh Fritillary, Ireland’s only legally protected insect. Like the Vertigo, Marsh Fritillary is afforded strict protection, and NPWS is obliged to monitor how the populations are doing from year to year. To do this properly requires coming up with a survey method that really works, and that can be replicated across the country. This is what the workshop was trying to do. And it seems to have been a good year for Marsh Fritillary judging by the number of caterpillar webs that were everywhere amongst the vegetation.
Recent years has seen a big improvement in the science of conservation, and we now have a better understanding of how biodiversity is changing. This is largely driven by NPWS, and the impressive work done by NGOs like Bat Conservation Ireland, BirdWatch Ireland and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group in mobilising volunteers to undertake properly organised large-scale surveys and managing that information. But there are also a growing number of people who are documenting the wildlife that they see, and sending that information into organised schemes and to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Oisin Duffy, an intern with the Data Centre last year, and his partner Mairead Crawford are two such up and coming recorders. Both understand the value of recording wildlife in their areas and ensuring that information makes it way to national surveys. Both are from Donegal, and I was delighted when they agreed to meet me at a lovely rich grassland site just behind Carrickfinn Airport. Walking through the grassland being shown the specialities of the site, like the frog orchid, was a real treat. And, viewed from the perspective of an old cynic like myself, it is great to see two young enthusiastic recorders learning at such a rapid rate and clearly really enjoying what they are doing. Mairead tells me they have just recently been made county botanical recorders for the East Donegal Vice-county, which means that a great deal more will be known about the area over the years ahead.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre is trying to nurture this younger generation of recorders, and thanks to the state-of-the-art systems developed by Compass Informatics based on internet technologies, we can engage with this new generation in a way they are comfortable with. Mind you, Oisin and Mairead acted in a very old-fashioned way by presenting Bella and I with a lovely goodie-bag of cream-cakes, Dillisk, and bottles of the seriously sweet McDaids Football Special. Just what was needed after a long day’s cycle.
I don’t know Donegal well, but during the first day in the county I have found plenty of interest. The cycle from Glencolumbkille took me up over high ground and through blanket bog, only to be gob-smacked by the incredible Glengesh U-shaped valley. I studied geography in college, and have visited many important Irish landscapes, but I never heard of Glengesh. Yet it is a perfectly shaped glaciated valley and looked stunning when I passed. At every corner, every turn of the road, there is a rich biodiversity evident in the fields. Even along the roadside verges, seeing juniper growing amongst the heather was a surprise, for juniper is a localised species in Ireland.
The birdwatcher’s support baton was passed from Alex Copland to Alan Lauder in Sligo. Alan had kindly agreed to cycle today’s leg of the journey with me, so I was looking forward to catching up with him. We would certainly have plenty of time to natter, as today was going to be a long cycle, about 160km to Glencolmbkille in Co. Donegal.
The route north of Sligo takes us west of the imposing Benbulben mountain, part of the Darty Mountains. We didn’t have time to detour directly into them, but they are worth mentioning as part of the Wild Ireland Tour. For the slopes of the Dartry Mountains are home to a special kind of vegetation, vegetation that is dominated by mats of mosses and closely related liverworts, collectively known as bryophytes. Most of us, myself included, wouldn’t give bryophytes a second thought. But this is where I am wrong for Irish bryophytes are fascinating and have a curious story to be told.
Bryophytes don’t compete well for living space with vascular plants; they grow best on bogs, sand dunes and mountain slopes, conditions harsh for plants but where bryophytes can flourish. Parts of the west coast of counties Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Donegal which have over 200 wet days each year, support some of the greatest bryophyte diversity in Europe. In all, about 800 different species and varieties grow in Ireland, and the extraordinary landscape of peaks, cliffs and gullies characteristic of the Carboniferous Limestone of the Dartry Mountains harbours perhaps the most unusual and unique bryophyte flora of them all. Here on the upper slopes bryophytes grow, sometime in great abundance, which are very rare or not found anywhere else in Ireland. Species with wonderful common names such as Irish Rock-bristle, Alpine Extinguisher-moss, Velvet Feather-moss, Atlantic Pounceworth, Lurid Cupola-moss and Blushing Bryum, to name just a few.
And some extraordinarily rare species grow here, and the chief amongst them is the Irish Beard-moss (Didymodon maximus), a species found here and nowhere else in Europe. Outside the Dartry Mountains it grows in Alsaka, Arctic Canada, on Wrangel Island in the Russian Far East, and Mongolia, displaying a world distribution of fathomless complexity. Another species, Robust Grimmia grows here and nowhere else in Ireland.
And across the countless hectares of remote upland slopes, peaks and valleys along the west coast of Ireland, the small valley of Annacoona in Gleniff is one of the richest sites for bryophyte flora in the country, supporting virtually all the local rarities. If you are interested in exploring for bryophytes, it is here that you would come, together with serious climbing gear as this is remote and treacherous terrain.
On the coast north of Benbulben, lies Mullaghmore peninsula, a place with an inglorious past, but with a wonderfully diverse range of habitats. Alan and I spent some time on the headland watching juvenile Kittiwake and Fulmar fly past. Apparently seabird populations did will in Ireland this year, unlike Scotland where populations continue to fare badly. And behind the impressive dune system at Mullaghmore lies Bunduff Lake, a coastal lake. It holds large numbers of wildfowl in winter and is designated a Special Protection Area under the Bird’s Directive. We only stopped briefly here, but the shallow lake was alive with dragonflies, and looked like a site well worth exploring.
As you can image, a long cycle through wonderful landscapes give us plenty of time to catch up, and to discuss the state of nature conservation in Ireland (and many other things which if I put in print would leave me open to libel!). Alan served as Chief Executive of BirdWatch Ireland for three years, and is very familiar with the conservation NGO sector in Ireland. During this time he used his considerable experience to help BirdWatch Ireland weather the storm of the recession and to put it on a firm footing for the next few years. No easy task.
We would agree that nature conservation is not really working in Ireland at the moment, and there are many reasons for this. One thing we feel that is missing is some long term, say 50 year, perspective on nature conservation. A strategy, independently produced, that would set out medium and long term targets for nature conservation, around which the support of the different players could be galvanised. Perhaps we could then get some sense of unity of purpose from within the conservation NGO sector and prioritise the issues on which the public, private and voluntary sectors must engage on, if we are to achieve positive outcomes for conservation.
But, enough of this, and back to the Wild Ireland Tour. The first port of call in Co. Donegal was St. John’s Point, an important limestone grassland site at the end of a 10km peninsula extending into Donegal Bay. It contains some limestone pavement, but for someone who has worked in the Burren, it would be hard to get excited about it. It does, however, support an interesting calcareous grassland, including interesting species such as Bloody Cranesbill, Northern Bedstraw, Blue Moor-grass, Burnet Rose and Broad-leaved Marsh-orchid. When we visited, the Devil’s-bit Scabious was in full bloom, giving the grassland a blue hue.
Left St. John’s Point and headed for Killybegs and the hills of Donegal. Very happy to arrive in beautifully picturesque Glencolumbkille for the night. Bade farewell to Alan- I think he will sleep well!
A short distance from Sligo Town, nestled between the Garavoge River and Lough Gill is a special type of woodland, now rare in Ireland. Hazelwood is a small area, just 25ha of alluvial woodland, a habitat protected under the EU Habitats Directive. These are woodlands of wet places, and usually have standing water during the winter months. So you can image, they are difficult to manage commercially for forestry, yet efforts were made to do so in the past. When I mentioned to Aileen O’Sullivan, Ecologist with Coillte, that I was passing through Sligo she immediately suggested visiting Hazelwood. She arranged for a colleague of hers, Barry Rintoul, to show me the site.
Hazelwood is well hidden and not sought out by walkers for it is fairly inaccessible. Yet a narrow path leads through part of it, a humid clearing alive with hoverflies when I was there. The woodland has large moss and fern-covered boughs growing through a tangle of undergrowth. A few large undesirable Beech trees stand erect, but dead, having being ring-barked, giving the wood an old-forest feel.
The Strawberry Tree grow here, its most northerly site in Ireland. Other interesting plants recorded here include Bird Cherry, Wild Cherry, Spindle and Ivy Broomrape. Red Squirrels and Pine Marten live here, and Woodcock and Water Rail skulk around the waterlogged woodland floor.
In recent years Coillte has been working to enhance the ecological status of the woodland, as part of a EU LIFE funded programme. The key challenges are to deal with invasive and non-native species; trying to control Rhododendron and Dogwood, and taking out Sycamore and Beech trees.To be honest, I couldn’t quite get excited about the woodland, probably because my untrained eye was unable to detect the botanical nuances of the site which make it interesting. Next time I visit I must bring a botanist with me!
As today was a rest day, Josephine, Seppie, Pauli and Felix visited us for the day. We had a lovely lazy day enjoying the invigorating sea breeze at Strandhill beach. And as only mothers can celebrate properly, we popped a bottle of champagne on the beach to mark the ending of Bella’s Secondary School phase of life. Onwards and upwards – Prost!
My professional background is in ornithology, and although I am doing very little of this now, it is easy to pique my interest again. So the visit to the far north-west corner of Mayo to see Twite, one of Ireland’s rarest breeding songbirds, was a special treat for me.
Portacloy isn’t so much a village as an Irish ‘baile‘, a collection of about 20 houses on a hillside facing the wild Atlantic. It is hard to identify anywhere else in Ireland so far off the beaten track, for getting here involves travelling over many miles of largely featureless blanket bog. But it is a beautifully atmospheric baile, set between two rugged heather-covered headlands overlooking a golden beach. And it is here along the precipitous cliffs that Twite, a small dainty finch, finds breeding conditions to their liking.
At one time, not too long ago, Twite would have bred almost along the entire Irish coast, but numbers declined so much that today, only about 75 breeding pairs remain in Ireland. This is a frighteningly small population of a bird whose ecological requirements are now known, thanks to the meticulous research carried out by Derek McLoughlin, in very demanding terrain. The key to the survival of these finches is having suitable nesting habitat close to disturbed ground containing a variety of plants with tiny seed for them to feed. They are semi-territorial, best described by Alex Copland as like ‘ribbon-development’ not ‘housing estate’- for they like their own living space but head off together to feed on weedy ground or roadside verges. The nest is built in a tuft of heather, over an outcrop, to provide protection from land predators. But where the problem lies is that Twite need to have an abundant supply of tiny seeds throughout the year on which to feed. In winter it will scavenge for seeds along the shoreline, but once back on its breeding ground it needs rich feeding to help it get in condition to breed successfully. Plants like dandelion, thistle, sorrel, self-heal, hawkbits, chickweed etc. are ideal, all plants that thrive when small patches of land were tilled, but that are becoming less abundant adjacent to coastlines.
But Portacloy is Twite capital of Ireland, and here they are doing well. The couple of hours we spent there with Derek McLoughlin, sitting on the heather-clad headland and watching them fly overhead with their distinctive nasal ‘tweeht‘ was pure magic.
Derek appreciates how special this vignette of ecology is, so he has developed an education programme with the local national schools, building on the existing curriculum. He believes that we need to make the next generation aware of their special natural surroundings, so that when they grow up and make decisions, at least they are informed decisions. And the good news is that under the new Rural Development Plan a specific agri-environment measure is to be introduced to encourage farmers to do positive management for Twite. Lets hope the authorities listen to Derek’s advice and the scheme is a success – the vulnerable Twite need this.
It was difficult for us to tear ourselves away from this magical world, but a longish spin to Sligo still remained to be done. Alex Copland and I hauled our weary legs back on the bikes and headed east, across the wonderfully dramatic north Mayo coastline to Ballina. From there, the landscape mellowed and became greener, but not necessarily any easier for cycling on the undulating ground. Sligo was a welcomed sight, with the added benefit of wonderful music for the last night of the Fleadh Cheoil.
Northwest Mayo is blanket bog country and for bog to develop it must rain on at least 250 days each year. It was only fitting then that we hit one of those 250 days for the cycle across the bogs of Mayo. The rain and an unpleasant west to northwest wind made for difficult cycling conditions. I was joined on the cycle for two days by Alex Copland of BirdWatch Ireland which helped to shorten the journey.
Every now and again you meet people who think big and have great ideas. Bill Murphy of Coillte is one such individual. Faced with having to make decisions about management of 4,500 ha of Coillte’s estate on the slopes of Nephin, an area planted with Lodgepole Pine around 1950, Bill let his imagination run riot. Instead of trying to eke a meagre return from the forestry operations here, could management take a different direction entirely? Bill came up with the idea of a wilderness area; a large tract of land where nature would take over, and signs of human intervention rolled back. The woodland would remain, but selective thinning and natural regeneration would give it a more ‘natural’ feel. The forest tracks would be removed so that access to this remote area would only be possible by foot, and the whole area would become an experiment in ‘re-wilding’ Nephin. Bill convinced his bosses in Coillte of the merits of this plan and has also gained the support of NPWS who own 7,000 ha of adjoining land at Ballycroy National Park, so that now, there is a 50 years agreement to create the Nephin Wilderness covering a huge tract of 12,000 ha. Bill freely admits he doesn’t really know what this area will evolve into, or what it will look like in 50 years time, but then, this project is all about venturing into unknown territory. And fair play to Coillte for giving it a go.
The cycle took us from Newport to Mulranny along the new Greenway, a fantastic initiative. Even on this wet and windy day, the Greenway was full of cyclists of all ages, many of whom looked like they had not have been on a bike for many a year. It is great that more of these Greenways are planned around the country.
The route took us north of Mulranny across the flat, open bog landscapes of Mayo; a wild desolate country with a quality all of its own.
Ever since I had an interest in birdwatching, I heard about a mysterious wet marsh located on the Mullet Peninsula where (to my mind) fantastically rare birds like Red-necked Phalarope bred, and where the fathers of Irish birdwatching explored. Annagh Marsh epitomised for me everything that was exciting about birdwatching and nature conservation in Ireland. Annagh Marsh has the distinction of being the first land purchased by the fledging bird conservation NGO, that was later to evolve into BirdWatch Ireland. And Annagh Marsh deserves this distinction for it is an incredibly important wetland site, not just for breeding waders, but for all aspects of biodiversity.
Over the years the marsh had become overgrown and the number of breeding waders was decreasing. Researching the breeding waders, they found that few of the Lapwing eggs hatched, they all see to fail just before hatching. Apparently, the chicks in the eggs peep for the last 24 or so hours before hatching, and an inventive fox was doing the rounds, listening for these peeping noises, then helping itself to dinner. To rectify this, BirdWatch Ireland applied for funding under the EU LIFE programme to improve the habitat quality of the marsh for breeding birds, and to put up an electronic predator control fence. The benefits of these measures were apparent after only two years, and when we visited to meet with the Reserve Manager Dave Suddably, there was a nice flock of juvenile Lapwing flying about, and good numbers of Snipe too.
Dave has been working closely with the neighbouring farmers also to introduce more favourable grazing regime to improve the conservation value of the grasslands in the vicinity. Dave’s interests extend way beyond birds, and he is finding really interesting wildlife in the area. He has found, for example, the Great Banded Sand Wasp and Belted Beauty Moth, both very rare species in Ireland. He also discovered a whole population of the Great Yellow Bumblebee, one of the species I have on my wish list for the tour. As we talked in the cold and damp, he pointed out one as it flew past. But as all I saw was a dark blob passing by at speed, I don’t feel justified in ticking it off my wish list.
It was disappointing that we visited the site in such poor weather conditions, as it was impossible to get a true feel for the wonderful riches of the site. But it was great to talk with Dave about the reserve and hear at first hand his obvious love of the area.
Extending for some 3,000 ha on the south-western side of the Twelve Bens lies Connemara National Park. It is one of six National Parks established in Ireland to bring large tracts of special landscapes into public ownership, to preserve large expanses of semi-natural habitats and to provide visitor facilities for people to explore and experience these special landscapes at first hand. Connemara National Park is primarily a large expanse of blanket bog, including some of the highest peaks of the Twelve Bens.
National Parks are important components of our heritage infrastructure as they encourage visitors to come and learn about the Parks by viewing exhibits and films, joining in educational programmes and getting out to walk through these special habitats. The series of tracks at Connemara National Park have proven very successful, so successful in fact that the path up Diamond Hill caused serious erosion, and specially constructed paths were built to accommodate more visitors.
A key issue for the National Park is controlled grazing. Sheep do not graze the lands of the Park, not because grazing is inherently harmful, but because there is practically nowhere else in Connemara where peatland vegetation grows, untrammelled by grazing. And the decision to remove sheep from the Park has been very successful, with Red Grouse doing well here, but poorly elsewhere in Connemara. Also, the Park is experimenting with using rare breeds of cattle, such as Black Galloway and the native Irish Moiled Cattle, to improve the habitat quality of some of the ‘green lands’ of the Park, while also having the animals as visitor attractions in their own right.
For a long time the Park had a fraught relationship with the local community, but in recent years all this has changed. Since Ger O’Donnell has taken over as manager of the Park, his vision and pragmatism has resulted in the local community seeing the Park as a resource that they can use and benefit from; this change is very welcome. When I worked here, the Park was not a happy place, but under Ger’s stewardship, I sense this has changed.
From the National Park I took the coastal road around Lettergesh and onto Killary Harbour. Killary is a fjord, and all this country displays evidence of glacial activity, where the valleys have been scoured by the action of ice-sheet during the last glaciation.
I spent some time looking for Freshwater Pearl Mussel in this area, and managed to locate what is, I’m told, probably the healthiest population in the country. Freshwater Pearl Mussel are Ireland’s longest-living animals, and can live up to 150 years. They live in river beds of only the cleanest, most unpolluted waters and sadly, have suffered badly in recent decades. So while the animals themselves can be found in many parts of the country, conditions are not suitable for them to breed; consequently most population consists entirely of old animals, just lingering on. But one of the rivers here has extensive beds of healthy mussels; large mussels as long as my hand, and all different sizes down to the smallest, indicating that the population in healthy. Seeing the healthy dark mussel beds in the river was a special treat for me, as it is humbling to think that many of these Freshwater Pearl Mussels are older than the Irish State. I probably should have included Freshwater Pearl Mussel on my 10 species wish list.
The road along the Doolough Valley brought me through a spectacular glaciated landscape, a reminder of our geological past, and the profound influence the events of 10,000 years ago still have on the Irish landscape. And at one special site near Westport, at Brackloon, it is incredible that palaeontologists and ecologists have been able to piece together a continuous record of the native woodland here since the end of the last glaciation.
Brackloon Wood is one of Ireland’s best researched woodlands and the management of this ancient woodland has formed the template for the roll out of the Native Woodland Scheme, an initiative to improve the conservation of native woodlands in Ireland. Given the historical importance of native woodlands in the Irish landscape, and the fact that only about 25,000 ha remains, it is extraordinary that only 5,000 ha is currently subject to active conservation management.
Declan Little, who studied here at Brackloon Wood is the main champion of native woodlands in Ireland. He works for Woodlands of Ireland, a collaborative initiative that promotes the conservation of Ireland’s native woodlands, and he is acutely aware of the value of this habitat. He argues passionately of trying to create 100,000 ha of native woodland in Ireland; this he believes would make an extremely positive contribution to improving native biodiversity and water quality, assist climate change mitigation measures, provide an important recreational and timber resource. Walking through the wonderfully diverse woodlands at Brackloon, you couldn’t but be convinced that he is right.