Today is a rest day from cycling, but still cycled 25km just so the legs didn’t forget how to turn the pedals. Had planned to visit Inisbofin, but we had a team meeting in the morning and decided to chill out in Clifden instead.
We made a leisurely trip out to Mannin Bay, a few kilometers south-west of Clifden so I could show Bella the Coral Strands. These are small extraordinarily white beaches backing onto a beautiful turquoise bay. The colour is due to the strand being comprised of coral, rather than the usual quartz, and gives rise to a beautiful exotic strand. The grains of the ‘sand’ are far larger than usual, interspersed with clumps of white coral. A closer look along the tide-line reveals a bewildering array of seashells, of all different types. Conical towershells, periwinkles, colourful banded top shells, winkles, cockles etc giving a glimpse of the bewildering marine diversity of Mannin Bay, and giving the area a South-Pacific feel to it. The brown-orange seaweed strewn rocks introduced another range of colour-tones to the strand. We spend a wonderful couple of hours just enjoying the exotic surroundings.
I ventured across the road and found wonderful species-rich grasslands. Devil’s-bit Scabious and Knapweed abound in these grasslands, giving them a blue and red hue. Although the day was blustery, the knapweed was alive with bees and hoverflies. I found plenty of beautifully fresh Common Carder Bees feeding on the knapweed, but nothing more unusual. I secretly wished I might stumble upon the Great Yellow Bumblebee, but that was unrealistic; it possibly occurs here, but wouldn’t be found without a bit more effort. Wall, Meadow Brown, Small Copper and Peacock butterflies were crammed into one small sheltered patch of the grassland – I can only but imagine that this area must be alive with insects on a warmer, calmer day.
Bella enjoyed the Coral Strand – I was glad to have shown it to her. In the afternoon made a short trip to north west of Clifden, to Claddaghduff and on to Cleggan. Claddaghduff is Corncrake country – about 25 calling males recorded this year in Connemara so numbers are up a bit from last year, which is good news. Finished up for the evening at Moyard, where we stayed with Ger O’Donnell and his wife Alva. Had a great evening catching up with the gossip.
Those bloody birdwatchers and their wish for good north-westerly winds to drive the seabirds on-shore. Well they had their wish, and all day I had to contend with a strong headwind and intermittent showers, making for tough cycling. It was also my fourth day of long cycles in succession, so my legs were tired.
Cycled across the flat blanket bog and heathlands of south Connemara – the landscape looked at its best. The vivid purples of the heaths and heathers contrasted beautifully with the bright yellow western gorse, the low growing prostrate version of gorse that grows here. The small lakes and the seaweed bedecked shorelines added further colour. The Twelve Bens mountain range looked very imposing in the distance.
Was delighted to call in to visit Catherine and Pete Coxon in Glinsk for a very warm welcome and a much needed drying-off. Both Pete and Catherine were in Trinity when Josephine and I were post-graduates there, and we have kept in contact since. Both geographers, they have a deep knowledge of their surroundings and very inquisitive minds. And they are always great company. Was delighted to have the opportunity to meet up with them, however briefly. Couldn’t possibly leave without Pete first showing me the St. Dabeoc’s Heath, a representative of Ireland’s special Lusitanian flora, that grows wild in their back garden. That is one of a group of about a dozen species which exhibit a disjunct distribution found in the west of Ireland and on the Iberian Peninsula. This group of species has given rise to much debate as to their origin, and the nature of recolonization of Ireland by wildlife after the retreat of the last ice sheet.
I was always fascinated by Roundstone Bog, a vast and largely intact blanket bog with a myriad of lakes. My first real job was Park Ranger with the Connemara National Park in 1990, and part of my duties involved keeping an eye on this site. On occasions I did stumble upon the stunning black and gold Golden Plover that breed here, and I watched elusive Merlins feeding on dragonflies. I even spent hours roaming around the quaking bogs looking for signs of feeding Greenland White-fronted Geese, but I never really got to grips with this site, as it takes dedicated and systematic survey work to unlock its secrets. The current Conservation Ranger for the site, Dermot Breen, is a seriously dedicated naturalist who is setting about the task properly. Dermot is studying the bird life of the site in much more detail as it is now a Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive. He spends much of his summer months walking transects across the remotest parts of the bog to establish how many breeding Golden Plover the site contains. He thinks this year there maybe 50 or so pairs at Roundstone; a sign they are doing well. He also speaks of painstakingly trying to locate the nests of the Merlin that breed in trees on some of the islands here. These are mightily elusive birds yet he knows where they nest. He even tells me of the two pairs of White-tailed Sea Eagles that attempted to breed for the first time in the area. And of course his skills are not only confined to birds, he is building up a huge body of knowledge of all aspects of biodiversity of this very special conservation area, and through his efforts, there is a far better understanding of how protected species are faring in this magnificent site.
One of the species on my wish list for the tour, the Dorset Heath, grows at one site on this extensive bog, and with Dermot’s help we managed to locate the half-dozen or so plants that exist. How these plants happen to occur here, is anyone’s guess. But the current thinking is that they may have been deliberately introduce here. But regardless, Dorset Heath is one of Ireland’s rarest plants, so it is a treat to have found it again. And as I was once told, rather stupidly, that knowing of its location was a ‘State Secret’, I just had to include it in my wish list. So I have now seen three of the 10 on my wish list.
Near Dog’s Bay I came across a farmer saving hay, and stopped for a chat. He told me he was now the last farmer making hay in this area, and would give it up himself in a couple of years time. Helping with saving the hay was a special, albeit romantic, memory of my childhood in Kerry, so it was nice to see. We stopped for the evening in Clifden, a bit earlier than planned, in order to relax and to celebrate Bella’s Leaving Certificate results, which she received earlier in the day. Delighted with her results, we had a lovely meal and a celebratory drink (or two).
The Burren is a beautiful, magical place, full of surprises. But it is an area not to be rushed; it takes its time to grab your attention and hold you. At first sight it appears a barren rocky place, but a short walk reveals an amazing diversity of plant life crammed onto every patch of shallow soil between the rocks. The Burren is a relatively small region, yet three quarters of all plant species that occur in Ireland grow here, and some are found nowhere else in Ireland. And plants seem to behave differently here than elsewhere in Europe. For example, nowhere else will Mountain Avens, an Arctic plant be seen growing beside Dense-flowered Orchid, a plant with a Mediterranean distribution. And seeing Heather growing directly on limestone with calcicoles like Bird’s-foot Trefoil, confused even the most imaginative botanists for a long time.
The secret to the Burren is the thin soils have not been fertilised so there isn’t an over-supply of nutrients, but as it is lime, the little nutrient present in the soil is available to the plants. There is enough to go around, but not too much for any plant to dominate. Another surprise is that the thin, rocky soils are ideal winter feeding for cattle, and it is this low-level winter grazing that maintains a diverse sward. And this really rich grassland supports an equally rich insect fauna which includes endemics like the Burren Green moth, for all the world like a White Ermine moth, appropriately enough, dipped in emerald paint.
The Burren at the moment is full of positivity. A farming for conservation scheme, the Burren Life project, has been established which provides agri-environment payments for farmers to take positive actions for nature conservation. Burren Beo, a local NGO is promoting all that is special about the Burren’s heritage. And the Burren deserves this positivity as it really is a special place.
I spent seven wonderful years in the Burren working as a Park Ranger; in many ways an ideal job, but when you feel it is time to move on, one should move on, which I did. But I was lonesome leaving the Burren. A great neighbour of ours, Patrick McCormack, said at the time, ‘you can take the Burren with you’, and I did.
All the time one hears about the floral diversity of the Burren, but on the northern shore of the Burren, where the limestone meets the sea, there is also an astonishing diversity of seaweeds. In the vicinity of Finvarra and New Quay, about 450 species have been recorded, which is about 7% of the world’s seaweeds, making it the richest area for seaweeds in Ireland and Britain.For marine diversity mirrors terrestrial diversity, in that the underlying rock type greatly influences species richness, and limestone supports a very diverse habitat. Around 20 years ago, there was a proposal to make this area Ireland’s second Marine Nature Reserve which, when at an advanced stage met with local opposition, and the proposal was dropped. This was a real shame.
In New Quay we met with two heavyweights (in the intellectual sense) of the seaweed world, Professors Michael Guiry from NUI Galway and Don Cheney from North Eastern University, Boston. Mike is one of the foremost authorities on seaweeds in Ireland and Britain, and has established a very large database of seaweed distribution across these islands. As you would expect from a strong scientific background, Mike stresses the value of having voucher specimens collected along with observations so that records can be validated, thus improving the value of the data. Mike is working with the Data Centre at the moment to produce a Red List or conservation assessment of seaweeds in Ireland, which can examine species distribution over different time periods to objectively identify which species are threatened with extinction.
And seaweeds are undergoing fairly dramatic changes. Mike showed me extensive patches of the invasive seaweed Japanese wireweed (Sargassum muticum) which is thriving here. In its native Japan it is a small, innocuous seaweed as it has to compete with other species of the same family, whereas here it can grow with total abandon. But this is not the only invasive species; in a small area Mike pointed out at least four other invasive species, all from exotic places, a consequence of the free trade policy of the EU. Mike also noted that he could detect evidence of eutrophication of seaweeds on the shore as a result of fertiliser enrichment on adjacent land. That really surprised me.
And for something completely different, as they say, I called by Merlin Woods in the centre of Galway City to look at an urban woodland to end up the day. This large woodland site, adjacent to the Merlin Park Hospital just north of the old Dublin Road, is a heavily used recreational area. The site has a variety of woodland types, and supports a surprisingly rich species diversity, largely due to being underlain by limestone. Situated as it is in the centre of Galway City, it is hardly any surprise that this woodland is under threat of ‘development’ – there is talk of part of it being used as bus corridor.
Two local residents, Caroline and Colin Stanley, have recently taken an interest in documenting the wildlife of the woodland to demonstrate its value as a wildlife and recreational area. Not having a background in wildlife, they immersed themselves in photographing and documenting the species they saw, spurred on initially by trying to confirm the presence of Red Squirrel, which they did. Their interest in wildlife has grown enormously, and they have set up a group called Friends of Merlin Wood, to highlight the heritage value of the woodland. They believe passionately that the woodland should be seen as an asset for the city and conserved. They are beginning to convince a large number of people that they are right.
The morning saw blustery westerly winds bringing in heavy showers from the Atlantic, much as you would expect for touring the Loop Head Peninsula, the protruding lip of the Shannon Estuary. I was delighted to have Simon’s company for the circuit of the peninsula, as it made the tough conditions much more bearable. The low, windswept peninsula has its own charm.
I always associate Loop Head with birdwatching as the only times I visited was either for bird ringing while being trained by Philip Brennan who operated a bird observatory here in the 1990s, or to watch seabirds from the Bridges of Ross. Protruding as it does into the Atlantic, it is easy to see how wayward migratory birds would land on this headland. But at this time of year, a small rocky shelf at the Bridges of Ross, just to the north-east of Loop Head, comes into its own. Perched here for much of August are telescope-bearing birdwatcher who scan the seas for the thousands of seabirds that pass off shore each day. Seabirds that usually stay far out to sea get pushed landward when north-westerly winds blow, bringing a bonanza of birds within sight of the Bridges. When we visited there were about a dozen hardy souls counting the birds passing by. Apparently, the conditions were not ideal for seabird watching as the winds were just westerly, not north-westerly, and they weren’t blowing strongly enough either. Despite that, already today in addition to the 1,000s of Manx Shearwaters, auks and gulls seen, they counted 10 Cory’s Shearwaters, 12 Great Shearwaters, 16 Great Skuas and 3 Sabine’s Gulls, all species rarely seen except by the most dedicated of birders. Niall Keogh of BirdWatch Ireland is co-ordinating counts of seabirds from all headlands in August as part of the Seatrack project to quantify the diversity and abundance of seabirds that fly past Ireland each year.
The cycle along the northern side of the Loop Head Peninsula towards Kilkee brought us along spectacular cliffs, not as tall as the Cliff’s of Moher, but varied for they are folded and fractured more. Also looked across to the isolated flat-topped Ilaunonearaun, home to a large population of Barnacle Geese in winter.
Simon headed for home at Doonbeg, while I called in to look at Doonbeg Golf Course – now renamed the Trumph International Golf Links & Hotel. This was an interesting visit for me, as I worked for the Heritage Council when this development was being planned, and we had objected strongly to the development. The reason being that we felt that the development of a large golf course and hotel could not be compatible with conserving the ecological integrity of the dune system. We took an objection to An Bord Pleanala, and lost; the development was given the green light, with conditions. Standing there now, with this huge development oozing of wealth and beautifully managed greens set amongst towering dunes, I didn’t know what to think. The dune system is incredibly well managed, probably managed better than any other land in west Clare, the site is monitoring regularly and the species are apparently doing well, and, not insignificantly, the development is by far the biggest employer in west Clare. I suppose, at least by fighting the conservation case when it was planned, it has meant that the ecological interest of the site was highlighted, and mitigation measures implemented properly. Another interesting observation at the time was that there were only two options on the table; not allow the development proceed and continue to have a poorly managed dune system, or allow the development proceed for a commercial operation and have a very well managed dune system (albeit for golf). There was no option to have a well managed dune system purely to enhance its ecological value.
The end of the cycle brought me to the Cliffs of Moher, sheer cliffs standing over 200 m and running for about 8km, and one of Ireland’s leading tourism attractions. This is a massive development catering for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. For years the visitor experience here was, at best, sub-standard, exhibiting all the characteristics of poor management. Recently all this has changed, with a large visitor centre built into the hillside and car parking moved away from the seaward side of the road. The area is still thronged by day, but everything is well managed. This is a bit late in the season, but earlier in the summer, the cliffs are home to thousands of nesting seabirds. And the star attraction here are the breeding Puffins that can be seen from the path. I am glad that these cliffs are so well visited, as it means if I want to experience the rugged wildness of west Clare, I will head to the peace and quiet of south of Kilkee.
I was really looking forward to this day for some time. One time previously, Simon had brought me out to see the pod of Bottlenose dolphins in the Shannon Estuary, and seeing these creatures at close quarters is quite an experience. Also, on a personal note, I used to have quite a bit of contact with Simon, particularly when he served on the Management Board of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, but we hadn’t met now for a few years. So it was good to catch up.
Josephine and Pauli met up with us for the night and we all headed across on the Tarbert to Killimer ferry to meet Simon at the Shannon Dolphin Wildlife Federation Information Centre in Kilrush. Tucked away at the bottom on the village, this small Centre is crammed full of information and exhibits about whales and dolphins. Simon showed us the full-size replica of Fungi the Dolphin, skulls of exotic sounding whales like Cuvier’s and Gervais’ beaked whales, and even let us open and smell the delights of a small jar of sperm oil. We were even treated to the eye of a whale preserved in a jar. Simon set up this NGO to promote the conservation of the Bottlenose Dolphin in the estuary and it has been maintained down the years by a huge voluntary effort by all involved.
A population of about 120 genetically distinct Bottlenose dolphins resides in the Shannon Estuary, between the mouth of the estuary upstream to Limerick City. Sometimes they venture out of the estuary into Tralee Bay, but it is thought they don’t venture north of Loop Head. Simon and his colleagues have been studying this populations of dolphins since 1993. Each dolphin has unique markings on their bodies, scratches and scars, which allow each to be identified. Since 1993, a catalogue of photographs of dolphins has been established, a photo ID catalogue, which now contains images of at least 250 individuals. Sightings of dolphins allow the researchers to get an insight into the movement of individuals, and over the years this has provided detailed information about the animal’s feeding preferences, longevity and social behaviour. Passive acoustic monitoring devices have also been deployed at a number of sites in the estuary. These record the sounds of dolphins and provide very detailed temporal data on dolphin movements near these stations. There remains much to learn about these animals, but thanks to Simon and his colleagues, sufficient information is available now to guide conservation efforts, and the estuary is designated a Special Area of Conservation.
Simon didn’t hold out much (actually, any) hope of us seeing the dolphins when we arrived, as the wind was blowing a nice Force 5 westerly making the water quite choppy, far from ideal conditions for seeing dolphins. Undeterred we headed out on a rib to give it a go. And, boys being boys, we had a great couple of hours on the rib, battling the wind and the swell, and getting drenched with the spray. Meanwhile, the girls went for afternoon tea.
So we didn’t manage to see the Bottlenose Dolphins, but that is wildlife for you; you can’t expect it to turn up on demand. We did, however, get very nice views of a Peregrine near Moneypoint Power Station. We ended the boat trip with a short stop off at Scattery Island to see the round tower.
We spent a lovely evening with Simon, Frances and the family, catching up on gossip and work.
Cloghane is a remote village lying in the shadow of the imposing Mount Brandon, Ireland’s tallest mountain outside of the McGillycuddy Reeks range. The only route out of this valley takes you along Fermoyle strand, a vast expanse of coastal mudflat, that provides shelter and rich feeding for waders and wetland birds in the winter months. It is also a prime fishing area.
To the east of this lies the Magharees, a long narrow sand spit that extends for about 7km northward into Brandon Bay. Lough Gill, a shallow freshwater lake and the surrounding 9-hole Castlegregory Golf Course provide near ideal conditions for Natterjack Toads. It is often cited as an example of how golf courses and wildlife are compatible in special habitats like dune and machair (dune grassland) habitats. And of course, it may be the case that the golf course here provides favourable conditions for the Natterjack Toad, however, it is something else to apply it as a kind of principle that golf courses are good for wildlife.
Just off the northern end of the Magharees lies about 12 small low islands called the Magharee Islands. Many a person must have stood on the shore, looking across on the islands and wondered what wildlife treasures these supported. Well one man, local birdwatcher and artist Michael O’Cleary, took it upon himself to find out and organised a detailed survey of the breeding birds in 2006 and 2007. All nine of the vegetated islands in the group were visited, both by day and by night, and tape lures were used to detect breeding sea birds like Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel, that nest in underground borrows but who only come to the nests at night. The night visits to the islands revealed an amazing find; more than 1,200 breeding pairs of Storm Petrel bred here, comprising about 1% of the known Irish breeding population of this species. What a discovery to make, and show it pays to do something about your curiosity. The survey found a total of 27 species bred on the islands, 13 of which were seabirds, and some bred in nationally important numbers. So there are still many exciting discoveries to make about Ireland’s wildlife.
The rest of the day’s cycle took me westward to Tralee, then north around Kerry Head. The day ended on Aughinish Island, east of Foynes. At first sight, Aughinish Island is an odd place to stop. It is best known for the huge Aughinish Alumina plant the produces aluminium from boxite, the largest manufacturing site in Ireland. But the area immediately around the manufacturing plant is an incredibly rich area, with a mixture of habitats, including limestone pavement. Species like Juniper, Bee Orchid and Burnet Rose grow in abundance here, and 22 species of butterfly have been recorded, including localised species such as Small Blue, Wall, Grayling and Dingy Skipper. As the area is studied in more detail, many more species are being found. As a gesture, Aughinish Alumina has established a nature reserve here, and provided pathways for the public to walk. The company employs local man, Liam Dundon, as Wildlife Warden on a part-time basis and they actively welcome scientists and naturalists to enjoy the biodiversity of the site.
One regular visitor to the site, a perhaps the person who knows the area best, is Geoff Hunt. Geoff is a keen amateur naturalist who was made redundant last year. He has used this calamitous event in his life as a spur to build a second career around providing wildlife education for school children. He began by visiting schools under the Heritage Council’s Heritage in Schools programme, and found that there was a huge demand from national schools for his training. He has pursued this with vigour, and has developed a whole curriculum around wildlife appropriate for national schools. And to improve his own training, he enrolled for the new Certificate in Biological Recording and Identification course run by UCD, and is currently completing a large survey of hoverflies in County Limerick and north Kerry, making many exciting discoveries.
Under the terms of his redundancy, there are supports to help him start a new business, and Geoff is hoping that he can turn his passion for wildlife, and his love of teaching into a full time business. He acknowledges that even if successful, he will never earn as much as he did before he was made redundant, but thinks that his second career could be far more rewarding. And there is another aspect to this positive story; Geoff has spent hours studying and surveying the wildlife of this reserve, and he noted that his favour place, a tiny freshwater lough next to the shoreline, didn’t have any recognised name. So Aughinish Alumina and Ordnance Survey Ireland agreed to name this small lough, Hunt’s Lough in his honour. Now that’s a nice honour to bestow on someone.
Josephine and Pauli joined up with us for the evening – it was great to see them. Felix is heading home after the week with us; he was great company for us, and I think it was an exciting experience for him. He might join us again before the tour is completed.
Just west of Killorglin, on the shores of the Castlemaine Harbour, a success story is unfolding. This is the headquarters of the Natterjack Toad, Ireland’s only native species of toad, and a species whose population declined dramatically during the 20th Century. National Parks and Wildlife Service studied the ecology of this species and found that for it to thrive, it needed ponds which held water during the spring for the tadpoles to develop, surrounded by a short grassy sward where adults could forage for food. But the balancing act for the specie’s survival is that it needs the ponds to dry out in summer so that dragonfly nymphs, water beetles and other aquatic organisms that prey on the tadpoles can’t develop. Under the guidance of Ferdia Marnell, NPWS introduced a scheme here offering farmers relatively small payments to dig two ponds and to keep the surrounding grass either grazed or mown. The uptake from the farmers has been good, and 100 ponds have been dug. It is early days yet, but already toads have colonised 20% of these. So the species range here is expanding and the population looks to be growing, which is very good new indeed.
Over the years I have heard a great deal about the Natterjack Toad, for it is a kind of iconic species in Ireland, but I have never seen one. It was an obvious choice for my 10 species wish list. We were fortunate to have Ferdia’s company to tell us about the conservation work he is supervising in the area, but more importantly (actually more selfishly) it was great to have his knowledge and skills to actually find toads for us at this time of year. And sure enough, we were delighted when he managed to find three to show us – good man Ferdia, I never doubted you! They are fantastic little creatures, more petite that I had expected and really quite beautiful. I think for both Bella and Felix, seeing them was also high on their list of highlights for the tour so far, which surprised me a bit.
On the way to Dingle I passed the magnificent beach and dune system at Inch. This is one of Ireland’s largest remaining dune systems which doesn’t have a golf course, but there is constant pressure on the authorities to allow a golf course to be developed here. Now I have nothing against golf courses, but this is not the right place for one, and the NPWS are correct not to budge on this.
The afternoon took us to Dingle to cycle the Slea Head Drive, the most westerly part of the mainland of Ireland. I was delighted to have Micháel O’Cinnéide join me for the cycle around Slea Head, for this is his country, having been born and bred here. We met in Dingle, a thriving town dependent on tourism and, to a lesser extent, fishing. As Micháel explained, when you have thriving towns like Dingle it is not just the town, but the surrounding hinterland that prospers. It provides employment opportunities, but not necessarily full time, to people living all along the Dingle Peninsula. And one gets the feeling that the natural heritage experience is an ingredient of the tourism in the area, which is good.
We visited Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir – the Blasket Island Centre in Dún Chaoin and had a lovely warm welcome there. This was one of three Interpretative Centre planned for iconic sites in the early 1990 by the Office of Public Works, the others at Mullaghmore in the Burren, and Luggula in the Wicklow Mountains. At the time the controversies were a huge national story, and pitted the ‘conservation’ movement firmly and forcefully against the might of the State. The other two Centres were never built, but Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir was. The building is a fantastic design, based on our old Celtic and natural tradition, drawing the visitor’s gaze to An Bhlascoid Mór in the distance. The Centre provides visitors with a beautifully crafted introduction to the rich cultural heritage of the region, a region famous for its Irish literary tradition.
As we cycled, Micháel pointed out Irish place names as we passed, beautifully sounding names tripping off the tongue of a native Irish speaker- Baile na nGall, Cathair Deargáin, Cnoc an Ghróigin, Báile an Lochaigh and so forth. For here in this region, language and landscape are inseparable.
Bade farewell to Micháel in Dingle, and tackled the Conor Pass, the longest, but not the most difficult, climb of the tour. The panoramic view over the blanket bog from the top of the Conor Pass was obscured by the descending rain clouds. But it was lovely to see the large-flowered butterwort and the saxifrages growing in profusion on the rocky sides of the road as I descended into Cloghane for the night.
Our day began by wending our way along the extreme south western corner of the Iveragh Peninsula to Derrynane National Historic Park – best known as the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Liberator. But this is a real gem of a site; huge diversity crammed into the 120 ha site owned and managed by the Office of Public Works. The northern slopes of the site are clothed in semi-natural woodland of different types, then a dune system and species-rich grassland separate the woodland from the sheltered sandy bay. Throw in a formal garden supporting a myriad of exotic plants, and you have it all. It is probably best known by botanists as the area where some really rare and localises species like the Kerry Lilly and the Blue-eyed Grass can be found. But crammed into this site is an amazing diversity of wildlife; in May of this year as part of Ireland’s BioBlitz surveyors found and identified almost 1,000 different species over a 24-hour period.
But what I find special about the site is that it is an important cultural and natural site, and although Derrynane House is the focus of the visitor attraction, the natural heritage component is valued equally. We met with Chris O’Neill who recently took over the management of the property and he has set about commissioning surveys of the biodiversity of the site to better understand its significance, for, as he explains, maintaining the ecological quality of the site is fundamental to maintaining its cultural significance – they are one and the same thing. A really refreshing attitude. He is also acutely aware that management of a state-owned property like this needs to be done with involvement of the local community and to make sure that the property is seen and used as an asset by them. And as if to emphasise this point, while there we met walkers, swimmer, joggers and a pony-trekking group, all using and enjoying the amenity.
A visit to Caherdaniel would not have been complete without calling in to see the artist, naturalist, film-maker, and publisher Vincent Hyland. Vincent is a Dub who has come to live in the area, and is a real advocate of our natural environment and communicating its value to others. I first came across Vinny when he produced the wonderful Wild Ireland magazine, but he has since expanded by putting his enormous talents to work in developing a super website www.vincenthylandartist.com. He is acutely aware of the value of the marine environment in particular, and is doing very exciting work on communicating this to others. Using his publishing and artistic skills, he is developing ebooks and apps to communicate his knowledge of the marine to locals and visitors alike. The quality of these products are really impressive. Footage that he showed us of a feeding frenzy of birds and fish on a shoal of krill in Kenmare Bay, for example, was astonishing, but not satisfied with just filming the aerial action, he deployed hydrophones to capture the bullet-like entry of the Gannets into the water, to produce a hugely atmospheric film. It felt as if I was in the water with the krill. As talented and interesting as Vinny is, he tells me only about 50% of his income is derived from his natural environment work, so he has to turn his hand to other things too.
At Waterville, stopped off at Sea Synergy, a new marine information centre opened by local woman and marine bologist Lucy Hunt. Lucy, like Vinny, is trying to make a living from their deep knowledge and love of the marine environment, and the lovely shop and information centre she has developed provides an intimate experience unlike any of the other more commercial operations in the area. She also does a great deal of educational work throughout the year. And while there are boat trips to the Skelligs, she thinks that more private operators are needed in Waterville to tap into the ecotourism market.
The road out of Ballinskelligs, a 2.5km climb to Coomanaspic was a really brutal climb, kicking up to 25% in places, so very pleased to have the long descent to Valentia Island after that. Passing Rossbeigh, the huge amount of damage done in the winter storms was evident as much of the beach and dune system has been washed away. If time allowed, I had planned to visit Cromane, one of Lonely Planet’s top 50 ‘secret’ travel locations. But the lure of a pint and meal meant that Cromane will remain, for me at least, a secret place.
One of the drawbacks of deciding to cycle around Ireland is that, well, you have to cycle quite a bit. Today was one of those days that I had planned to cover a good amount of ground; ended up being a sightseeing trip of about 160 km, but what scenery! While the lads headed for the hill route, taking in the sights of the Healy Pass (which, apparently, they thought was ‘class’), I decided to keep to the coastal route and round the western extremities of the Beara Peninsula before heading east towards Kenmare. With the sun shining and the Fuschia, Montbretia, Heather and Purple Loosestrife in full vibrant bloom, and the sea a deep blue, the landscape was picture-postcard beautiful. Actually, I realised my iPhone camera really couldn’t begin to capture the essence of the place.
Allihies and Eyeries are two small villages nestling in sheltered valleys at the western extremity of this peninsula. A patchwork of small fields, steep hillsides and colourful houses built on elevated sites present a very typical ‘traditional’ scene. Until not too long ago, small-scale agriculture supplemented by fishing would have been the dominant economic activities of the area, but you now sense that farming here is only barely hanging on. But for nature conservation, this is not what we want to see. In the recent past the kind of farming practiced here was good for nature, and was what we call High Nature Value (HNV) farming. The meadows would have been alive with the sound of calling Corncrakes and the hum of insects. The Choughs that I heard calling as I cycled past clearly still find the area suitable for them, as the short sward they depend on is still maintained by grazing animals. But for how long, I wonder? The European Commission has recognised the value of this HNV farming and the policy allows financial support to maintain this marginal activity, but defining HNV and putting in place significant measure to support it in Ireland has proven difficult. It would benefit both the farming community and wildlife of these peripheral areas if this could be done more speedily.
Glad to leave the short, steep testing climbs of Eyeries behind, my cycle along the northern side of the Beara Peninsula provided stunning views over the Kenmare Bay, a site of prime importance for nature conservation. It looked across the bay to Caherdaniel, our destination for the night, but yet I needed to cycle eastward to Kenmare. But the route wasn’t difficult so I could make reasonable headway. Had intended to stop at Uragh Woods, up a valley to the east, on a quest to find the Kerry Slug. But as Clare Heardman introduced it to us at Glengarriff Woods, I decided to push on.
Met up with Bella and Felix at Kenmare for a bit of urban experience; enjoyed the sights of a vibrant holiday destination, full of people enjoying themselves in the sun. The ice creams we had were good. The last leg of the day’s cycle took me westward along the Ring of Kerry and the Wild Atlantic Way to Caherdaniel. Glad to reach my destination after a fantastically scenic trip.
Today was a welcomed scheduled rest day from cycling, and involved visiting two special sites in the vicinity of Glengarriff on the eastern side of the Beara Peninsula. In the morning we visited Glengarriff National Nature Reserve, a 300 ha stretch of semi-natural woodland and grassland that cloaks the hillside overlooking Glengarriff. National Parks and Wildlife Service own and manage this area on behalf of the State and a number of walks meander through the reserve where visitors can explore . And there is plenty to explore here. The reserve supports a colony of about 330 Lesser Horseshoe bats, a species which is confined to counties Cork, Kerry, Clare and Galway and a high conservation priority. When renovating one of the offices here, NPWS provided a large opening into the attic to allow access for these bats. A large winter nursery roost, a hobbit-like underground cellar, was also built, so that now they have both safe summer and winter roosts. A real success story for this species.
A short walk through the woodlands here show that the ground and trees are bedecked in luscious mosses and lichens, a miniature amazonian-like jungle of incredible diversity, testament to the damp climate and beautifully fresh air. Home to many rare and localised species, like the Strawberry Tree, Narrow-leaved Helleborine and Kidney Saxifrage, the woodland is one of the best examples of an oceanic sessile oakwood, and rated at least as highly as its more illustrious neighbour the Killarney oakwoods. Has the added advantage that it doesn’t suffer the acute grazing problems like Killarney, consequently the woods can regenerate naturally.
We also managed time to walk to Lady Bantry’s Lookout, where we got stunning views of the surrounding countryside and Bantry Bay. Clare even found for us the infamous Kerry Slug which I had not seen before. Strange, neither Felix nor Bella seemed impressed!
Although only a couple of kilometres away, the afternoon’s experience was completely different as we made a brief visit to Garnish Island. Kevin Ger O’Sullivan brought us on his small boat ‘the long way’ to the island, giving us close views of the Common Seals with their young, basking on the rocks. He also showed us the huge nest of the White-tailed Sea Eagle where two chick hatched, but perished, a few weeks back. The local community were understandably excited about the new arrivals to the area, and were disappointed that the chicks didn’t survive. But it is great to see the enthusiasm of the locals for these birds, which is in stark contrast to the mindless persecution that we have seen elsewhere.
Garnish Island is owned and managed by the Office of Public Works and the Foreman Finbarr O’Sullivan kindly agreed to show us around. This is an incredible tribute to what can be done with vision, will power and a healthy bank balance. Between 1911 and 1917 Annan Bryce and Harold Peto set about transforming a barren, windswept rock into an incredibly rich garden, supporting an amazing array of exotic plants from all over the world. With a great deal of rock blasting, importation of soil from the mainland and the planting of trees to serve as a shelter belt, the formal and walled gardens were created. The shelter combined with the warm winter temperature and high rainfall, up to 2,500 mm in some years, creates conditions allowing even the most delicate of plants to survive. There is nothing ‘natural’ about this island, and the contrast with Glengarriff Nature Reserve is striking. Both, in their own way, have an incredible beauty, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.