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.