Category Archives: Wild Ireland Tour (2014)

Diary – Day 22

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The cycle with Emmett provided a fascinating introduction to Malin Head

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.

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Emmett Johnson enjoying his cycle to Malin Head

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.

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Basking Shark territory

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.

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A Basking Shark tag, one of the many ways used to study these animals.

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.




Diary – Day 21

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.

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Ards Forest park boardwalk

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.

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The beach near Portsalon, Fanad Head

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.

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Thanks for the lift lads.

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.

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The Bog Road to Carndonagh

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.



Diary – Day 20

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Maria Long and John Brophy site monitoring at Glencolumbkille

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.

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Can you see it there? That’s how tiny Vertigo angustior is.

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.

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Sheskinmore contains an impressive diversity of habitats

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.

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Me, disturbing progress at the Marsh Fritillary workshop

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.

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Oisin Duffy and Mairead Crawford, new botanical recorders for East Donegal

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.

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Majestic Glengesh Valley
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Juniper growing on the roadside banks

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.


Diary – Day 19

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.

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Benbulben, the best known plateau of the Dartry Mountains

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.

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Mullaghmore headland.
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Bunduff Lake, behind the dunes at Mullaghmore

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.

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Alan Lauder, ‘enjoying’ the Wild Atlantic Way.

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.

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Calcareous grassland at St. John’s Point

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!


Diary – Day 17

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.

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Twite country near Portacloy, Co. Mayo

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.

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Derek McLoughlin telling us about his pioneering research
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Seeing Twite was a special treat for me.

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. 

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And for the record, Twite, fourth of 10 on species Wish List.

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.

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Dramatic cliffs near Ballycastle on the north Mayo coast.
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Not so dramatic blanket bog landscape of north Mayo.

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.

Diary – Day 15

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Connemara National Park with Diamond Hill

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.

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Blanket Bog vegetation is specialised to deal with the difficult growing conditions

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.

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Sphagum moss adds a micro-splash of colour to bogs

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.

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Off the beaten track near Killary

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.

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Freshwater Pearl Mussels darken the river bed.

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.Brackloon Wood resize 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.

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Declan, with his son Fiachra, at Brackloon Wood

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.

Diary – Day 14

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.

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Mannin Bay has an exotic feel to it.
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The variety of seashells hints at the diversity of marine life in Mannin Bay

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.

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Knapweed, a very important food source for insects and birds.

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.

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Corncrake country around Claddaghduff

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 Aughris resizeCladdaghduff 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.


Diary – Day 13

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.

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Heath, heather and western gorse in full bloom

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.

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Pete and Catherine Coxon
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St. Dabeoc’s Heath – one of Ireland’s Lusitanian flora

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.

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Roundstone Bog – a Special Protection Area for rare breeding birds
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The wonderful open landscape of Connemara

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.

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The Dorset Heath – number three on the 10 species wish list

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.

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Cocks of hay – a thing of the past

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).

Diary – Day 12

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Mountain Avens, one of the special plants of the Burren

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.

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The thin soils support a stunningly diverse flora

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.

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The Burren, a limestone karst landscape

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.

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The north Clare coast supports 450 seaweed species

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.

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Mike Guiry giving me a lesson on seaweed

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.

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Japanese Wireweed grows vigorously here

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.

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Caroline and Colin Stanley at Merlin Woods
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Merlin Woods, a valuable inner-city woodland

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.

Diary – Day 11

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Was great to have Simon’s company today

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.

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I joined the birders at Bridges of Ross

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.

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The cliffs south of Kilkee are spectacular

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.

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Revisiting Doonbeg

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.

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Cliffs of Moher – Ireland most visited natural attraction

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.