Day 8 – Wild Ireland Tour
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.