Diary – Day 7

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Derrynane, on the edge of the Iveragh Peninsula

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.

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Meeting with James O’Shea and Chris O’Neill at Derrynane

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.

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Vincent Hyland showing us some of his work

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.

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Lucy Hunt’s new Sea Synergy Centre in Waterville

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.

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Taking a break at Coomakista

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.

Diary – Day 6

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.

Classic ‘High Nature Value’ Farmland on Beara

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.

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Was glad to leave the short, steep climbs of Eyeries behind.

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.

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Northern side of Beara, looking east

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.

Diary – Day 5

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Clare Heardman at the hobbit-like winter home for the Lesser Horseshoe bats

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.

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Prime example of oceanic sessile oakwoods

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!

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Our boatman Kevin Ger O’Sullivan

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.

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The Italian Garden, Garnish Island
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Solitary Grey Heron

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.

Diary – Day 4

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Hummingbird Hawk-moth, one of the 10 on my wish list.

Day 4 – it just keeps getting better. After a leisurely breakfast with namesake Damaris Lysaght, she introduced us to the delights of Barley Cove. An extensive dune and species-rich grassland system that is alive with insects at this time of year. We spent way too long here wandering through the dunes seeing a good variety of butterflies, including Dark-green Fritillary, Gatekeeper and Wall which we don’t get in Kilkenny, and also beautifully fresh Small Copper, Common Blue and Small Tortoiseshell. Also saw another Clouded Yellow.

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Male Common Blue
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Small Copper

The grassland here are very species-rich – Lady’s Bedstraw, Pyramidal Orchid, Sea Holly, Sand Pansy and Wild Thyme adding great splashes of colour. The Knapweed was alive with Six-spotted Burnet moths, the ragwort was covered with caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth and, then, a hummingbird hawk moth appeared feeding on a patch of knapweed. This species is on my 10 species wishlist for the tour, so delighted to see it. One down, only nine more to go.

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Seeing the caterpillar webs of the Marsh Fritillary was special

Being shown the caterpillars webs of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, Ireland’s only legally protected insect, was an added treat. They are surprisingly difficult to find, but Damaris is well experience and found about 10. Seems to be a good year for Marsh Fritillary at Barley Cove this year. The dunes were full of juvenile Wheather, Meadow Pipit and Skylark also. We lingered way too long at this site, before heading to Brow Head, the most southerly point of mainland Ireland, for a quick picnic and the chance of seeing a Basking Shark. No Basking Shark but a family party of the majestic Chough fly low over head, their red bill and legs clearly visible.

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The view almost made the severe climb touching 15% worthwhile.

The afternoon took me across the Mizen Penisula and onto Sheep’s Head. A severe climb after Kilcrohane took me to a fantastic vantage point where I could see all the surrounding land. The view northeastward back towards Bantry was stunning, with the green of the small fields contrasting with the blue estuary against the backdrop of the Iveragh Penisula. Raven calling overhead completed the picture. The cycle on to Glengarriff was longer than expected, and I covered almost 120km for the day and climbed 1,200 metres. It felt more, and I was glad to get to the B&B (Beer & Bed) before the rain arrived.

Diary – Day 3

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Long Strand, Castlefreke

Day 3 finished and what a magnificent day we had. It started with us meeting up with Colin Barton who led the way cycling with me from Clonakilty to Galley Head. Colin maintains a Galley Head birding blog and knows the area like the back of his hand. The sun was shining and the visibility was clear, and landscape was stunning; it doesn’t get much better than this.  Met up with Ciaran Cronin and Mark Carmody near Galley Head lighthouse and spent an hour or so just looking out to sea, and having a good chat. Interesting that both Ciaran and Colin get quite a bit of work from the JNCC, a UK State Agency, as they are skilled seabird surveyors. Galley Head is a well known bird watching site, at this time of year for seabirds and later for migrants. Thousands of shearwaters, petrels and skuas pass along the Atlantic at this time of year, and if there is a south-westerly wind it pushes these birds on-shore, and the passage of thousands of birds can be seen. Even rare petrels that breed in small numbers in the Azores and Cape Verde Island can be seen here. But today, there was no breeze so we had to contend ourselves with what else we could find. And that wasn’t bad, Fin and Humpback Whales, dolphins and porpoises.  The lads claim they saw Basking Shark about an hour before we arrived (typical)  Spotted my first Clouded Yellow of the year here too, and a peregrine overhead was an added bonus. 

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Colin Barton cycled most to today’s leg with me. Nice to have the company.
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Glandore, playground of the (Cork) rich and famous.

Colin continued with me cycling along the coast, passing through some really beautiful scenery. All the little bays and coves here are picture-postcard with the yacht-strewn harbours framed beautifully by the surrounding wooded cliffs. The vivid yellow flowering Montbretia and the deep red and purple Fuschia giving the area a Mediterranean feel.
Called into Lough Hyne, Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve and the surrounding wooded Knockamagh Hill. The roads were thronged with cars on this Bank Holiday so we didn’t linger.
Colin and I parted company at Skibberreen, he going east and I going west onto the heather and heath covered hills around Skull. Spent a lovely evening with artist and namesake, Damaris Lysaght, in the peace and tranquility of her home near picturesque Ballydehob. Managed to see plenty of Gatekeepers flying about her garden.

Diary – Day 2

Completed day 2 of Wild Ireland Tour – taking me from Whitegate to Courtmacsherry. Began the day at Roches Point where we met Paul Whelen of Lichen.ie and Biology.ie fame. Paul introduced us to some of the characteristic lichens of the area including Ramalina cuspidata, Caloplaca marina and Lichina pygmaea – all a mystery to me, I have to admit.

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Paul Whelan showing us lichens at Roches Point

But Paul has managed to tackle this difficult group and has completed the first systematic survey of lichens of rocky shores. We also talked about biological recording and what spurred him on to develop the Biology.ie recording facility. Having an early background in education highlighted for him the need to have IT supports like Biology.ie and Lichen.ie.
Next we called to the Coastal & Marine Research Centre in Haulbowline to meet Damien Haberlin and hear about the fascinating world of jellyfish. He tells us there is still a great deal to learn about the ecology and behaviour of jellyfish. And the aquaculture industry is interested in this, because jellyfish can destroy millions of euro of farmed salmon, something which has happened sporadically over the years. Interesting to hear they were geared up to tag some jelly fish this year in Cork Harbour but the usual swarms didn’t occur this year, so they are looking to carry out the research elsewhere. Absolutely stunning setting for a marine research centre – there were a dozen or so Common Seals hauled out on the slipway just beside the bridge as we passed. 

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Damien Haberlin on the mysterious world of jellyfish

It was off then along the Cork coast taking me past some small, beautifully lush coves and bays, many with tiny settlements looking out onto the beautiful blue Atlantic – idyllic setting on a sunny day like today.

They say that cycling is the best way to experience the unfolding landscape; certainly is as you see it with your eyes and feel it in your legs. Headed into a stiff north-westerly all afternoon so was glad to arrive to Courtmacsherry and to the wonderful hospitality of Peter and Fran Wolstenholme.

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Peter Wolstenholme in the gallery at Courtmacsherry

Ended the night by hearing about some of the wonderful wildlife of west Cork and having a tour of Peter’s stunning paintings, influenced by his love of the landscape and knowledge of wildlife. 


Diary – Day 1

Today’s cycle took me from Carriganore, Waterford to Whitegate in Co. Cork, a distance of approximately 140 km. It is approximate, for the fact that the battery on my Garmin gave up the ghost before I did today.

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It was really great having everyone’s support
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Fenor Bog: a great example of conservation in action

Arrived at the Data Centre to a nice surprise of all my colleagues with their bikes and dressed in special Wild Ireland Tour t-shirts to accompany me on the first leg of the tour to Fenor Bog. Mind you, one quipped that it was extraordinary the lengths that they would go to, to get out of the office for a few hours! So off we went to Fenor Bog to meet with Stan Flynn and Des Cowman to tell me about the tremendous community-led project at Fenor where they bought and manage Fenor Bog, a valuable alkaline fen nestled in behind the church. It was fitting that this was the first stop as it is an excellent example of how you would like to see nature conservation happen, embedded in the local community with advice from a scientific NGO, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.

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Tomas Murray explaining all about social insects

The first part of the cycle proper route took me along the rolling roads of the Copper Coast, to Ardmore Head. The terrain was tough, tougher than I expected; a succession of short but steep climbs out of the many coves scattered along the coast here, some of these inclines up to 12%. Not ideal terrain for trying to make up time as I felt I was running behind schedule. I certainly agree that cycling is a wonderful way to experience the unfolding landscape; you see it with your eyes and feel it in your legs.  Was glad to stop at Ardmore to take a break, and to meet with Tomás Murray at this very rich heathland. The heath, heather and gorse covered headland is amazingly rich site for insects, as the dry crumbly soil provides nesting habitats and the abundance of flowers rich feeding. He told us all about the mysterious world of our social insects, and Bella was even overheard saying that she found them fascinating. (She also said that Tomás should work as a teacher as he was so good at explaining things – but I won’t tell him that, as we don’t want to lose him form the Data Centre!).  Tomás needs to check identification, but he might have made an exciting discovery! The second half of the journey was far easier as the roads were better, and less undulating. Picked up the pace quite a bit, and cycled through nice quiet countryside on my route to Whitegate. This is rich farming land with little semi-natural habitat. But the rich banks and hedgerow make up for it at this time of year, a riot of diversity and colour.

Training details

I spent the last 7 months preparing for this tour, getting the base miles done so that I am fit enough to cover the distance, but equally importantly, so that I can enjoy the trip. The structure of the training was fairly straightforward based around three elements, namely; getting out consistently, increasing the mileage gradually, and getting some long spins completed as regularly as possible. Continue reading Training details

People and Places along the route

Much of the planning for the Wild Ireland Tour is complete. The intention is to cycle around the coast of Ireland, stopping off at some of Ireland’s most special wildlife sites and meeting up with people who have a story to tell about different aspects of wildlife.  The trip is structured around profiling two, or sometimes three places or people each day. The choice of sites to visit and people to meet is a personal one, reflecting my knowledge of the countryside, and my friends and colleagues. But I have not had the opportunity to meet many of these people in the field, in their own habitat, so this will be very much a journey of exploration for me too. I already know that there are many other people that I will meet as I travel around the country, so expect the odd surprise guest appearance. The journey should weave a rich tapestry of places, personalities and issues, to create a different perspective on Ireland’s priceless natural heritage. Continue reading People and Places along the route