Windswept and waterlogged, Ireland really is different to the rest of the British Isles and offers some unique wildlife encounters. Just don’t forget your raincoat.
A damp island on the fringes of the North Atlantic, Ireland has always been shaped by the elements. How our wild inhabitants got here is the subject of lively debate. Why, for example, do we have species, such as spotted slugs, that are absent from Britain but found in northern Spain and Portugal?
The fact that the island’s wildlife is not merely a subset of that of the British Isles is intriguing, and, when added to our cultural landscape and weather-beaten coasts, makes it a uniquely attractive destination.
Memorable experiences are at your fingertips. For instance, commuters on Dublin’s urban rail system are regularly treated to views of seals, porpoises and bottlenose dolphins.
While Ireland is small, there are endless nooks and crannies waiting to be explored, and many surprises lie in wait. Not convinced? Well, how about the recently discovered migrations of our basking sharks all the way to Newfoundland, or the return of woodpeckers to forests on our east coast after an absence of centuries? Here is my pick of the top wildlife hotspots.
1. Donegal mountains
Vast expanses of uninhabited bog and the cone-shaped, glittering quartz peak of Mount Errigal define the Donegal uplands. Remote and forbidding, this is a landscape of resilience in the face of isolation, not only in its stoic people but in its weather-beaten treelessness.
At its heart is Glenveagh National Park
, where nearly 10 years ago the skies resounded once again to the cries of golden eagles. The species was reintroduced here from Scotland after an absence of more than a century.
Problems, such as poisoning, have jeopardised the project, but happily the first pair of eagle chicks fledged successfully in 2009. They have no shortage of craggy mountain eyries to nest on, and the heathery bog over which they hunt sweeps right down to the sea.
All of north and west Donegal is a nature-lover’s paradise, but Glenveagh is arguably the most beautiful area with a lakeside castle overlooked by the mountains.
2. The Crom estate, County Fermanagh
Could this be the best-kept secret in Ireland? Owned by the National Trust, the Crom Estate is tucked into the fertile Fermanagh countryside on the banks of Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, near the town of Newtownbutler.
Its many points of interest include an ancient yew that is probably the oldest in the land – the tree’s tented boughs make a fantastic climbing frame that children adore.
The lakeside is beautifully wooded, and there are regular sightings of red squirrels and even pine martens. Great crested grebes nest in the reeds, and a large colony of soprano pipistrelles roosts nearby.
The only traffic that can be heard is the occasional boater on the Erne waterways, and taking a dip in its peaceful depths after a day’s hike looking for wildlife is heaven. There are also lots of quiet paths that are accessible by foot or on a bicycle – perfect for families.
3. Saltee Islands, County Wexford
Off the south-east corner of Ireland, near where the ferry lands from Wales, lies a cluster of small islands that, for much of the year, are almost lifeless. Only the guano stains on the rocks hint at the teeming hordes of seabirds that start gathering here in early May.
By June, the Saltees are one of a handful of feathered metropolises found around Ireland. Leading the scrum are the gannets, squawking loudly and stabbing their neighbours as they lay claim to the most desirable nest sites.
Also squeezed onto the rocks are puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and shags. The sea is a curtain of diving beaks and commuting parents, which are so preoccupied with providing food for their ever-hungry young that they pay little attention to human visitors.
The Saltees can be reached from Kilmore Quay, County Wexford, and are privately owned; visitors are welcome, but can’t stay overnight.
Further information: Discover Ireland
: 00 353 51 875823 (Waterford City office);
Declan Bates runs trips to the Saltees: 00 353 53 912 9684
4. Clara bog, County Offaly
Ireland is famous for its bogs. They are deeply ingrained in our culture and economy, but only relatively recently has their unique natural history been recognised, thanks to the work of tv presenter David Bellamy.
The bogs found in the centre of Ireland are of the ‘raised’ variety – they started life as lakes and slowly filled in, like bread rising in an oven. Clara Bog is the most extensive and intact example of this unique habitat in Ireland, and possibly in western Europe. For this reason it is a National Nature Reserve.
It is not possible to walk across the bog, and even on its edge the ground quivers beneath your feet. But the acid peat, formed from generations of sphagnum moss that have grown and died, supports a few surprises, notably the insectivorous sundews and butterworts that exude a sticky glue that can ensnare invertebrates as large as dragonflies.
Clara Bog is located just outside the town of Clara in County Offaly, almost slap-bang in the middle of Ireland.