Explore Ireland: the emerald isle

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.


Ireland article spread, photo © The Irish Image Collection/Photolibrary.com



5. Whale-watching, the south coast
Ireland’s coastal waters have been a whale and dolphin sanctuary since 1991, and spectacular recent sightings have cemented their reputation as a cetacean hotspot.
In 2008, a blue whale was seen several times, while in January this year the repeated breaching of a humpback whale off Wexford made national headlines.
Whale-watching tours are a relatively new phenomenon and, though such exciting encounters are not guaranteed, there is always something worth seeing.
Research by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) has shown that there is a regular congregation of fin whales off the Cork/Waterford coast. Between June and December they even swim close enough to the shore to be spotted from land.
Further information: Arrange a trip through Whale Watch West Cork: 00 353 86 120 0027. Receive up-to-date news of sightings from the IWDG’s website. 
6. Bull island, Dublin
In the 18th century, the construction of a wall to protect Dublin’s harbour had the side effect of causing sand to accumulate to the north. This eventually resulted in an island that now benefits from a sandy beach, some dunes, a saltmarsh and a golf course.
Today, Bull Island is one of only two UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Ireland, and it offers a great variety of wildlife within walking distance of the city centre.
The area is famous for its grey and common seals, orchids in May and June, and the wildfowl and waders that spend the winter. Indeed, the birds are so numerous that their excrement threatens the quality of bathing water in the bay.
Further information: BirdWatch Ireland is a good starting point, including details of how to get here. 
7. Underwater Connemara
The water off the coast of west Galway may be cold, but during the admittedly brief summer you can bathe here without a wetsuit, and there are places where the sea is positively inviting.
The golden ‘coral’ beaches are not made of sand; they are broken-off outgrowths of submerged seaweeds that lend a Caribbean look (if not feel) to the sheltered inlets.
When you pull on a mask, the gin-clear water reveals a profusion of marine life that includes kelp forests, giant pink sea urchins, velvet black sea cucumbers, spider crabs and a surprising diversity of colourful fish.
Offshore, the wild Atlantic islands of Inis Boffin and Inis Turk offer excellent wreck-diving to see rays and conger eels. And, on dry land, they are two of the few locations in Ireland and the British Isles where, on summer nights, the rasping cry of the corncrake can still be heard.
Further information: Connemara Tourism: 00 353 95 22622
8. The Burren, County Clare
Known as the ‘Fertile Rock’, the Burren is Ireland’s unique offering to the world of natural history. It is Europe’s largest expanse of limestone pavement, and is the result of farming and forest clearances that began about 5,000 years ago.
For botanists, it’s a paradise. The plant life is very diverse, and flowers that normally only grow on the tops of mountains can be found at sea level.
Even non-botanists cannot fail to be impressed by the profusion of orchids thriving in this stark landscape, which is littered with remnants of human activity from the Stone Age. However, intensive agriculture has led to the abandonment of marginal land in Ireland, and many species-rich grasslands in the Burren are now reverting to hazel scrub.
The national park in the southeast corner is worth a visit, but many of the best areas of limestone pavement lie outside it, most notably near Kinvarra.
Further information: Burren National Park: 00 353 1 888 2000
9. Killarney National Park
Killarney is the jewel in the crown of Ireland’s national-park system. The town of the same name is popular with tourists, who visit nearby Muckross House for its fabulous views of lakes enclosed by forests and mountain peaks.
Thankfully it’s not hard to find some solitude, and the ancient woods are easily explored on good trails. They offer a glimpse of an Ireland long past, and the heavy, damp breath of the forest speaks of faeries and folklore.
This magic is the gift of the warm Atlantic air that seamlessly cloaks every boulder and bough with luxurious moss. Indeed, the park is best enjoyed in wet weather, when the greenery sparkles and our charismatic spotted slug is out and about.
The walking trails are open all year round, and there is no bad time to visit. Just don’t forget your raincoat.
Further information: Killarney National Park: 00 353 1 888 2000 
Muckross House: 00 353 64 66 70144 
10. The Shannon Estuary
The Shannon is the longest river in Ireland and Britain and, as befits a channel that drains nearly one-third of the whole island, its mouth opens like a gaping behemoth to the Atlantic.
The estuary is home to a resident population of bottlenose dolphins and, if you take a trip on one of the small cruisers, sightings are practically guaranteed. There’s a good chance of some spectacular breaching activity and, in summer, of seeing mothers accompanied by their infants. Tours leave from Carrigaholt, County Clare, from April to October.
But the Shannon has more to offer than dolphins, especially in recent years when an improvement in water quality has encouraged wildlife to flourish. There are seals, both common and grey, and seabirds – colonies of Manx shearwater live on offshore islands beyond the estuary. There are also otters in abundance, though these are harder to spot.
Further information: Dolphinwatch offers wildlife-spotting trips in the mouth of the Shannon: 00 353 65 905 8156 
Pádraic is the chairman of the Irish Wildlife Trust. Visit their website here


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