This post was written in 2013 – nine years ago! It’s one of our West Cork blog posts from the earliest days . . .
Just as the leaves begin to turn, the gales have come to tear them away and send them flying all over the Bay. Autumn is bringing angry seas with wild white horses, while the trees on our exposed acre are bending sideways. I admire the small birds who manage to find their way to our bird-table in the face of it all: we have just been visited by a whole flock of ravenous Goldfinches who hang on to the wildly swaying feeders in a determined frenzy to fatten themselves up for the coming winter and squabble noisily with any Great-tits, Chaffinches or Robins who try to get in on the act.
In Ballydehob (our local community) it’s time for the annual Thrashing. This event always takes place just before Hallowe’en, a festival which nowadays overlays the old Celtic Samhain (1 November) – when the souls of the departed are remembered. Here it’s a good time to bring in the threshing machine and lay up sacks of grain in the barn. It’s also a reason to hold a fair and show off vintage cars and tractors, to make butter, to watch performing dogs, to gamble on mouse racing – or just to chat over a cup of tea.
Byway in Ballydehob
Don’t miss it!
We look forward to the turning seasons: what we see from Nead an Iolair changes constantly, is never dull, and can’t be taken for granted. Skies can be steel grey – or still as gloriously blue as they were in the summer; and our sunsets can be even more beautiful.
Ready for a longer walk? If yes – this one is 13.5km and has strenuous stretches. If not, don’t worry – there are lots of possibilities for doing parts of the walk, or for going with friends and leaving a car at strategic spots. We didn’t do it all at once, in case you get to thinking we are super-fit hikers. (The sad truth is we can’t be too far from a coffee shop.) As with all the Fastnet walks, keep dogs on leads – we did encounter both cattle and sheep on this walk, right on the road. There is a short stretch of ‘green road’ and although it’s well maintained, it might be muddy after rains, so good shoes are essential.
This loop takes you from Goleen on the south side of the Mizen right across the peninsula to the fabulously scenic north side. It skirts along the edges of the valley that runs between Knocknamaddree (Hill of the Dogs) to the west, and Knockaphuca (Hill of the Pooka, or Mischievous Spirit) to the east, rising to a maximum altitude of 180m (or about 600 feet). Most of the altitude is gained in the first half of the walk – so a packed lunch and water will be both welcome and needed if you’re doing the whole walk.
You’ll have to dig into your reserves of energy (or maybe have some chocolate) as you continue the climb. You are in true mountainy heathland now – look out for orchids in the spring and early summer, or Cuckooflower (below) in damp ditches.
Watch out also for cattle on the road – we were startled by a line of plodding cattle coming towards us, and even more startled when we realised that one was a mighty fine bull. Fortunately, they turned into a field before we reached that spot, but there was no human around and the gates were open, so we can only assume we were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as it is very unusual (although not unknown) to see cattle wandering like this.
Coming over the top of the hill you have the whole of Dunmanus Bay in front of you and you can see clear up to the head of the bay, across to the Sheep’s Head, and to the Mountains of the Beara behind that. Have a nice sit down on some convenient boulder here – you deserve it – and just absorb that breathtaking sweep of land and sea.
And talking of sea – you’re heading down now towards it, past picturesque stone farm buildings and beautifully renovated cottages until you arrive at Dooneen Coos (the Cove of the Little Fort). Along the way we ran into a shepherd moving his sheep up into higher ground, with the aid of the marvellously well-trained dogs that attend to their business but also like a good pat.
Dooneen Coos is a good spot for lunch – or even a swim if you’re that way inclined. it’s close to the peninsula we wrote about in our post Mizen Magic 23: Lackavaun and The Meallán so you can always take a side trip there if you wish. This might also be a good spot to leave a car if you’re not doing the whole loop on this occasion.
But if you’re carrying on, you’re now heading towards Dunkelly and the storied inlet known as Canty’s Cove. Read all about it here. Here, because we have been to Canty’s Cove lots, we took the short cut – marked in orange on the map. The compensation is that this stretch contains the remains of old ruined cabins and clacháns (hamlets) along the road, as well as a beautiful pond which, at the time of our visit was full of flowering Bogbean.
From Dunkelly the road turns back along the slopes of Knockaphuca and along the way there’s a bit of a surprise – an old store that once supplied necessities for the population of this area but which has not been viable for many years. No doubt local people have all kinds of memories and stories about this one. I was taken by the keys, still hanging above the door!
For a wildflower enthusiast there is nothing better than a day spent with like-minded folk looking for interesting plants under the leadership of a true expert.
At this time of year the buttercups all over the dunes are actually Bulbous Buttercups – if you look under the flower head you will see that the sepals turn down away from the petals
I had the immense privilege of being included in a Rare Plant Monitoring Workshop on Friday the 13th – which also happened to be the day that Biodiversity Week kicked off in Ireland. As you probably all know by now, Nature is in crisis all across the world, and although we may be surrounded by lush hills and boreens in West Cork, there are ominous signs that all is not well with our natural world here as elsewhere. Fewer than ten percent of our native species in Ireland have been assessed for their conservations status – but of those that have been, one fifth (yes – one-fifth!) are at risk of extinction.
Sand Pansy – gorgeous little violas found on the dunes
That’s why counting plants is important – each one is part of the complex web of biodiversity that contribute to the health of our environment and the loss of even one can have knock-on effects on a whole cascade of others. I already monitor two rare plants for the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Vervaine and Calamint, so I have an insight into the kinds of threats rare plants can face, from mowing to herbicides to change of land use – all of those have happened to the small populations I monitor.
The location for this workshop was Barley Cove and Mizen Head. Having rendezvoused with Botanist Paul Green and NBDC Scientist Úna FitzPatrick (above, at Mizen Head) we set out across the dunes. I had met Paul before and so I knew that he is unfailingly generous about sharing his immense knowledge. Throughout the day we stopped frequently to exclaim over a plant that one or another of us spotted (like the Bulbous Buttercup) on the dunes or the rocks, and Paul always took the time to stop and educate us about each one.
Thus, along the way, I was introduced to several plants that were entirely new to me. Despite the fact that I have been to Barley Cove on numerous occasions, many of them spent lying in the grass on the dunes (see this post and the wildflower slideshow within it, for example), I had never seen Common Cornsalad (above) nor Early Forget-me-not (below) before Friday.
As our first rare plant, we were in search of Early Sand-grass, the kind of undistinguished little plant that you would walk over unthinkingly, but which is so rare that it only occurs here and in the Bull Island Nature Reserve in Dublin. That’s the distribution map below, courtesy of the BSBI.
Paul found it and we collectively traced its extent across the dunes. This is an area with much rabbit activity and Paul speculated that the bare patches of sand created by the busy bunnies was what had encourage or allowed the Sand-grass to colonise this area. It’s a complex issue – those Barley Cove Bunnies can be destructive to the dunes in some ways, but here we have an instance where their presence has been beneficial – one of those complex interactions that are so hard to predict.
Our next target was an orchid – the Green-winged Orchid. But, on the way, we found another Orchid – the Irish Marsh Orchid (below). It was beautiful and bold and instantly visible in the short grass on the dunes.
In contrast, we almost tripped over the Green-winged Orchid, which upon first glance looked spindly and unremarkable. This is one you have to get close to – can you see them in the grass, below?
Here’s what Zoe Devlin has to say about this flower:
Surely the most exquisite wild orchid in Ireland. . . Green-winged Orchid is a small, erect plant which grows to about 30cm tall in grassland and meadows where grazing occurs. It bears flowers, well separated, in short spikes and these flowers appear in several colours – from snow-white through pink and magenta to deep purple. The three sepals are purple-veined with strong, green lines and these sepals form a hood over a broad, downward folded lower lip which is three-lobed and heavily spotted at its white centre. There is also a stout, slightly-curved spur. These incredible flowers bloom from mid-April to mid-June. The leaves are shiny green, unspotted with the upper leaves sheathing the stem and the lower leaves forming a rosette.
Can you see all that in these photos? I’m not sure you can, which is one of the things that makes wildflower identification interesting – especially with a family like the orchids where there are quite a few that look similar until you really examine them.
There were more plants on the dunes – I was amazed to find Field Madder (above), which I always assumed was a plant of arable ground. One of the things we had to get used to was how tiny many of the plants on the dunes were compared to those that grow in less challenging environments – like miniature versions of themselves.
Then there was one of our target species, the Sea Stork’s-bill (above) – really, a flower that only its mother could love, but very rare in Ireland and therefore one of the plants that enable us to chart the conservation of its habitat.
We drove from Barley Cove around to the Holiday Park but were unable to do a count of the Slender Thistle. The land was being grazed by sheep and every access was blocked (above). So we contented ourselves with noting that currently it appears to be abundant, if very localised. I managed a distant shot of this fine head (below) showing the pink flowers but also how spiny it is.
Our final stop was Mizen Head, one of the very few places in Ireland (see map below and the Broom below that) where you can find Prostrate Broom (try saying that fast). This was another exercise in a different kind of counting, since the plant is on sea cliffs and behind fences at the Visitor Centre, so it has to be identified at a distance and the count is an educated estimate. Add in the fact that there are two other yellow flowers gaily blooming around it (Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil) and you get an idea of the challenge involved.
I have taken on the task of the Early Sea-Grass count. It may bloom as early as February or March, so I’ve made a calendar note to head out to the Dunes next year at that time. Another one of the participants, Damaris, and I will work together on our counts – it’s always more fun if you have a companion and probably more accurate too.
Thank you, Úna and Paul, for such a profoundly educational experience, that also managed to be great fun.
There is a strong local tradition on the Mizen, or Ivaha as I prefer to call it, that Dunmanus Castle is not the original. No – the first site for Donagh Mór O’Mahony’s Castle, the stories say, was in Knockeens, across Dunmanus Harbour from the present site. We set out to investigate.
This is the site, directly across the bay from Dunmanus Castle, and it’s what is labelled in the National Monuments records as a Cliff-Edge Fort. According to their definition that’s A penannular enclosure which utilises a cliff-edge to form one or more sides as an enclosing element. They date from the late Bronze Age up to the medieval period (c. 1800 BC – 16th century AD).
Perhaps the best known cliff-edge fort in Ireland is Dun Aonghasa on the Aran Islands (above) – it’s certainly the most spectacular. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Ireland) There are 20 examples of cliff-edge forts in Cork, of which only 6 are coastal, the rest are on ridges or steep slopes above rivers.
The problem is that some of these may genuinely be a specific type of fortification that uses the cliff-edge as an impregnable barrier – as promontory forts do, for example. Some of them, however, and this may apply to Knockeens, may have been circular ring forts, built on prominent locations to command views of land and sea, but which may have been eroded by sea-action until what is left is clinging on to the edge of a cliff. In the photo above, you can see the obvious erosion at Knockeens. Instead of a circular ring fort, what remains looks D-shaped.
In the 25″ OS map, done in the late 1800s, the site shows ‘Castle in Ruins’
There is plenty of evidence that the Irish clan chieftains built their castles on the sites of their former strongholds – ring forts, cashels and promontory forts (see my post on Three Castle Head, for example). If there was indeed a castle at Knockeens, there is not much evidence of it now, although there are tell-tale signs of some kind of masonry construction.
But whatever Knockeens was – a cliff-edge fort or a ring fort – it’s unusual and impressive. It consists now of a raised platform of earth, probably originally circular, and an outer wall (above). There may have been a radial wall once (see the map below), but it has been ploughed out and is no longer visible on the surface, although it shows up faintly in aerial photographs. There may have been a fosse, or ditch around the outer wall also – slight traces of this also remain.
The raised platform is an imposing spectacle. We approached it from the landward side and were unprepared for how tall it is. The interior sits high above the surrounding land – an extraordinary feat of engineering and one which could only be accomplished by a chieftain with the ability to command the labour of many people.
If indeed most of it has been swept away by the sea, it is now, of course, only a portion of what it once was. It certainly accomplished several objectives: commanding the entrance to the sheltered harbour, allowing visibility up Dunmanus Bay, and being a dominating force on the landscape – in other words a high-status statement residence and fortification.
The outer wall appears to have been stone-built or stone-lined (see image below), and it, or the raised platform may have had a palisade around the top – these were common in ring forts.
Although we could not find a way to get at it from the stony beach below the cliff edge, we could just about make out, from Dunmanus Pier across the bay, a cross-section of stone wall where the platform meets the cliff. In one of the older maps, this is marked as a “Castle in Ruins” although all that is shown is a portion of wall. So there may well be a solid basis for the belief that this was the original site of Dunmanus Castle.
Michael Healy tells it this way:
It is related locally that before he finally decided on Dunmanus as a site for his castle, Donagh Mór O’Mahony, early in the 15th century, had selected a site on the other side of the inlet and had set his men to work. While they were working a stranger came by and said that they should not build a castle in that place as the sea would come and wash it away. They did not see him again but the project was abandoned and Dunmanus was built on its present site.
The Castles of County Cork,
Michael J Carroll in repeats the assertion that this was intended as the site of the castle but introduces a nuance:
The workmen noted, however, that the heavy winter seas rose up over the site. The project was abandoned and the stones removed for use in Dunmanus.
The Castles and Fortified Houses of West Cork,
I said at the beginning that there is a ‘strong local tradition’ that this was the original site. What we have learned to do in these cases is go to the Dúchas Folklore Collection, for the stories collected by schoolchildren in the 1930s – and there it was, written by an anonymous students in Kilcomane School (possibly Bridie Kennedy of Lissacaha). Here’s what she wrote:
When O’Mahoney was building his castles he had one for each of his sons. When he was building Dunmanus castle it was in the Knockeen’s side he laid the foundation. There is a part of it still remaining. It goes by the name of the old castle. A half fool one day was passing by and he saw them at work. He told O’Mahoney it was a foolish place to build a castle, that the swells of the ocean and the river from the mountain would eat the foundation from it.
O’Mahoney then asked him where would he build it and the fool showed him a rock at the opposite side of the river called the mount. Then O’Mahoney considered himself and found he had a mistake made, so he took the fool’s advice and built the biggest castle of all the rest on the mount.
Tracy and Peter Collins are the charming and enterprising couple behind Castaway Wild Island Camping on Long Island in West Cork. When they asked us if we’d like to help with a collaborative island adventure we jumped at the chance to lead a wildflower walk.
But who knew there would be such a demand? Our first date (yesterday) filled up overnight with a waiting list, so we put on a second and it filled from the waiting list!
People are hungry, it seems, for experiences like this – and who can blame anyone for wanting to spend time on Long Island! We’ve been there several times and we know that the place, as my mother used to say, is Falling Down with Wildflowers. And so, yesterday, we met with our first group – and what a lovely and talented bunch of people it turned out to be, including an archaeologist, a fish biologist, an ecologist, a professor of Pharmaceutics, teachers, fellow-blogger Amanda from Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry, and an assortment of Long Island and wildflower lovers.
We started off at East House, home of Castaway Wild Island Camping for coffee and possibly the most delicious biscuits I’ve ever tasted, and then started our walk westward along the spine of the island, stopping as we went to talk about the habitats we were passing through, and the different flowers that had successfully adapted to those habitats. Hedgebank, field margins, stone walls and rock faces, old gardens – all carry their own assortment of plants.
From the top: Cat’s-ear and Sheep’s-bit on a hedgebank; close up of Sheep’s-bit; English Stonecrop, Navelwort and lichen on rock face
I never thought I would be blasé about orchids, but there are so many at this time of year on Long Island that we soon ceased to stop and exclaim over each new group (below). Mark, the ecologist, was very knowledgeable about plants and pointed out the presence of Yellow Rattle, something that’s quite hard to find in the wild in West Cork but really important for creating good conditions for a wildflower meadow.
An island man, Joe Whooley, lovingly maintains the well at Cuas na Gualainne (the Little Inlet of the Shoulders – a reference, we think, to the shape of the tiny bay) and it was looking even better than the last time we were there. Amanda shared her knowledge of holy wells in general and told us about this one in particular. She’s not sure what the source of the holiness is, but is investigating. Meanwhile, the water was found to be clear and tasty.
Reaching the Westlands pier, we concentrated on a whole new habitat, one in which marine-adapted plants flourish in what looks like unpromising conditions of shingle and bare rock..
From the top: a colourful patch of Kidney Vetch (pink), Sea Campion (white) and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (yellow); the delicate white flower of Sea Sandwort
And here was one of the prizes – the Yellow Horned-poppy. It’s rare – classed as near threatened in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants – and strikingly beautiful. It’s wonderful to see a flourishing community of this exotic-looking flower on Long Island and I was thrilled to find some blooming already as I thought we might be too early for them.
From the top: Teresa and Amanda with one of the poppies: a poppy close-up
After a while exploring the shingle beach and the sandy beach we were all ravenous and like magic Tracy and Peter appeared with a fabulous lunch box for everyone. Home-made everything, some of it from their own garden (chocolate-dipped strawberries!) and delicious lemonade.
Tracy and Peter and the superb lunch
Mark gave us an impromptu talk on the island environment, reminding us all it was an essentially man-made habitat, and on the importance of this coastal strip of south west Ireland for so much flora and fauna. A possible future national park? That’s a huge YES from us!
From the top: The Royal Fern – the spore-bearing fronds are starting to appear – this species is an indicator of a healthy environment and Mark told us it it getting to be quite rare in some parts of Europe and needs protection; Rock Sea-spurrey – a beautiful and tiny pink flower that likes to grow on rocks by the sea
Well fuelled, we made our way back to the ferry. The chat was mighty along the way, with old friends catching up and new friendships being forged.
We’ll be doing it again next Saturday – all full up already, so sorry. But why not go on a do-it-yourself wildflower ramble on Long Island any time? Check the ferry schedule, pick up a copy of Zoe Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland(she’s just brought out a new edition – the best and easiest way to teach yourself how to wildflower) and treat yourself to a day in Paradise! Better still – book in with Castaway Wild Island Camping for a true island adventure.
We wanted to just sit and observe, so we found a comfortable spot where we had a view over the warren. They were everywhere! They weren’t unduly perturbed by humans, although they disappeared quickly when dogs came sniffing around. In the face of all the challenges rabbits face in Ireland, it felt good to be in a place where they seemed to be in a long-term relationship with their habitat.
European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus to the biologists, coinín, pronounced cunneen, in Irish) were introduced to Britain by the Normans in the 11th century. They called them coneys and kept them in coney garths as a food source. Niall Mac Coitir, in his marvellous Ireland’s Animals: Myths, Legends and Folklore, tells us
The ‘coney garth’ consisted of a small enclosed field surrounded by a deep ditch, and a huge turf mound planted with gorse and blackberry to keep the rabbits in. Escape was easy, however, and the rabbit soon became free game for yeoman and serfs, even though it was illegal. . .
The Barley Cove dunes – rabbit country
A hundred years later, they brought their rabbits to Ireland, with the same predictable results. When you think that an adult female (a doe) can have up to seven litters a year, each one yielding up to ten kittens, the proliferation rate is explosive. They are kept somewhat in check in the wild by natural predators and a high mortality rate. Left totally undisturbed, rabbit populations probably undergo the same cyclical variations that other mammals do, with numbers increasing for about ten years and then declining due to over-population, before building up again.
Ears back – what’s he listening for?
But rabbits have never been left undisturbed for two main reasons – first they are a natural source of food and fur and second they can be a significant agricultural and horticultural pest. Exporting rabbit skins was big business in medieval Ireland and as late as the 1940s rabbit meat was still being processed and eaten at a great rate. But pity the organic gardener who comes out in the morning to find his patch stripped and desolate, or the farmer who loses a portion of her hard-won crop. The solution for the agricultural sector was disastrous – in the 1950s farmers introduced the disease myxomatosis into the rabbit population with devastating results. As I was growing up in 1950s Ireland I never saw a rabbit – the population had been virtually wiped out.
Since then, they have recovered somewhat (although now threatened with a new disease in the wild) but in this part of the world it’s still not commonplace to see a rabbit. That’s why it’s such a treat to be able to sit and watch them at Barley Cove. The best time to do this is in the evening, since they are naturally nocturnal creatures.
The warrens are obvious and sizeable – those big hind legs are effective digging machines! The tunnels have several entrances and contain passages and chambers where kittens can spend their first few days. Chris Packham, the British naturalist, has an amazing clip from his BBC program “The Burrowers” where a rabbit warren is filled with concrete, creating a model of its extent and complexity. Just click on the photo below and then on the picture again when you get to the site.
To get closer to the Barley Cove rabbits in order to photograph them I had to crawl through long grass and try not to spook them. Once they and I were at eye level, it felt like a real communication – being regarded by those deep pools of age-old knowledge, gentle and wise, was lovely. At the same time, the ears were on high alert, and I knew that one false move and he was gone.
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