The Coomkeen Loop Walk on the Sheep’s Head is one of the most richly satisfying walks in West Cork. And that’s saying something, in this land of jaw-dropping vistas and absorbing heritage.
We walked it in June with our friends Amanda and Peter and again in November with our friend John. We had extraordinary days on both occasions. While the November day was cloudless, the one in June provided enough scattered cloud to supply that variation in light and shade that lends such atmosphere to the West Cork landscape.
To reach the start of the Coomkeen trail, drive from Durrus towards Ahakista and turn right at the Church of Ireland (before you get to the pier). Ascend to the top of that road and you will find a parking spot and the clearly marked trailhead. There are various ways you can do this walk. The complete loop is a 7km walk that brings you along the spine of the peninsula before you drop down onto tracks and then the road back up to the parking place. Our own favourite option is to walk until you reach the little lake and then retrace your steps along the ridge. Lough na Fuilla, Lake of Blood, is so called, the story goes, because thirst-crazed cattle found it dry and attacked each other in their frenzy.
Either way is fairly easy, although the complete loop presents a long steep climb back to the starting point. As with all Sheep’s Head walks, be prepared for any weather, wear good boots, bring a camera and leave the dog at home. If you want more information, consult the section on the Durrus Trailhead in Walking the Sheep’s Head Way.
Perhaps you think that it sounds fine to go for a mountain hike in June – but November? Yes, it was a little cooler and a lot windier, but the November hike was just as spectacular as the June one had been. Most striking of course, is the change in colour.
Because this is a ridge walk, the views are immense. To the north is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island with its huge oil tanks. Beyond that are the mountains of the Beara, looking as wild and remote as, in fact, they are. To the south is Dunmanus Bay and the Mizen Peninsula.
Amanda and Peter were able to show us an enormous standing stone on our June trip, although we missed it in November.
But we did visit the same ruin of a small farmhouse on the north side of the ridge. Incredible to think that someone eked out a living so high up. Although only a few broken down walls remain, the poignancy of the site comes from what was once a garden by the house, with thorn trees still bravely clinging on.
Further on are the remains of booleys – small huts used by the young people sent to mind the cattle on the high ground during the summer. Perhaps the little farmhouse was part of that endeavour.
Running along the ridge and crisscrossing the mountain are the remains of old stone walls. Impossible to tell how long ago they may have been first built, or how recently they functioned to separate pastures.
In November the dominant colours are the blond of the grasses (called fionán, pronounced fyuh-nawn) and the amber, brown and honey tones of the bracken and heather, interspersed with the greenery of gorse and pasture. Although visually stunning, the predominance of the fionán (properly called Purple Moor Grass) and bracken have a less positive underlying meaning. They take hold where the hillside has been set on fire time and again. The fires that we often see here are supposedly to control the gorse and increase grazing for sheep, but in fact according to Birdwatch Ireland, repeat burning “has led to a loss of cover (protection) for Red Grouse…depletes moorland fauna, and can lead to soil acidification, leaching and thus soil degradation.”
In summer, it’s all green but the wild flowers provide bursts of colour.
In November, the only wild colour to be found came from a yellow brain fungus on a dead gorse trunk. Yes, it’s really called that, and is normally yellow but darkens after dry weather. It’s not feeding on the gorse, apparently, but on other fungus that is feeding on the wood. Charming.
Do the walk, any time of year. Then show the photos to your friends and watch them make plans for a trip to West Cork. Or should we just keep this our secret?