Cork

Dursey island

As I drove down towards Allihies, the black clouds hovered ominously in the distance. Was I mad to be going across to Dursey today? With a long walk ahead of me and a lack of amenities on the island, I'd be stuck there with no shelter if the weather turned. Driving down the narrow winding road to the cable car, the sun peeped out and lit up the scene before me. I decided this was a good sign. As I paid for my ticket across, Paddy Sheehan, the ticket operator informed me that the cable car was now continuous all day up until 7 in the evening as opposed to the old schedule of morning, lunch and dinner. I shared the cable car with an American couple and three Germans. It wobbled as we climbed in. Paddy's voice came over the intercom and asked us to shut the doors. No automatic doors here. A few nervous looks around the group were soon replaced by awe as we crossed over the waves below in the Dursey Sound. The views were amazing and within minutes we were on the other side.

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

Dursey Island is an inhabited island that lies off the Beara peninsula in West Cork. The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water called the Dursey Sound. With a seriously strong current and a reef of submerged rocks in the centre of the channel, the island can only be accessed by cable car. Up until recent years, it was not unusual to share this transport with farm animals. The cable car, the only one in Ireland, had been used for years to take cattle and sheep across the treacherous waters of the 374m Dursey Sound, until the county council changed the laws due to health and safety regulations. With so many sheep on the island, mart day must have been a real sight.

At 6.5 km long by 1.5 km wide, Dursey is an absolute paradise for walkers. There is a loop walk carefully marked out all over the island. Starting from the cable car, the trail runs up over the hills above the road, tracing the spine of the island to reach a signal tower at the highest point. At 252m, there are spectacular 360 degree views of the island itself and the beautiful scenery of the West Cork coastline. The trail descends down the slope towards the 'back of the island' or Dursey Head. From here, there are fantastic views of the Bull and Cow islands just off the coast. The way back follows the island road the whole way to the cable car. Passing farmland and abandoned houses on the slopes running down to the sea, the road begins to climb and the slopes steepen. The road hugs these cliffs for the next 2 kms so walkers are literally walking on the edge of the island, stepping into the grass as the islanders trundle past in their cars. The trail descends slowly down through two villages, Kimichael and Ballynacallagh, before completing the loop by the cable car.

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I decided to follow the island road and walk to the end of the island and back. As I approached Kilmichael village, I could hear a strange huffing noise. It was getting louder and louder. Further along the road, I could see a lone bull with his head over a fence. From where I was standing, he was the size of a house. My imagination went into overdrive as I envisioned him stepping over the ditch to pick off lone walkers on the road. I ploughed on regardless even though the huffing had now turned to hissing. I really believed that I was being absolutely calm until my legs took off ahead of my body.  Like a hysterical mad woman, I sprinted up the road, finally coming to a halt at a nearby house. Gasping for breath, I looked back and of course he hadn't moved an inch. Hoping that no one saw my imaginary demise, I turned around to see a couple standing in front of me. There might only be about 10 residents on the island, but unfortunately nothing goes by them. Gerard Murphy, a farmer and resident postman on the island, and his wife were moving cows from the field on one side of the road to the other. He also owned the bull. I watched as Gerard's sheepdog gently herded the cows towards the gate and across the road to the other field. The bull suddenly perked up and followed suit as all his women entered the field beside him. Knowing now that it was absolutely safe, I asked Gerard if I could take a picture of his bull and he told me to go on away up the field behind his house and catch him at the fence. I followed the cows and grabbed one shot as he was distracted by his new neighbours.

Further along the road, a van full of tourists pulled in and the driver asked if I needed a lift. I thanked him and told him I would continue on and enjoy the walk. He even offered to transport my bag to the end of the road but I needed everything in it so I declined. The weather was amazing and I wanted to take it all in. This was the new shuttle service from the cable car to the back of the island which runs all day. It is a brilliant service, perfect for those who are strapped for time and cannot complete a long walk on the island. Visitors can hop on and off where needs be. The driver must have passed me another 15 times that day and each time he would wave or stop for a chat.

Road to the back of the island

Road to the back of the island

As I approached Dursey head, another farmer and his sheep dog were herding sheep down a track to an abandoned farmhouse. Like a well orchestrated dance, the sheep followed instruction and filed one by one into their pen outside the door. A farm hand stepped from inside the empty house and picked one of the sheep up by its horns and lifted it inside to be sheared. The buzzing of the shearing clippers whipped the sheep into a nervous frenzy, only made worse by the sight of their little friend being ejected into a separate pen when finished, looking a lot smaller without his wool. I left them behind and walked on towards the back of the island. Reaching Dursey Head, I sat for a while and surveyed the sea below. As luck would have it, a pod of about 20 dolphins put on an amazing acrobatic show as they slowly made their way round the end of the island.

Walking trail on Dursey island

Walking trail on Dursey island

On the way back, I met James, a resident on the island. We chatted for a while by his house when I noticed a black cat approaching, with cobwebs all over her face. James immediately started talking to her and asking where she had been exploring before cleaning her face. He told me that she had been left behind on the island as a kitten and he started feeding her. James is a fisherman so I can guess why this cat stayed. To say he was mad about her was an understatement. Although an avid hunter in the surrounding fields, she also liked to wander the 4 kilometres down to the back of the island at night. When she wasn't rambling along the road, she was travelling by car with James as they went about their daily business. Just then, James asked her if she wanted some fish and she meowed with delight. This cat might have been abandoned but she had certainly landed on her feet.

Back at the cable car, I met Linda at her coffee dock, another new addition to the island. In a little van at the roadside, she sells an array of hot drinks and chocolate to hungry walkers. Living on the mainland, she comes across each day from June to August to feed the visitors. We chatted for a while and then it was time to leave. I joined a queue for the cable car and was soon back on the mainland. If you want to get away from it all and stretch the legs at the same time, then Dursey is the place. Not only will you work those muscles, the beautiful scenery will recharge your soul.

Bioblitz on Cape Clear

I just love moths. So when I heard that the 'moth man' was opening the moth traps, I just had to be there. The man in question, Eamon O' Donnell, was sitting at his box, removing egg cartons and carefully inspecting the overnight residents. Eamon was one of two moth men on Cape Clear that weekend; his brother Michael was recording moths in another section of the island. It had been a very wet night and the moths were fewer as expected. However, when Eamon lifted what appeared to be a twig from the box, the low quantity did not matter. It was a beautiful buff tip moth. The patterned wings and cylindrical shape camouflaged the moth to appear like piece of wood. I almost squashed the poor creature as I crouched in close with my camera. I tried my best not to sound like an absolute amateur, although my gasps of delight were a dead giveaway. If Eamon noticed, he didn't show it and he was only too happy to show me his fresh captives.

It was the annual Bioblitz event, run by the National Biodiversity centre. Volunteer teams in different habitats around the country compete against each other over a 24 hour period to count as many species as they can find in that area. Originally, the national parks competed against one another to win the famed Bioblitz cup, then the forest parks and other habitats. This was the first year for the islands - Bere island, Cape Clear, Inishmore, Clare island and Tory island. Each island had a team of volunteers, each with their own specialities, walking the length and breadth of their island, to record everything they could find.

Sunset over North harbour on Cape Clear

Sunset over North harbour on Cape Clear

was staying on Cape Clear that weekend. The hostel, run by Ann, sits in one of the most idyllic spots on the island, facing the South Harbour. When I rang her that morning, she told me to leave my bags in the car on the pier, with the broken windscreen wiper and she would bring them up to the hostel. On arrival, I spotted the wiper standing upright like an aerial, guiding me towards it. I left my bags in the boot and headed off. Soon I was climbing the cliff path above the South harbour. The 'Gleann loop', a stunning 7km walking trail, follows these cliffs round the headland towards the old signal station, before diverting inland on a path edged by an old stone wall down to the lighthouse road and then cross country over the old mass trail on the hill before exiting onto the incredibly steep road on the opposite side of the island, which brings you back down to the pier.

As I climbed, the clouds started closing in so I diverted my attention from the views to what lay underfoot. I slipped into the micro world of wild flowers and insects at my feet. When I finished taking pictures, I noticed a thick mist approaching the island. And with that came the rain and the realisation that I had left my raincoat at back on the mainland. I hastily made my way back down to the hostel where I bumped into Ann. She took one look at me and fished a spare raincoat out of a cupboard not before kindly offering to dry my clothes. She couldn't have done more to help me, either that or she felt immense pity for the idiot out hill walking in shorts and a t-shirt.

Hummingbird hawk moth on Cape Clear island.

Hummingbird hawk moth on Cape Clear island.

The rain lingered briefly the next morning but I knew it wouldn't be long before the sun returned. As is often the case, it can be raining on the mainland but the sun is blasting out on Cape Clear. Rain or no rain, it was time to see some moths and birds in action. After Eamon released the moths from their slumber, the bird people set up at a table nearby. This was one of the highlights of the weekend. Birds caught in the nets were collected and brought individually to the table. Here Sam, the bird warden on the island, and his assistant for the weekend, Lorraine, examined each bird to determine their age and sex before weighing them. The final step was the ringing of the bird's leg with a small weightless ring before it was released.

There was great excitement as a reed warbler was produced from the second bag. For once, it wasn't just me gasping with delight. This beautiful bird comes here to breed after spending the winter in Africa. The session continued with a chiff chaff and a swallow. While all the data was recorded, each birds sat comfortably in the warmth of Lorraine's hands. The data is important because it keeps tabs on bird populations and migration routes. Earlier that week, a sedge warbler that had been ringed previously in France, was discovered on Cape Clear. As proceedings drew to a close, a curious robin flew in and nabbed one of the released moths before flying off with his plunder.

Common lizard on Cape Clear island

Common lizard on Cape Clear island

As predicted, the sun reappeared in full force. I attempted the 'Gleann loop' again. Up on the headland, I met Sandra, a Bioblitz volunteer sitting with a telescope and camera. An absolute wealth of knowledge when it came to whales, it wasn't long before she was pointing out a Minke whale to me. This was my first time seeing a whale in Irish waters and it was such a beautiful sight. It was nearly impossible to tear myself away but I ploughed on and finished the walk. Back by the harbour later on, I bumped into Sandra again. She was on an absolute high after seeing a humpback whale breach off the headland. As she raced off to her next vantage point, I watched a basking shark idle his way across the South harbour. Just then, the kids from the Irish school strolled down to the water for a swim, stopping dead in their tracks when they saw 'an shark san uisce'. The basking shark decided to avoid the clatter of noise and swam back across the bay. Deciding it was safe, the kids jumped in and cursed the cold water. After a few minutes, the basking shark re-emerged amid the mass of students. The screaming could be heard on the mainland as the kids scaled the jetty wall to leap out of the water. They had nothing to worry about though. It might be the second largest living fish, but the only thing this large beast is interested in eating, is plankton.

I joined a flower walk in the afternoon guided by island resident Geoff Oliver. While the walk was short, it was overflowing with a wealth of plant species. The island climate and untouched natural habitats in part, allow these beautiful wild flowers to thrive here. One rare specimen found on the trail was the yellow Centaury, a tiny specimen but high on the list of must see flora on the island. Joining us on the walk was Carrie, an expert on lizards. She showed me how to spot these tiny creatures as they bask in the sun on the hedgerows. Within no time, I was spotting them all along the roadside. Geoff guided us slowly along the south harbour, stopping every two steps because there was something new to look at. I do not have a good knowledge of flower names but after seeing so much on this walk, I have definitely been inspired to learn more.

Dún an Óir castle on Cape Clear

Dún an Óir castle on Cape Clear

Cape Clear is 3 miles long by 1 mile wide and every part of it is brimming with wildlife. The volunteers had their work cut out covering every inch of the island. I called into the school where Colette O' Flynn, an invasive species officer from the National Biodiversity centre, was manning the Bioblitz headquarters. This was where all the volunteers dropped in with their recordings which were added to the Cape Clear list. As results from the other islands started flooding in, Inishmore island was leaping ahead in the race. However Colette wasn't worried as she had yet to add Cape's flora species which would boost the ranking. As I left, Bere island, Cape's closest neighbour, was catching up fast.

Many of the recorders had travelled from all over the country to participate. Rosalyn had cycled down from Cork city through heavy rain showers to catch the ferry across from Baltimore. She was an expert on wild flora. Breda, another volunteer, studies ecology and works for Deep Maps Cork, a project exploring the rich history of the West Cork coastline. The bird observatory, recently re-opened after a brief closure, was full to capacity with volunteers like Lorraine, Jim and Alan, whose knowledge on birds and flora were a joy to listen to. The observatory itself, owned by Birdwatch Ireland, offers accommodation for groups, families and individuals. With a resident bird warden on site, there are fantastic opportunities to learn more about birds and see their work in action, or simply take in the beautiful scenery of the island. As the Bioblitz finished at midday on Sunday morning, the final results revealed that Bere island had nabbed the top spot with 1178 species. Cape Clear came third with an impressive 870 species. The loss did not however put a dampener on the weekend as everyone involved had such a fantastic time. Not only is Cape Clear brimming with wildlife, it is a truly beautiful place.