Ireland is an extraordinarily diverse country and is constantly changing. As you pass through our countryside, by car or on the train, you will never cease to be amazed at how quickly your surroundings alter. Now you are in a country of open moorland, the famous raised peat bog of the Irish midlands which covers the ground 'like a blanket', yet minutes later you are passing through a pastoral countryside of amazing greenness, with sheep and cattle grazing contentedly, surrounded by a maze of dry stone walls.
Then a high stone wall appears to one side, overhung with tall trees and covered with ivy, and usually with one or two great gaping holes where trees have fallen through, for you are passing one of Ireland's former great estates. On the other side of the road, beyond the river, the hills are covered with commercial forestry, as far as the eye can see. Now you are entering a country of little hills, with the road winding hither and thither between them until suddenly it opens out onto a broad plain. And, as you approach the coast the changes become even more sudden and spectacular, with dramatic mountains, windswept estuaries with limitless mudflats, sandy beaches and long shining inlets of the sea.
While most visitors enjoy the Irish countryside and its plant, animal and bird life, they are likely to more interested in seeing and experiencing the unusual. Strange rock formations, rare plants, spectacular trees, rare birds and unusual insects - so that is what we will try to highlight here.
The Burren, in County Clare, is truly a place of stones, with bare mountains divided by steep valleys and flat plains of limestone pavement. At its northern end it slopes gently into Galway Bay, but the western Atlantic coast is steeper and culminates in the spectacular Cliffs of Moher. This desolate region is surprisingly rich in plant life, since the sheltered slopes and fissures between the rocks are home to an amazing collection of rare alpine species, including Gentian and Mountain Avens. When these are in flower, usually in late May, the grey landscape becomes a blaze of colour. There is a similar, but much smaller, area on the shores of Lough Corrib, between Oughterard and Galway.
The Giant's Causeway
The Giant's Causeway, which stretches along the North Antrim coast for several miles to the east of Bushmills, in a series of promontories and bays, is one of the wonders of the natural world. 60 million years ago molten lava poured out from the earth's crust and came into contact with the sea where, hardening and cooling in an instant, it split into a series of vertical and horizontal cracks. As a result the whole cliff face became a series of closely interlocking columns, each composed of hard, flat, basalt hexagons. The horizontal cracks give these the appearance of having been piled one upon another with precision, like the stone Lego set of an enormous child giant.
At the lower level, a pavement of closely knit stone hexagons marches out to sea, like the floor of a vast semi-submerged palace. The stones are all astonishingly regular and the hard basalt has retained its crisp outline over countless centuries. The vast scale of the site and its dramatic setting, looking out over the sea towards the Western Isles of Scotland, is completely overwhelming - particularly at dawn or dusk.
South County Wexford
South County Wexford is an important landfall for many migratory birds, particularly wildfowl and waders. The Wexford Slobs, areas of fen to either side of the River Slaney, were drained in the 19th century. Today these are the winter home to thousands of White-fronted Geese from Greenland, while other species of geese and duck are frequent visitors, often in very large numbers.
Many rare birds can also be seen at the lakes and marshes at Ladies Island and Tacumshin, and from the promontory of Carnsore Point. Further west, off Kilmore Quay, the Saltee Islands are a nesting site for huge numbers of puffins, razorbills, gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars and smaller numbers of many other species. A boat trip to this island nursery at the end of the nesting season in late-May or June, when the chicks are already well developed, is an unforgettable experience. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as peaceful: indeed it is hard to imagine such a loud and raucous noise.
The Kittiwake Gulls of Dunmore East
Each year a large colony of kittiwake gulls make their nests in a cliff face just above the quayside in the pretty fishing harbour of Dunmore East. Normally these are a shy and retiring species, who shun man and all his works, so it is altogether surprising to find them nesting in such a busy site. Indeed their plaintive cry Kitt-i-wake is one of the abiding memories of summer in Dunmore East.
The Peat Bogs of Central Ireland
Peat bogs were originally lakes over which, many centuries ago, a covering of decomposing vegetable matter was formed. This covering was peat. Gradually it expanded and grew over many centuries, as each layer of vegetation grew up and died down, until eventually the lake disappeared and the surrounding countryside was covered over, as though by a blanket.
Peat is rich in nutrients and supports a wide variety of plant and animal life. In wet weather it gathers up water and retains it like a sponge so the various bog-dwelling flora and fauna are assured of water in times of drought. There are, or were - for many bogs have been exploited commercially - areas of peat bog in almost every Irish county, from the eastern seaboard to the Atlantic Coast and from north to south, but perhaps the finest example is the blanket bog of the midland counties, which stretches across the countryside like an inland sea.
Turf cutting for fuel is rural tradition in early summer and, in times gone by, country children were allowed to miss school to help with the turf harvest, footing and stacking the sods (bricks) of turf, since everything was then done by hand.
Towards the middle of the twentieth century commercial harvesting began. Until then landowners, who had been obliged to sell their tenanted estates under the Land Acts, were allowed to retain owenship of lakes, bogs and woods, but bog was now declared a National Resource and large areas were purchased under an emergency act. The responsible state agency, Bord na Mona, developed vast machines to harvest and mill peat as fuel for power stations, such as those at Lanesborough (Co. Longford), Portarlington (Co. Laois) and Shannonbridge (Co. Offaly), which all in turn fed into the National Grid.
This process was only economical on a very large scale so many smaller bogs remained intact. Unfortunately, the development of small, easily transportable equipment means that in many instances, smaller bogs have also been worked out and their peat sold for fuel in recent years, a sad end to a unique Irish eco-system.
The Great Sea Cliffs of the West and North Coasts
At the Cliffs of Moher, at the south-western end of the Burren, the high limestone plateau meets the Atlantic Ocean head-on and plunges over seven hundred feet into the sea in a sheer drop. Just north of Liscannor, the majestic Moher cliffs stretch northwards for nearly five miles, from Hag's Head to the O'Brien Tower, and are one of Ireland's most famous natural features. Indeed many visitors to Ireland feel their holiday is incomplete unless they have seen 'the cliffs'.
At the opposite end of the country, west of Killybegs and Carrick, is Slieve League, a mountain nearly two thousand feet tall which slopes rapidly from its summit before plunging into Donegal Bay. The slope is less sheer than at Moher but the majesty and remoteness of the site is unforgettable.
The amazing Red Deer of Connemara
The halls of many Irish houses are hung with antlers, often trophies from a stalking trip to Scotland or a career in Africa or India. Among these, far larger, obviously far older and often hanging above the front door, are a set of magnificent palmate antlers; the head of the now extinct Irish elk, sometimes up to seven or eight feet in width.
In their absence red deer are Ireland's largest surviving mammal, but they too have been under threat, and native examples are now confined to Donegal, Wicklow (where regrettably they have now interbred with escaped Japanese Sika deer) and Kerry, where many record heads have been shot. More recently, red deer have again been reintroduced in southern Connemara, with dramatic results, for within a few years of their arrival they have already produced world-class heads. It appears that a combination of their diet and their genetic make-up has combined to allow them achieve prodigious growth. Not only are their antlers of trophy standard but body weights in excess of fifty stone have been recorded, and their steady increase in numbers and size has been widely reported in international hunting magazines.