The Mouth of the Shannon
The Mouth of the Shannon
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Maritime Heath in Winter
Maritime Heath in Winter
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Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover
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Early Marsh Orchid
Early Marsh Orchid
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Early Marsh Orchid and Bird's-Foot Trefoil
Early Marsh Orchid and Bird's-Foot Trefoil
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The western tip of Loop Head is, like the rest of the peninsula, dominated by grassland and pastures. Just east of the lighthouse however a small area of what might have been the original coastal habitat of the peninsula survives. This area of maritime heath is dominated by weather-beaten Common Heather and Ling which are joined by clusters of Common Gorse. Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, Tormentil, Common Milkwort, Lousewort and Glaucous Sedge grow between the heathers and various lichen species are also widespread. The floral highlight of the area is however the Early Marsh Orchid which is represented by at least two subspecies. One is the D.i. incarnata, the most common form of this orchid, the other is D.i. cruenta, the Flecked Marsh Orchid which has obvious specks on its leaves a feature which the other has not.

 

The heathland also supports a rich invertebrate fauna which includes various beetles, bumblebees, snails and slugs. These in turn attract a variety of birds: Herring Gull, Black backed Gull and Thrushes are regular visitors while Snipe and Skylark reside in the area. Another resident is the Irish Hare which blends in perfectly with the landscape.

The best preserved area of maritime heath can be found on the southern side of Loop Head, the north only holds a number of small patches and is otherwise dominated by grassland and as a consequence the grassland flora which includes White and Red Clover, Tufted Vetch and Common Dog Violet, often mingles with the typical heathland plants. Along the cliff edge patches of Thrift as well as Kidney Vetch, Scurvy Grass, Sea Aster, Sea Campion and Sea Plantain are common and widespread.

The cliffs themselves are barren and empty during the autumn and winter months but in summer are home to one of Loop Head’s most spectacular wildlife events. Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills spend the winter on the open ocean and return to the mainland in spring to mate and raise their offspring. Fulmars are usually the first to arrive, sometime as early as February, followed by Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills in April and May.

During the summer the cliffs at Loop Head are a busy and noisy place, birds are constantly coming and going and the air is filled with chatter and the smell of guano. Fulmars and Kittiwakes are the main breeding species on the northern tip of Loop Head and Dermot and Grania’s Rock, a sea stack separated from the mainland only by a narrow chasm. A few hundred meters east the cliffs at Bullaunnaleama host colonies of Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and a few stray Fulmars.

Counts in 2021 unfortunately have shown that the number of these four visiting breeding species are in decline and have almost halved since 2000, a development in line with other colonies across the northern Atlantic. Razorbills and Kittiwakes have seen the steepest decline and if the current trend continues these birds might disappear from Loop Head within the next decades.

The breeding season comes to an end in August when the chicks have taken flight and can fend for themselves. Sometimes it seems that the birds miraculously disappear overnight, leaving the cliffs quiet and empty.

During September and October Loop Head’s northern coast becomes a front row seat to watch the great bird migration. Every autumn numerous species pass the coast on their way from their breeding grounds in the far north to their wintering grounds on the European continent and Africa. Storm Petrel, Great Skua, Arctic Skua, Black Tern and Green Sandpiper are among the more common species but over the years rare and unusual birds like the Ortolan Bunting and the Firecrest have been spotted as well.

However not all birds disappear from the cliffs of Loop Head. Black Backed Gulls and Herring Gulls that breed on the aptly named Gull Island east of Bullaunaleama stay close to the coast all year round as do Shags and Cormorants which breed on the lower rock shelves of the island and other spots around the peninsula. A group of Rock Pigeons also calls the area their home and birds of prey like Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon can also be seen. The cliffs of Loop Head are also the permanent home to the rare Chough with its distinctive red bill and legs and the all black Raven. On the short winter days the high pitched shriek of the Chough and the hollow croak of the Raven mix with the crashing of the waves into a dark winter symphony.

For a detailed listing of species and habitats please visit this page.