A Natural History of the Loop Head Peninsula
This is a special place. The Loop Head peninsula is uniquely located between the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary of Ireland's longest river, the Shannon. As a consequence the narrow stretch of land features a wide variety of habitats which are home to a surprising multitude of plants and animals.
The Shannon estuary, which borders the peninsula to the south, has shaped the coast into a sequence of sheltered bays, inlets and lagoons which are the perfect home for wintering as well as resident wildfowl and waders. The estuary itself is home to Ireland's only resident group of Bottlenose Dolphins, locally known as the Shannon Dolphins. Over 100 individuals are living in the estuary at any given time, taking advantage of the strong tidal currents that bring in rich food supplies. Seals are also a common sight sunbathing on the rocks at the Mouth of the Shannon, herds of Feral Goats roam the cliffs and Gannets that breed further south visit the rich waters around Loop Head to fish.
The rugged north of the peninsula is a completely different affair. The rocky shores and cliffs that dominate here are exposed to the full force of the Atlantic Ocean and have been sculpted into a twisting and turning coastline, rock arches, sea stacks and islands. In summer the cliffs host colonies of Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Guillemots and Razorbills that join resident birds like Chough, Raven and Rock Dove. Some relatively sheltered inlets feature colourful rock pools that host a wide variety of plants and animals like sea anemones, starfish, sponges, shells and crabs. In spring and summer the cliff tops explode in a myriad of colours when the wildflowers of Loop Head burst into bloom while Basking Sharks slowly cruise in the waters of the Atlantic below.
The flat interior that lies between the river and the sea has been shaped by centuries of farming. It is a patchwork of small fields and pastures separated by hedgerows and overgrown stone walls. These often underrated but important habitats support a wide variety of shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, insects, birds and other animals like the Irish Hare, the Fox and Ireland's only native reptile, the Viviparous Lizard.
Where the peninsula is connected to the mainland, along an imaginary line between Moore Bay at the Atlantic coast and Poulnasherry Bay at the Shannon Estuary, sits an area of peatland. It consists mainly of Atlantic blanket bog but also features a small area of raised bog, the most westerly in Ireland. While the area has been used for domestic peat harvesting for centuries, pockets of intact bog have survived to this day and feature carnivorous plants like sundews and bladderworts, colourful mosses and seas of heather and cotton grass.
While Loop Head is a haven for many rare and endangered plants and animals, it feels the impact of climate change and other men-made environmental problems. The numbers of breeding seabirds are declining year on year, wildflowers are disappearing and with them insects and birds.
The origins of Loop Head lie in a distant past, in the Upper Carboniferous Period some 320 million years ago. Back then the area that would become the Loop Head peninsula was located near the equator just off the ancient continent of Pangea at a vast river delta. This river deposited large amounts of sand, clay and silt into the ocean and over time these deposits hardened, layer upon layer, into the shale and sandstone that makes up the bedrock, cliffs and rocky shores of Loop Head.
The individual rock layers, known as turbidite sheets, are clearly visible all around the peninsula from Kilkee to Kilbaha Bay. Where the top of individual layers is exposed and hasn’t been smoothed by wave action, the ripples and grooves that had been formed by sea currents millions of years ago are still visible. Kilbaha Bay and Ross are the best places to explore these ancient seabeds. Ross also features the remains of a mudslide which is located at the eastern end of the cove below the car park. Here the muddy sediment became unstable and slumped, creating twisting and bending rock sheets and sand volcanoes in the process. Sand volcanoes appeared where trapped water escaped from under the mud sheets, pushing under high pressure through the layers of mud to the surface. While the mud layers hardened into rock, Ireland slowly moved northwards, was lifted above sea level and eventually it reached its current position on the globe.
The latest chain of events which shaped Loop Head into the place we see today, were the ice ages. These started around 100.000 years ago and brought a series of glaciations interspersed with warmer periods to the northern hemisphere and to Ireland. It is thought that the early glaciations left considerable amount of sediment that slowly built up the soils of Loop Head and neighbouring areas. The latest glaciation however, which was at its height around 24.000 years ago, influenced Loop Head in a different way. At the time a large ice dome that stretched from Galway Bay over the Burren and into County Tipperary stopped at a line running roughly from Quilty to Kilrush and from there across the Shannon Estuary to Tarbert and into County Kerry. This means the Loop Head peninsula remained ice free during this period. Once the ice started to retreat it left kames, small, irregular formed hills made of glacial deposit and limestone till, which would become the parent material for the soils of Mid and East Clare. Loop Head did not receive any of those glacial additives and consequently its soil is rather shallow and features a high clay content. The result is a heavy and waterlogged soil known as gley that is dominant in most places of the peninsula. A scattering of more fertile brown soil, which developed after the ice age, can be found in a few corners and the headland of Loop Head itself features a layer of podzol which is typical for heathlands.
Some 10.000 years ago after temperatures started to rise and the ice ages ended Loop Head developed birch and pine forests that very likely covered large parts of the peninsula from Carrigaholt to Kilrush and further along the estuary. In some places the remains of these ancient woodlands can still be seen. A place known as Drowned Forest near Carrigaholt features numerous tree trunks that are being engulfed by the tide twice a day. At the estuary near the small village of Knock and the on beaches around Doonbeg similar remains are being uncovered by the tides from time to time.
Like in the rest of Ireland the forests started to disappear after the arrival of men and a change in climate around 4000 years ago which favoured the development of peatlands. It is likely that most of Loop Head was covered in blanket bog at some stage, probably interspersed with a few remaining stands of birch or pine and marshland along the streams and rivers. Little is known about the animals that roamed Loop Head back then but it is possible that the Irish Hare was already around in these times and legends hint at sea monsters in the Shannon estuary that resemble Bottlenose Dolphins. It is also not unlikely that animals that have now disappeared from Ireland have once been calling Loop Head their home: Red Deer, Wild Boar and Wolves might have walked the shores of the peninsula.
To sustain a growing human population however the last pockets of woodland were felled and bogs were drained to create space for livestock and crops and so over time the treeless patchwork of fields we know today was created. Meanwhile the relentless Atlantic Ocean had been working away at the coast, carving inlets, sea arches, sea caves, sea stacks and small islands out of the rock. Even today these processes are ongoing, men keep shaping the landscape and the sea keeps sculpting the coast.
The Northern Coast
Loop Head’s northern coast is one continuous stretch of rock running from Kilkee all the way to Loop Head. For the most part the rock forms vertical cliffs that reach heights of over 60 meters and in places sea stacks and small islands, rock arches and sea caves have been carved out of Loop Head’s shale and sandstone backbone. Only in a few places the rock slumps down to sea level and here smooth rock platforms support an astonishing variety of life. Red, green and brown seaweeds cling to the slippery surface, encrusting seaweeds and lichen form large matts and seawater filled hollows in the rock hold a microcosm of plants and animals. Black Sea Urchins stand together in small colonies, starfish like the Seven Armed Starfish, Spiny Starfish and Common Starfish hide in cracks and crevices. Translucent shrimp and tiny fish zigzag across the pools. Painted Topshell, Dogwhelk and other sea snails and slugs go about their business searching for food on the seaweed and barnacle encrusted rock while Common Limpets wait for the return of the tide. The best examples of this ever changing and colourful habitat can be found in Ross and at the Pollock Holes in Kilkee (Kilkee Reefs Special Area of Conservation).
The vertical cliffs in comparison are barren places. Only in summer the narrow ledges in the cliff face come to life when hundreds of seabirds return to Loop Head to breed. Fulmars can be found all around Loop Head but can best be observed on Dermot and Grania’s Rock where they share the cliffs with Kittiwakes. The biggest and most diverse bird colony however is a place marked on the maps as Bullaunnaleama, the cliffs around the distinctive rock arch just east of Loop Head. Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes breed here tightly packed from April to August, transforming the place into a noisy and busy bird metropolis. Rock Doves, Choughs and Starlings also raise their offspring in the crevices of the cliffs. Another bit further east the Herring and Black Backed Gulls have their breeding colony on the aptly named Gull Island that they share with Shags and Cormorants. Rock Doves, Choughs, a pair of Raven, Peregrine and Rock Pipit can also be encountered here. Small colonies of Fulmar, Cormorant and Herring and Black Backed Gull also exist on Illaunonearaun, a small island off Castle Point, which has been designated a Special Protection Area for a flock of Barnacle Geese that regularly visit the island in winter.
For the most part the ground vegetation of the cliff tops is made of grasses that have spread from the nearby fields. Because of the constant exposure to wind and salt-spray other flowering plants appear only in limited numbers - Thrift, Scurvy Grass, Sea Campion, Rock Sea-Spurrey and Sea Plantain are the most common - but they still manage to transform Loop Head’s cliffs into a colourful patchwork during spring and summer. The only exception to this habitat survives on the westernmost tip of the peninsula which features an area of maritime heath which was probably the original habitat of Loop Head’s exposed cliff tops before the arrival of farming. Common Heather and Ling are the dominating plants here and the Irish Hare and Snipe like to hunker down in the hollows between the heather.
The biggest habitat along the Shannon estuary are the mudflats that get exposed twice a day when the waters recede at low tide. Mudflats consist of very small sand and other particles, much smaller than the grains found on a sandy beach, that have been moulded together by tidal currents. Inside the mud reside worms like the Lugworm and Sand Mason, shells like Cockle and Razorshell and other invertebrates. Those are the food source for a wide variety of animals including various species of fish and birds like Oystercatcher, Curlew, Redshank, Greenshank, Shell Duck and Teal. In some places, where the mud is mixed with stones and gravel, seaweeds can grow which attracts wintering Brent Geese.
On the upper shore where the surface is being covered by the tide only on occasion the mudflat has in some places become a saltmarsh. These areas are often dominated by the invasive Common Cord Grass and native Common Reed. Throughout spring and summer flowering plants add a splash of colour to the saltmarsh landscape. It starts in April with flowers that can also be found on the cliff tops, Thrift, and Scurvy Grass. In summer the Sea Lavender with its delicate tiny flowers appears, followed by the striking Sea Aster.
While the mudflats can be found all along the estuary, saltmarsh areas have established themselves mainly in the sheltered bays away from the main estuary, in Rinevella Bay and the wide expanse of Poulnasherry. Other inlets, like Kilbaha Bay, Rinevella Bay and Doonaha, feature sandy beaches and sandflats. Life on sandy shores is similar to those on mudflats however with a smaller variety of species. Lugworms and Cockle are the most common inhabitants of the sand which attract waders in search for a meal.
Dunes are often associated with sandy beaches but on Loop Head this habitat was able to develop in only one place. Loop Head’s only dune habitat can be found in Querrin where it is located on a narrow sand spit. This understated version of a dune landscape hosts a variety of wildflowers including White Clover, Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Kidney Vetch and Yellow Horned Poppy. Rabbits have established a colony here and the birds that feed on the mudflat use the sand spit to rest. Other birds like the Meadow Pipit and Skylark breed on the grassland and Shelducks are known to use old rabbit burrows. Stoat and Pine Martin have also been reported, most likely taking advantage of the rabbit population.
The estuary also features three lagoons. Those are brackish lakes, extensions of the ocean from which they are separated by a barrier which consists mostly of shingle, rocks or sand. The water in the lagoon is a mix of groundwater, rainwater and seawater. The latter percolates through the barrier with every high tide, mixing with the existing water of the lagoon. As a result, the salinity of the lagoon is highly fluctuating. At times of high rainfall, the water gets diluted and salinity declines, during long dry periods and at times of high spring tides when more seawater enters the lagoon, the salt content increases. Two of the estuary’s lagoons can be found at Kilbaha Bay: Cloghaun Lough is located at the eastern end of the bay and a very small, unnamed lagoon sits in a field beside the playground on the western end. The third lagoon is part of the saltmarsh at Rinevella and known as Clonconneen Pool, the pool by the rabbit’s meadow.
Loop Head’s interior is a typical Irish farming landscape: Small fields and pastures are separated by overgrown stone walls and earthen banks as well as hedgerows. While the fields themselves have become rather poor in biodiversity, thanks to ever more industrialized farming methods, hedgerows and other field borders are now the last refuge for numerous plant and animal species not only on Loop Head but all over Ireland.
The main building blocks of a traditional hedgerow are Hawthorn and Blackthorn which together with climbers like Bramble, Ivy and Dog Rose can form an impenetrable thicket that provides shelter for animals like badger and hedgehog as well as numerous birds. Resident birds that are dependent on hedgerows include Stonechat, Skylark, Rock and Meadow Pipit, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Twite, Linnet, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Blackbird, House and Tree Sparrow and Wren. Winter visitors that also take advantage of the shelter and food the shrubs provide include Redwing and Fieldfare and in spring and summer the Cuckoo can be heard calling across the fields.
On Loop Head the traditional hedgerows are very much limited to the sheltered east and south. The more exposed areas in the western and northern part of the peninsula mainly feature old stone walls and earthen banks. Bramble and Gorse are the dominant shrubs here. Mosses and lichen grow directly on the exposed stones and the walls that haven’t been taken over by Brambles have developed a surprisingly varied flora: English Stonecrop, Common Dog Violet, Hawkbit, Sheep’s Bit and Primrose are just some of the species that thrive on pockets of soil that have accumulated between the stones. Thrift in particular has adapted to stone walls and earthen banks and in places has completely taken over this men-made habitat. It was discovered only recently that these places host the very rare Thrift Clearwing Moth and populations of equally rare solitary bees.
The small strip of land beside the hedgerow, stone wall or earthen bank holds the remains of the traditional hay meadow flora: Various buttercups, Cuckoo Flower, Ragged Robin, Irish Eyebright and many other species can be found in these narrow spaces.
Hedgerows, stone walls and earthen banks are however not only home, food source and refuge for plants and animals, they are also vital corridors, wildlife highways, along which mammals like fox, badger, hedgehog and others, and insects including moths, butterflies and bees can travel in relative safety.
The Eastern Edge
Peatlands are an integral part of the Irish landscape and Loop Head is no exception. While there are no living bogs on the peninsula itself, a stretch of blanket bog as well as an area of raised bog runs from Kilkee to Kilrush and forms a natural border between the peninsula and the mainland.
Most of this area is cutover blanket bog which has provided fuel to the local population for generations. Today parts have also been transformed into commercial Sitka Spruce forestations and a wind farm can also be found here. Despite this interference many of the typical bog plants still thrive: Common Cotton Grass, Common Heather, Round Leaved and Oblong Leaved Sundew, Lesser Bladderwort and Sphagnum Mosses as well as various lichen are common and widespread. A small area around Tullaher Lough (Tullaher Lough and Bog Special Area of Conservation) has been identified as one of the most westerly examples of a raised bog in Ireland. While parts of this peatland has also been used for turf cutting, a small area close to the lake remains intact and not only features plants like Bog Asphodel, Cranberry and Common Cotton Grass but is also an important wintering site for the Greenland White Fronted Goose. Hen Harrier and Cuckoo can also be seen in the area.