Nature and Wildlife of Ireland – by Crossbill Guides
A warm welcome to this page about the nature and wildlife of Ireland. It complements the Crossbill nature travel guide with the same name. This is an online Crossbill Guide ‘light’ for the armchair traveller. It offers some general insights and images to prepare you for your visit, plus some practical information, sites and a free route from the Crossbill Guide. Enjoy!
Ireland is mainly known for its friendly people and lush, green landscape. Lesser known is that the small island at the edge of the continent is home to some of Europe’s most interesting nature sites and wildlife spectacles. Ireland is a birdwatcher’s paradise that offers large seabird colonies in summer, vast aggregations of wintering waders and waterfowl, some rare passage migrants in spring and autumn and a good number of residents including the rare Chough and Red Grouse. Ireland’s coastal waters are among the best for whale and dolphin watching. Especially the south west and west coast sees large numbers of visiting Humpback and Fin Whales every summer and autumn. In addition Ireland is home to one of Europe’s few resident group of Bottlenose Dolphins, locally known as the Shannon Dolphins. Basking Sharks use the food rich waters to spend the summer and as a mating ground.
Ireland is also home to some special landscapes. The Burren is a limestone karst area that hosts a worldwide unique flora, the Shannon Callows are one of Europe’s last natural flood plains and Connemara is home to some of the world’s best preserved blanket bogs.
Landscape of Ireland
Vast parts of Ireland had once been covered in peatlands which formed about 4000 years ago. Today most of the Irish bogs are fragmented into plots showing the scars of a few hundred years of peat harvesting for fuel.
The two main peatlands in Ireland are blanket bogs and raised bog. The peat of those bogs differs significantly in content as well as distribution. Peat from raised bogs, which can be found mainly in the country’s interior, is mainly made of sphagnum moss, while peat from blanket bogs, which dominate the coastal fringes and mountains, consists mainly of grasses and sedges.
Despite their long mistreatment areas of intact bog have survived and even the cutover bogs show pockets of the original flora and fauna. Carnivorous pants like sundews, bladderworts and butterworts are common as are heathers and other wildflowers like Bog Asphodel, Cranberry and Bogbean. Animals like the rare Red Grouse and the Irish Hare, a subspecies of the Mountain Hare, are typical peatland dwellers.
The Coast and the Ocean
Ireland’s coast is the country’s most biodiverse area. The habitats range from sheer cliffs and rocky shores to mudflats and saltmarshes, sandy beaches and dunes. There is also a rare coastal grassland habitat, Machair, which can only be found in the west of Ireland and Scotland and features a varied flora including several orchid species.
The coast also shows a great geological variety: From the sandstones and shales of the south west, the limestone of the Burren and the granite of the north west to the patchwork of basalt, chalk and sandstone that makes up the Antrim coast in the north east. Perhaps the highlight of Ireland’s coast are its birds (see below).
Common and Grey Seal are a common sight all year round, and several species of whales and dolphins are spotted throughout the year. The world’s second largest fish, the Basking Shark, is also a common – Ireland is thought to be one of the main breeding grounds of the species.
Often overlooked but full of wildlife is the intertidal zone which can be explored all around Ireland’s coast. Rocky shores in particular host a rich biodiversity which includes starfish, sea urchins, crabs and lobsters, sea anemones and countless other invertebrates.
Ireland is one of the least forested countries in Europe. Nevertheless the little that is left from the native forests that once covered the majority of Ireland’s landmass is a haven for plants and animals. The biggest areas of native oak forests can be found at the Killarney National Park. The prevailing moist and mild climate created by the nearby Gulf Stream and adjacent mountains supports a rich variety of ferns and bryophytes. The area is also a stronghold of the Lusitanian flora, a group of plants mostly limited to the Iberian peninsula and Ireland.
Hedgerows & Stone Walls
Ireland’s hedgerows and stone walls have become one of the country’s most important habitats and a refuge for many plants and animals. The hedgerows in particular have taken over the role of woodlands and host typical woodland flowers like Primrose, Wood Anemone and Common Spotted Orchid. The main building blocks of the traditional hedgerow are Hawthorn and Blackthorn which are often joined by a variety of other shrubs and small trees.
The thickets are the perfect home for songbirds and animals including Badger, Fox, Hedgehog and Pine Marten.
The Burren is a limestone karst area in the west of Ireland and together with the nearby Cliffs of Moher one of Ireland’s UNESCO Geoparks. It has a stark but beautiful landscape – a mixture of limestone pavement, terraced hills, fertile valleys and pockets of hazel woodland. The Burren has international fame among botanists for its unique plant communities that consist of Arctic, Alpine and Mediterranean species growing side by side in for each individual species unusual habitats. Furthermore, the Burren is one of Ireland’s foremost places to discover butterflies and moths and the area hosts a number of rare species like the Burren Green Moth and Wood White. For a long time the Burren was also one of the last strongholds of the Pine Marten before its recovery some years ago.
The Shannon Callows
Ireland is a country blessed with lakes and rivers. The longest river is the Shannon which for most of its journey travels in a straight north-south direction through the centre of Ireland. Between the lakes of Lough Ree and Lough Derg, the river forms the Shannon Callows, one of Europe’s last natural floodplains.
Every year the fields and pastures on both sides of the river flood when the Shannon, fed by increased precipitation, bursts its banks. These floodwaters bring nutrients which make the species rich hay meadows (over 200 plant species) of the Callows possible.
The Shannon Callows are also a stronghold for many breeding waders and wintering geese and swans.
The naturalist top 10
Ten highlights of your visit to Ireland.
A unique limestone plateau with an eerie landscape and a superb flora.
A large portion of the world’s blanket bogs are found in Ireland.
A well-kept secret, but Ireland is one of Europe’s best places for whalewatching, both from land and from the sea.
Killarney National Park in the southwest has unique, mossy forests, the result of a wet and very mild climate. They are sometimes called the Atlantic Rain Forest.
Enjoy the special vegetation of the calcareous coastal grasslands known as machair.
Ireland is a birdwatching country. Especially the bird community of the sea and coast is very rich.
Visit the Great Saltee, an island off the southeast coast with large colonies of seabirds.
Head inland to Ireland’s largest river, the Shannon, where the river floodplains known as the Callows offer a splendid scenery and biodiversity.
Although much of the vast raised bogs in Ireland are harvested, there are still some sizable bog reserves left and other are regenerating. A visit to Ireland isn’t complete without an exploration of this typically Irish habitat.
The northeast Antrim coast forms some of the most special and diverse coastal habitats on the island. The basaltic Giant’s Causeway is a famous UNESCO reserve and lies close to some fabulous headlands and dune systems.
Birds and wildflowers – The flora and fauna of Ireland
Compared to the European mainland and even its close neighbour Britain the flora and fauna of Ireland is considerably less varied. But what Ireland lacks in overall variety it makes up in rare plants and plant communities, a rich bird life and even richer coastal wildlife.
The windswept Atlantic coast seems like an unlikely place for wildflowers but Ireland’s western seaboard to some of Europe’s most enchanting floral displays. The salt tolerant species of cliff tops and saltmarshes (e.g. Thrift, Sea Aster, Sea Lavender, Sea Campion) are abundant while others like Pyramidal Orchid, Eyebright, Lady’s Bedstraw and Burnet Rose prefer the relative shelter of shingle beaches and dunes. Here is also one of Ireland’s rarest plants at home: The Oyster Plant. Another rare highlight of Ireland’s west coast is the Irish Lady’s Tresses which only other stronghold is the west coast of Scotland.
The unchallenged floral highlight of Ireland is the Burren and many visitors come for the orchids alone: Early Purple, Common Spotted, Fly, Bee, Greater and Lesser Butterfly, Dense-flowered and Broad-leaved Orchids are just some of the species here.
In addition there are Spring Gentian, Mountain Avens, Bloody Crane’s Bill and Yellow Wort to name a few of the more common ones as well as rarities like Shrubby Cinquefoil, Turlough Dandelion and Pyramidal Bugle.
The Strawberry Tree, Kerry Lilly, Irish Spurge and Large-flowered Butterwort are members of the Lusitanian flora that is found in the south-west of the country.
Ireland’s birds come in four seasonal categories.
First there are the summer visitors which are mainly seabirds that come to breed. Among them are Fulmar, Kittiwake, Gannet, Razorbill, Guillemot, Puffin, Shag and Manx Shearwater, as well as a variety of terns, including the rare Roseate Tern.
Second are the winter visitors that come from their breeding sites around the Arctic and include Greenland White-fronted Goose, Brent Goose, Barnacle Goose, Berwick’s and Whooper Swan, Turnstone, Knot, Redshank, Greenshank and other waterfowl and waders.
Some birds pay only a visit in spring and autumn on their migratory journeys. Among those are Whimbrel, Arctic and Great Skua, Curlew Sandpiper, Sabine’s Gull and others.
Finally there are the resident birds which include a variety of songbirds, birds of prey, waders and waterfowl and rarities like the Grey Partridge, Red Grouse and Twite. One of the highlights of the coast is the Chough, a red-billed and red-footed member of the crow family and the Rock Pigeon, the ancestor of the now more common Feral Pigeon.
The number of Irish land mammals is relatively short but many of the species are of international importance and include the Irish Hare, the Red Deer, the European Otter, the Pine Marten and the Lesser Horseshoe Bat.
The situation is similar in coastal water: Common and Grey Seal, Common Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Harbour Porpoise, Minke Whale, Humpback Whale, Fin Whale and Orca can all be found near the Irish coast and can be observed either from one of the many headlands or on dedicated whale watching trips.
Reptiles and amphibians
Ireland has only one native reptile, the Viviparous Lizard, and only three native amphibians, the Common Frog, Smooth Newt and the rare Natterjack Toad.
Top 10 species
Ten superb plant and animal species of Ireland.
Mixed colonies of seabirds – Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Guillemot and Puffin – are among the most visible wildlife spectacles Ireland has to offer.
Basking Sharks have been visiting Ireland’s west coast for a long time but only recently it became clear that these coastal waters are one of their major breeding grounds. The animals arrive in spring to feed and can often be seen close to shore. In late summer they can be observed performing their breeding ritual, swimming in circles often for hours and in their hundreds.
The estuary of the Shannon river is home to a resident pod of Bottlenose Dolphins which are easy to see from boat excursions.
This beautiful crow-like bird breeds on coastal cliffs.
With the return of the forests to some areas of Ireland, the Pine Marten, the main forest predator, is returning as well.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Ireland is rich in wild orchids, ranging from the beautiful but familiar Bee Orchid to the tiny but special Irish Lady’s-tresses.
The mighty Humpback Whale is the star of every whale-watching trip.
Perhaps a humbler element of the Irish Wildlife is the Irish Hare – one of the few species that evolved to become endemic – only occurring in Ireland.
The nutrient-poor environments of the peatlands are home to plants that found alternative ways to meet their nutritional demands – the sundews, butterworts and bladderworts growing here are all carnivorous – they catch and devour insects.
The Shrubby Cinquefoil is member of a special and selected community known as the Lusitanian plants – species that occur in the warm southwestern parts of Europe and in Ireland.
Routes and practicalities
In some travel books Ireland has been called ‘a miniature Europe’. While this is not entirely accurate it highlights one of the most striking features of the country: A wide variety of landscapes and habitats cramped together in a small area. There are not many countries where you can hike from an ancient forest into wide open blanket bog and half an hour later explore a saltmarsh and go for a walk on the neighbouring beach with a mountain chain as a backdrop. It is this variety and short travel distances that makes Ireland so enticing for the naturalist. In the morning you can stalk Red Deer in the forest or sit in a hide watching Pine Martens and Red Squirrels, after breakfast you can visit colonies of Fulmars, Puffins and Gannets and in the afternoon you can board a boast to see Bottlenose Dolphins and Humpback Whales.
Do’s & Don’ts
- Inform yourself before visiting a wildlife site (websites, visitor centres, tourist information, etc.).
- Use local guides.
- Check the tide table when you plan to visit coastal locations.
- Keep your distance from cliff edges.
- Keep your distance to any wildlife especially to breeding birds.
- Watch where you step to avoid trampling flowers or nests of ground breeding birds.
- Bring your rubbish home.
- Stay on trails (especially in national parks and other protected areas).
- Approach nesting birds (interfering in any way with nesting birds is forbidden by law).
- Pick or remove flowers.
- Swim with dolphins and other sea creatures (although you will see stories of other people doing it).
- Leave trails (Ireland has no ‘right to roam’ and most land is privately owned).
Ireland and Climate Change
While Ireland is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including rare and threatened species, it also feels the impact of climate change and other environmental threats. Ireland’s lakes and rivers and parts of the coast are among the most polluted in Europe due to runoff from fertilized pastures and untreated sewage. Plastic is now a common sight on the shoreline and it is rare to find a stretch of coast where the seaweed is not intermingled with fishing nets, plastic bottles and wrappers of all kinds. Climate change also shows its impact: Apart from a noticeable increase in extreme weather events like storms, heatwaves and droughts, seabirds are declining. Their numbers have halved in the past 20 years. Changing ocean currents (due to climate change) and overfishing has resulted in a lack of food for these birds which makes it impossible for them to successfully raise their offspring. How climate change will affect other species, especially alpine and arctic plants, remains to be seen.
On the other side a warming climate benefits some species: The Little Egret was a rare visitor only 20 years ago and is now a common resident all over Ireland and even outnumbers the native Grey Heron in some places.
The Crossbill Guides are the most comprehensive nature travel guides available. Each Crossbill Guide covers the areas described in depth with notes on the landscape, habitats, geology and all the species groups plus links to routes where they can be seen.
These routes are typically a mixture of walking and car routes with stops and short walks. Combined, these routes cover all the sites for birdwatching, whale watching, butterflies and other invertebrates and plants. They are also set out to give you the finest examples of the ecosystems and geological features. In short, everything for nature lovers.
The Crossbill Guide covers all of Ireland including Northern Ireland. In short, it contains:
- 288 pages
- 23 detailed routes
- 25 site descriptions
- Detailed information on landscape, ecology, geology, landscape history, flora and fauna
- Where to watch birds information
- Tips for wildlife watching and finding orchids and other wildflowers
Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt was founded by Geoff and Susanne Magee in 1992 to bring visitors and locals alike closer to the Loop Head wildlife, especially the Shannon Dolphins, a group of Bottlenose Dolphins which are resident at the Shannon Estuary that stretches for 100 kms between the counties Kerry and Clare.
Over the years Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt has not only become one of the most loved and successful nature tourism operators in the area but has also been a vital partner in dolphin research which is being carried out by the Shannon Dolphin & Wildlife Foundation and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
The year 2022 marked a new beginning for Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt when Mary Kate Bolger took over as the new skipper. Mary Kate has degrees in zoology and biology, has studied Bottlenose Dolphins in Spain and Australia and has been working as a Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt crew member since 2016.
For more information visit www.dolphinwatch.ie
The purpose of Green Sod Ireland is to protect and conserve Irish land – its soils and rocks – in perpetuity, for the sake of its indigenous inhabitants: From the smallest micro-organisms to large animals and all plants.
To date Green Sod Ireland has been gifted in excess of 100 acres by visionary individuals and communities, in Counties Galway, Cork, Carlow, Donegal, Mayo and Cavan. Gifted land is first and foremost appraised by our ecologists who complete an initial ecology report with findings and recommendations. The diversity of land across Ireland means that individual management plans are created to address the specific needs of each.
In addition to its rewilding efforts Green Sod Ireland works with local communities, raising awareness of the health, educational, social, economic and environmental benefits of caring for the land and its biodiversity.
Green Sod Ireland is a member of Rewilding Europe.
For more information visit www.greensodireland.ie
Carsten is a photographer, author and naturalist based in the west of Ireland. He was born in southern Germany but a holiday trip to Ireland got him hooked on the ‘Emerald Isle’ and he moved there permanently in 2002. The move brought a career change from paediatric nurse to freelance photographer and rekindled his childhood fascination with nature.
Since he settled in Ireland he has photographed and written more than ten books on Ireland’s landscape, nature and heritage and has been working on numerous assignments in the tourism sector.
In 2018 Carsten decided to concentrate exclusively on natural history photography, writing and conservation work. Since then he has been invited to be an AnTaisce Climate Ambassador and a Biodiversity Ambassador for Greensod Ireland. He has been working with Ireland’s major NGOs and is a project manager for Loop Head Together for Nature, a grassroots group that focusses on protecting and improving natural habitats on the Loop Head Peninsula in County Clare www.widlloophead.com