Growing on the Edge of the World
When you haven’t seen more than wind-warped trees, scrub and dunes for miles, it’s hard to believe that the rocky cliffs and grassy outcroppings surrounding our most impressive lighthouses are home to some of our most vibrant and breathtaking flora.
Like the animals that live among them, Ireland’s salt-loving shrubs, succulents and flowers have adapted to their harsh surroundings, providing food and shelter for insects, small mammals and birds. Near Blackhead Lighthouse you can see peregrine falcons and kittiwakes soaring above, and a hot day can even bring out some of the island’s rare lizards, scooting across dusty paths or soaking up the sun on a warm rock.
Other coastal beauty spots, like Valentia Island, are best for wildflowers on the open moorland, where the nesting birds of prey nearby swoop overhead and dive to earth for the odd mouse or rabbit. Late spring brings seemingly endless flowers into bloom near the lighthouse in a display that continues on through the summer months: celandine, dog violet, kidney vetch, king-cups, bluebells, herb Robert, lady’s smock and sea pink – not to mention the coconut-scented clouds of gorse that explode into bloom across the country in early spring. The plant cover provides shelter for meadow birds of all kinds, and it’s a real twitcher’s treat to see pipits, thrushes and warblers so close to their mud-stomping, shoreline cousins.
Celandine in bloom
You need serious foliage to support a herd of wild goats, as they’re known for their ability to clear even the toughest, thorniest vegetation to the root in no time. Loop Head Peninsula has more than a few packs of bleating show-offs racing up and down, trimming the hillsides near the lighthouse and making their presence felt throughout the year with their daredevil antics and head-butting displays. At the other end of the country, something altogether lighter awaits, with the nature reserves near St John’s Point Lighthouse in County Down boasting some 22 species of butterfly across flower-covered dunes.
The land around Wicklow Head Lighthouse is also good butterfly territory, with peacock, red admiral and clouded yellows on summer days. The headland features an array of wildly different habitats for these and other creatures, including storm beaches, maritime grassland and heathland. It’s one of the spots where you can really see how the sea air and spray affects what grows where, with a tidy line between thrift, sea campion and common scurvy grass in the ‘spray zone’, and red fescue and spring squill on the flatter land. A few steps farther inland are cushions of heather, gorse, bramble and bracken where rabbits dig their burrows, interspersed with wetland and bog plants.