The west coast of Ireland boasts a treasure trove of natural wonders and astonishing landscapes, and in County Clare there are two of the best, the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher. We based ourselves for three days of exploration in the seaside village of Ballyvaughan, which boasts a small harbour, several hotels and a number of excellent restaurants.
We began our trip with a day hiking in the Burren, an example of a karst limestone landscape, and an area of national ecological importance.
The karst landscape of the Burren
Here, limestone rock is exposed at the surface, where the erosive action of water has carved it into ‘pavements’. The rocky surface is criss-crossed by vertical fissures, called grikes, leaving separate blocks of rock, called clints.
The limestones, from a geological period called the Lower Carboniferous were formed around 350 million years ago when this area was a warm shallow sea, and contain fossils of corals, sea urchins and ammonites.
The hills of the Burren only attain the modest height of 344 metres at Slieve Elva, but nonetheless the rough and rocky nature of the terrain and the wide vistas make for great hiking. The area is crossed by several ‘green roads’, ancient trackways across the landscape that linked inland communities with the coast and beyond. Two of the best form the hiking routes of Poulacapple and the Black Head Loop, and both are well worth walking if you are visiting the Burren.
Spring gentian, a Burren speciality
Our plan for day one was to hike a part of the Burren Way that includes the Poulacapple green road, here we knew we would find  abundant spring flora, including early purple orchids, mountain avens and the lovely piercing blue of the spring gentian.
Mountain avens and the spring gentian are classified as arctic-alpine plants, and are remnants of the flora that existed here 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. They co-exist alongside more temperate plants and even plants of Mediterranean origin, such as the maidenhair fern.
Mountain avens
This unique mix is still a mystery to botanists, but means that the Burren hosts over 70% of all the plant species found in Ireland, making it an important area for study and conservation.
For us, it means we can enjoy the abundant floral riches of this astonishing part of the world.
We were there in the spring, but later in the season the 22 species of orchid that are found in the Burren can be seen in bloom, and the pattern and variety of plants varies all summer and into the autumn.
On our second day we visited the Atlantic coast, and aimed to walk from Doolin village along the cliff path to the remarkable Cliffs of Moher. The day was murky and cool, with low cloud, however the views along the cliff path were still magnificent.
These ancient sandstone cliffs are home to over 30,000 sea birds, and we saw guillemots, black-backed gulls, ravens and kittiwakes, swooping  down to the sea and then back to their precarious nesting perches on the sheer cliff faces.
Atlantic coast of Ireland
As the sea pounded the base of the cliffs and crashed onto the rocks we saw the unmistakable bobbing heads of a pair of what were probably atlantic grey seals, diving in the turbulent water for fish and crustaceans.
Sea pinks, or thrift, dotted every cliff with their pink flowers, and the white blooms of the sea campion were much in evidence too.
The Cliffs of Moher stretch for 8 kilometres, (5 miles), along the atlantic coast of County Clare, and reach 214 metres at their highest point. Here there is now a very popular interpretive visitor centre, well worth a look around, and the destination for our lunch stop.
From here we retraced our route, now looking north we could see the outline of Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands, and later on the small knoll of Crab island that protects Doolin Quay.  Stopping periodically to admire the seabirds and to feed some local donkeys, we soon returned to Doolin and a local pub for a welcome cup of tea.
Poulnabrone dolmen
Day three, our final day of the trip, saw us head inland to visit the remarkable megalithic dolmen at Poulnabrone, (which translates as the hole of the sorrows).
This tomb was excavated in 1986 and the remains of 16 adults and children were unearthed, along with a stone axe and other artifacts associated with ritual burial. The dolmen dates to around 3600BC and would originally be covered with a large cairn of stone and earth.
The Burren is rich in archaeology, with as many as 75 neolithic wedge tombs discovered, along with hundreds of other cairns, stone forts and small depressions where water was heated using hot stones, possibly for cooking meat, called Fulacht Fia.
From here we made the short drive to the Burren National Park with it’s many turloughs, (seasonal lakes), and astonishing limestone terraces.
The park is relatively small, but it holds some of the best landscape and scenery in the area. On this warm and sunny day we hiked up to the top of Mullaghmore at around 180 metres, where we ate a late lunch by the summit cairn before moving on to Slieve Roe and Knockanes.
Slieve Roe – sinuous limestone terraces

These hills are by no means large, but they make up for this with their stunning rock architecture, rugged paths and almost alpine like meadows.

Here you can see some of the fossils that are found in the limestone, corals are most common, and easily seen.
We returned via one of the larger turloughs to cool our feet in the clear water, before walking back to our vehicle for the drive back to Dublin.
Mountaintrails runs two three day trips each year to this wonderful part of Ireland, we stay in a local hotel and eat in local restaurants, enjoying the seafood for which the west coast is well known. Our itineraries have to remain flexible to take account of the weather, but are sure to include hill and coastal hikes, looking at the wonderful flora, geology and archaeology that the Burren and Cliffs of Moher have to offer.
 If you would like to join us next time check the dates on our website: www.mountaintrails.ie, or send us an email with your enquiry: info@mountaintrails.ie .
The strange geology of the Burren – Slieve Roe from Mullaghmor in the Burren NP.

The Burren, on Ireland’s west coast in the county of Clare, is an area of limestone rising to a modest 300 metres above the nearby sea level.
The limestones, from the Carboniferous period, were formed 340 million years ago in a warm shallow sea, and subsequent erosion and the scouring action of glaciers that receded 10,0000 years ago, have exposed these limestones at the surface.

Fossil corals

This is a karst landscape, weather worn into limestone pavement of clints, grikes and runnels, with sink holes and underground cave systems.

Fossils of tabulate corals are fairly common, particularly on Mullaghmor.
Sea urchin, ammonite and crinoid, (sea-lily), fossils can also be found.

Despite this astonishing geological landscape, the Burren is probably best know for it’s unique mix of arctic-alpine and Mediterranean flora. As the glaciers retreated, the newly exposed land surface was colonised by plants that today are found on the arctic tundra and on mountains above 1500 metres.
With the warming climate, these arctic-alpine plants hung on in the Burren, and were joined eventually by plants of much more temperate areas. Indeed, the warming nature of the Gulf Stream and the heat retention properties of the limestone enabled plants that would normally be found much further south to thrive here, giving a unique and remarkable assemblage of flora, and in such abundance that can leave a lasting impression on those who visit the area.

Mountain Avens

Burren in Bloom is a festival that celebrates this abundance, and takes place throughout the month of May, the best time of year to see the wild flowers. However, we visited in early June, and due to the late spring this year, still saw a glorious display of diverse colour on the limestone slopes.

Most abundant was the Mountain Avens, a plant associated with climates much further north, it’s ground hugging foliage covered in a mass of yellow and white blooms.

 

 

Spring Gentian

We walked the green roads, un-metalled tracks, over the low hills in search of the Spring Gentian, and were rewarded by finding this solitary piercing blue flower in abundant clumps.
It is said that if you pick this flower and take it into your home then you will be struck by lightning, but we contented ourselves by taking photographs.

Orchids are another of the Burren’s iconic plants, and there are several species that can be found here.
One of the most commonly found orchids is the Heath Spotted Orchid, but it is often hard to identify correctly as the species has a very variable nature, and there is a strong degree of cross breeding between the species. 
Despite this, we confidently identified the Heath Spotted as well as the Early Purple Orchid.

Heath Spotted Orchid


We identified many more plants, but one of the more unusual to find here would be the Mossy Saxifrage, a plant of the Arctic tundra regions and mountain ranges between 1900 and 3000 metres. Yet here found at a modest few hundred metres above sea level.

Over 70% of Ireland’s native flora can be found in the Burren, not all flower in the spring, but it is certainly the best time to come and enjoy this spectacle of colour and abundance.

I never really tire of it, and will certainly be back again next spring, and I hope the weather is as good as it was this year!