As summer advances ticks are becoming more active, and more outdoor enthusiasts are finding these unpleasant critters embedded in their skin.

To understand the importance of avoiding being bitten, here are our Top Ten things you should know about ticks:

1.  Ticks are arachnids, and related to spiders and scorpions. They have a 3-stage life cycle, larvae, nymph and adult. At each stage they need a blood meal to grow, ticks feed on small mammals, deer and sheep and will bite humans. They are most active in late spring and summer.

Ticks life cycle

 

2. Tick bites do not hurt, therefore you will not know if one has bitten you. They prefer warm and damp parts of the body, particularly the hairline, navel, waist, groin and behind the ears and knees.

 

3. Initially ticks can be very small, about the size of a poppy seed, but will swell as they become engorged with blood. If you find a tick on you or one of your children do not pick, scratch, burn, drown or squeeze it, as it will vomit it stomach contents into your blood stream and pass on any infections it may carry.

 

Ticks

4.  Ticks generally do not feed for the first 24 hours, so you have time to check yourself in the shower when you get home.

 

5.  To remove an embedded tick use a specialised tick removal tool, either a ‘tick hook’ or a ‘tick lasso’. Narrow end tweezers will also help, but remember to grab by the head, and not the body.

 

6.  Ticks carry a bacterial disease called Lyme borreliosis, or Lyme disease, not all ticks carry it, they get it by sucking the blood of infected animals.

 

7.  Around 50 -100 cases of Lyme disease are reported in Ireland each year, if you think you are infected you should see your GP, who will run tests to determine whether you have Lyme disease and whether to give a course of antibiotics.

 

8.  Symptoms may appear after 3 or 4 days, but may take several weeks to appear. Common symptoms are a bullseye rash at the site of the bite, and flu like symptoms, headache, fatigue and fever.

 

ticks rash

9.  Regular campers, hikers and fishermen are most at risk, and these groups would be wise to carry a tick removal device with them.

 

10.  Ticks climb tall foliage and drop onto animals as they brush past. To avoid being bitten stay on tracks and paths and away from bracken and other tall foliage in the summer. Wear long sleeves, and particularly long trousers, and tuck trousers into socks or wear gaiters. Applying insect repellent to clothes will also help.

Russ Mills runs Mountaintrails, a guided hiking and mountain skills training enterprise based in Dublin, Ireland.

To learn more go to our website at mountaintrails.ie.

It is entirely possible, as you are rushing up the M1 from Dublin towards the Mourne Mountains, to completely miss the magnificent hills of the Cooley peninsula. If you were to look up from the road between Dundalk and Newry you might see the wooded slopes of Black Mountain on your right, but you would miss the rugged beauty of Carlingford mountain further east, with the rocky summit of Slieve Foye and its undulating 6 kilometre ridge.

The Cooley peninsula juts out into the Irish Sea between Dundalk Bay and Carlingford Lough, at its northern end lies the border with Northern Ireland, but the Cooley’s sit entirely in the county of Louth.

For the hiker, the peninsula is marked by two northwest to southeast trending ridges, separated by the narrow Glenmore valley. The longer and more northerly ridge runs from Anglesey Mountain to Slievestucan and reaches its high point at Black mountain (508m). Overlooking Carlingford Lough is the shorter but more rugged ridge of Carlingford mountain that stretches from Foxes Rock in the northwest to Barnavave in the southeast. Its summit is Slieve Foye (588m), the highest point in this compact range and in County Louth.

The rocks that make up the mountain have a complex history, stretching back to around 460 million years ago when the region was a sedimentary ocean basin. The most recent activity being the emplacement of erosion resistant blocky granites around 50 million years ago.

Here too is the site of the legend of the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge in Irish), where the famous 1st century queen of Connacht, Maeve, and her warrior band stole the famous Brown Bull of Cooley in a war with the king of Ulster. To mark the event there is now a 40 kilometre (26 mile) waymarked trail, The Táin Way, which encircles both ridges and traverses Maeve’s Gap, a pass between Slieve Foye and Barnavave.

Slieve Foye guided hiking - view towards the Mournes
Looking north to the Mourne Mountains from Slieve Foye.

Our hike starts in the lovely small seaside town of Carlingford, with its 13th century Anglo-Norman castle and medieval town walls and gatehouse.

Walking inland from the town we quickly find ourselves climbing up a narrow stony path between two ancient field walls. Ahead are the grassy slopes of the common land that leads us up to the broad saddle of Maeve’s Gap.

From here we turn northwest to follow a narrow and rocky path that begins to climb steeply up through crags of weathered granite until we reach the summit of Slieve Foye (588m). Reaching the summit is really only the beginning, as we now follow a faint path along the undulating and rocky ridge, our first target being the prominent granite outcrop of Eagles Rock (528m). From the ridge we get superb views; north across Carlingford Lough to the beautiful Mourne Mountains, west to Slieve Gullion, and south down the coast as far as Lambay Island and the Wicklow Mountains. These outcrops are the home of upland birds, ravens, stonechat and wheatear; as well as small insectivorous plants, the bright red sundew and the distinctive banana yellow butterwort.

This is a relatively small mountain, but its rugged and rocky nature, coupled with the far reaching views; definitely give it a big mountain feel.

Slieve Foye guided hike -summit of Slieve Foye
Looking up to the summit of Slieve Foye on Carlingford mountain.

From Eagles Rock we descend carefully to the broad pass of the White Bog, before climbing again to Raven’s rock and finally onto Foxes Rock (404m). This hill marks the end of our 6 km ridge walk, and we reluctantly leave the marvellous views to the ravens, wheatear and skylarks as we descend gradually eastwards over tussocky grass and rock to pick up the Táin Way for our return journey.

Initially we follow a wall that marks the forest edge but then move into the trees to find a broad forest track that gently rises and falls before finally dropping us back at our start point.

There should be time enough remaining for a look around Carlingford, a lovely little town, and for a visit to one of the cafés for tea and cake! A well-deserved reward and a fitting end to a great day in the Cooley hills.

This hike is graded as hard in our itinerary and would suit those used to regular hillwalking with some steep ascents, it is 17km in length, with around 800 metres of ascent in the day, and takes between 6 – 6½ hours to complete.

Other useful links:

http://carlingfordandcooleypeninsula.ie/index.php/carlingford-activities/carlingford-hill-walking

Scarr mountain, (the name derives from ‘Sgurr’ which means a rocky ridge or peak), sits on the eastern edge of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, some 5 kilometres north of the better known and much visited scenic valley of Glendalough.

In contrast Scarr offers a much quieter experience. It too has a magnificent glacial ribbon lake, Lough Dan; and offers wonderful all round views from its’ breezy summit.

Though only 641 metres above sea level, it has a reputation as a windy and exposed hill, and hikers can often find themselves having to change their plans to avoid the windswept elongated summit ridge.  However, its lower height means you can often stay below the low cloud on Scarr, when other mountains are draped in impenetrable hill fog.

Heading towards the Bracket Rocks
Heading towards the Bracket Rocks

The mountains here are predominantly of granite, emplaced some 450 million years ago when two great continents collided. The granite is surrounded by a rock called mica-schist, altered from the original mudstones by tremendous heat and pressure when the molten granite forced its way upward through the Earth’s crust. These monumental forces were followed by millions of years of erosion by successive ice ages to eventually expose the granites.

On Scarr the summit is a cap of the overlying schists, not entirely removed by the ice, with the granite beneath.

The vegetation here is sparse, the thin peaty soil is stony and very poor in nutrients, what there are will be leached out by the rains. This leaves a landscape of heath, moss, sedge and bilberry.  Deer and a few sheep graze these hillsides, and this prevents tree regeneration and keeps the vegetation short.

Deer graze the slopes of Kanturk
Deer graze the slopes of Kanturk

On the lower flanks of the mountain are commercial conifer plantations, dark and mostly empty of life, they act as a shelter for the deer in bad weather, as well as home to the occasional pine marten.

The mountain has an elongated summit ridge, maybe half a kilometre long and running roughly north to south. There are long broad ridges, or spurs to the north and to the south, with another shorter spur going east.

Our hike takes us past Lough Dan, a glacial lake in a beautiful setting, with a backdrop of woods and mountains. The lake follows the line of the hills, turning left, and we follow, gaining height as we do, heading up the long spur towards the Bracket Rocks, a series of rocky knolls that mark the northern end of the mountain.

In misty conditions these outcrops can take on a different aspect, menacing and brooding, and threading a way through them requires local knowledge and some navigational skill. It can be very boggy, and the wet peat can soon swallow a miss placed foot.

Our path now turns south and ascends more steeply as we head for Kanturk, a name that translates as the head of the wild pig, a prominent knoll on the northern flank of Scarr. As we climb past Kanturk the summit of Scarr is visible ahead, and within a few minutes we are climbing the last few steep steps to the summit.

At last we get a chance to take in the long reaching views, east to the coast and west into the Wicklow Mountains, valley following ridge following valley away  into the distance.

Scarr summit ridge on a breezy spring day
Scarr summit ridge on a breezy spring day

As we take the undulating ridge south the wooded valleys and rolling hills of east Wicklow lie to our left, whilst the starker and more rugged landscape of the mountains lie straight ahead and to our right.

Our path now descends a broad heather clad spur towards Paddock Hill, but before we reach it we go left on an old track, past coniferous plantations. Soon we meet up with the Wicklow Way, a 127 km long distance path that runs the length of the Wicklow Mountains.

We follow the Wicklow Way down a farm track, gently meandering past fields and houses, until we reach a minor road, which we then follow to retrace our steps back to the vehicles.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to know more, please follow the link to our website, hiking Scarr mountain.

Our next guided hike of this impressive landscape is on Saturday 26th March, why not join us?

Russ Mills is the owner and chief guide at Mountaintrails, and has been hiking, climbing and guiding for nearly 40 years.

 

 

 

 

Mountaintrails hiking tours are devised to take you off of the normal routes and into the wilder and more rugged parts of the Irish mountains not often visited by other tour companies. They are all fairly demanding and need some thought as to the clothing and equipment required, so what do you need to bring on a hiking tour in Ireland?

Here are a few key points:

The importance of good footwear.

 What may be safe and acceptable will vary with the grade of the hike and the time of year. Having the right footwear is not just a matter of comfortable dry feet; there are safety considerations here too.

On a dry and warm summer day a route may only require some good training shoes, but in the wet and cold of winter you will need good waterproof boots with good gripping soles. Slipping on wet ground can easily result in injury, and wet feet in winter will leave you feeling uncomfortable and cold.

Generally, the less demanding a hike you choose, the less specialist the shoe you will need. For our ‘Easy’ grade hikes good running shoes or lightweight walking boots will suffice, but remember that if it rains you might still get wet feet!

 All our ‘Moderate’ and ‘Hard’ grade hikes venture off forest tracks and easy paths and onto hillsides and more demanding mountain routes. For these hikes good waterproof hiking boots are essential. Read the notes on each tour itinerary to see what we recommend for a particular hike.

 

Wear-good-boots-when-on-a-Mountaintrails-guided-hike-1024x576

Waterproof clothing, (remember, it often rains in Ireland!)

Bring a good waterproof jacket, preferably with a hood. Getting wet in the mountains is no joke, even in summer, and wet clothes lose heat fast, and can be a major contributor to hypothermia, a dangerous condition where the body loses more heat than it can generate and rapidly cools.

 Not only will a jacket keep you dry but it acts as a windproof layer too, helping to keep you warm on the often windy mountain ridges.

Waterproof pants, to cover the legs when it rains, are also a useful addition. We recognise that not everyone will have or would wish to invest in these, and so we carry a few spare which are available to loan.

Cotton clothing in general, and denim in particular, are poorly suited to wearing in the mountains. Dense cotton clothing gets heavy and cold when wet, and has very poor heat retention properties.  For this reason we ask you not to wear denim jeans on our hikes.  Instead choose comfortable athletic pants, stretch leggings are ideal, as are the polycotton hiking pants found in many outdoor stores.

 

It is essential to stay hydrated when hiking

 Our bodies need plenty of water to function properly when exercising, the amount of water an individual may need in a day will vary.

Factors influencing this will include the length and difficulty of the hike, the temperature on the day and an individual’s own metabolism. However, a good guide would be to bring 1½ litre of water per person for a full day hike.

It is important to remember to bring food too! We burn a lot more calories in a day when out in the hills, this is great for dieting, but we need to ensure our bodies have enough energy to get us through the day, particularly in winter when we are burning more energy just to stay warm.

Derrybawn-to-Lugduff-guided-hike

Remember to bring warm gloves and a hat.

You should also add a spare warm layer like a fleece or a jumper, it is always colder in the mountains and often windier too, so don’t be caught out!

If you are joining us in the winter, gaiters are a good addition to your kit; they will keep you dry and clean below the knee, and keep snow out of your boots too. In the summer don’t forget your sunscreen and sunglasses.

You will need a small pack to put all this into, 25-30 litre capacity should be enough. We have a small selection of packs to loan if required, as well as walking poles and spare hats and gloves, just let us know!

Wrap-up-warm-for-Mountaintrails-winter-guided-hikes-in-the-Wicklow-mountains

Here is a final checklist of what you will need to bring on one of our day hikes.

  • Waterproof hiking boots
  • Waterproof jacket and pants (moderate and hard hikes)
  • Comfortable athletic leggings or trekking pants (no denim jeans please)
  • Hiking socks
  • Warm clothing plus spares
  • Hat and gloves
  • 1½ litres of water (or a hot drink in the winter)
  • Food for the day
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses (in the summer)
  • Rucksack of around 25-30 litres capacity
  • Gaiters (optional)
  • Walking poles (optional)

If you need to know more about our guided hikes please email us at info@mountaintrails.ie or check the FAQ’s on our website.

We look forward to seeing you out on a Mountaintrails hiking tour very soon!

 

 

This is the second of two articles that aim to encourage a healthier lifestyle through hillwalking and hiking.   The first, ‘Walking for Wellness – getting started’, can be found on our website blog.

 

1. Love your feet

Getting the right footwear is possibly the most important factor in determining the success of your hillwalking career.

For tracks and low level routes when you might have only a light pack, then lightweight flexible boots would suffice.  More demanding ground, such as rocky, high mountain paths would require a more rigid boot, with a stiffer more aggressive sole for grip and perhaps a higher level of ankle support.  Fabric and leather mix boots are now very popular, they are a good for general hiking use and would be an ideal first boot purchase. These boots combine comfort and lighter weight with a good sole unit for grip; they should also have a waterproof membrane.

Feet comp

Invest in some waterproof hiking boots, and ensure you get the right fit.

For rocky mountain trails you will need a more durable boot that has a semi-rigid construction, higher ankle cuff, toe protection and a high grip sole for security on steep ground.  These boots were traditionally made of leather, a durable and waterproof material when treated properly; they are now also available with synthetic uppers and a waterproof lining.

All this means little if your boots are not comfortable, and getting the right fit is the primary consideration. Firstly, forget your shoe size, unless you are used to buying hiking boots, it will be of little use to you, get the store to measure your feet to determine the size and width that you need.  Secondly, wear hiking socks when trying on the boots, if you don’t have any the store should give you a choice to try. Once you have the boots on walk around the store, try some stairs if possible, good outlets will have a ramp to walk up and down to check for heel lift and toe squeezing.  Finally, try on several different pairs from different manufacturers, go to other stores if necessary, and get the best fit you can.

Buy some comfortable and cushioning hiking socks while you are there.

You will need to wear your boots in, work up to half day hikes before using them for a full day’s hillwalking.  For more information check out our blog on buying your first hiking boots.

2. Dress for Success (Think like an Onion)

Layering your clothing gives flexibility and allows for better temperature regulation. Cotton shirts should be avoided as they have poor heat retention when damp. Jeans are definite out, they are heavy, cold and slow to dry when wet, choose trekking or hillwalking trousers instead.

A good layering system should comprise:

clothes

Layering up for comfort; baselayer, mid (fleece) layer and water/windproof outer layer.

Base layer – a good base layer should move moisture away from your skin, it should be comfortable and offer a degree of insulation. The choice is usually between synthetic, (polypropylene or polyester), or wool, (predominantly merino).

Opt for a front zip, as this will help with temperature regulation.

Mid/Insulating layer – this will provide most of the warmth by trapping air in the fibres of the material. Often a synthetic fleece, though wool mid layers are available, they provide insulation while transferring moisture to the outer layer to evaporate.

Outer shell – a jacket with a hood will protect you from wind, rain and snow, and should be both waterproof and breathable. Jackets with full length zips are ideal as they are easier to take on and off.

3. Bring the right Gear

Apart from your boots the most important items you buy should be your waterproof jacket and trousers; these are literally a life saver in Irish mountain weather.

Don’t skimp here, get the best you can afford, jackets that use breathable membranes such as Gore-tex or Event work best, other manufacturers have their own brand of breathable materials.  A good article on choosing a waterproof jacket can be found  on the UKHillwalking website: http://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=4090

You will also need a hat and gloves, map and compass, a spare warm layer, small first aid kit, headtorch and bivi bag in case of emergency, and a small rucksack of around 25 litres to put it all in.  Some folk like to use walking poles when hiking, but they don’t suit everyone, try to borrow some at first to see if they are for you.

This seems like a lot to buy, but you can compromise on some items and some supermarkets now offer a range of decent budget gear.

4. Learn to Navigate

It is important for any hillwalker to be able to navigate across open and mountainous country. Most Mountain Rescue call-outs are as a result of poor navigation.

Learn how to use a map and compass, perhaps get a proficient friend to teach you, or better still, enrol on a course, you can find details of Mountaintrails navigation courses on our website.

11666261_511049875711079_6550375026492450624_n

Finding their way across open country on a Mountaintrails navigation course.

GPS technology is a great navigational aid, but should only be used as a backup to map and compass skills. Batteries fail when they run down or get cold and you may lose the signal in deep valleys and in forests. Smartphone mapping apps using the inbuilt GPS are very popular too, but are notorious for running down the phone battery, and may fail if the unit gets wet.

 5. Don’t go it Alone

Heading out alone can seem a daunting prospect, and can be risky. Unless you are experienced and proficient it is best avoided.  Why not join up with a few friends and enjoy those shared experiences, or join a local hillwalking club?  Mountaineering Ireland have a list of all the walking clubs in Ireland, and would be happy to help you find one nearby:  info@mountaineering.ie

Meetup groups are also becoming increasingly popular, and there are bound to be some hillwalking groups in your area.http://www.meetup.com/

6. Stay Fuelled and Hydrated

When we exercise we burn calories, and the same is true of hillwalking, indeed, on a full day hiking in the hills you can burn in excess of 3,000 calories. Part of the reason we go hiking may be to lose weight, but it is important to have enough energy to get through the day too.

breakfast pic

Fuel up with a good breakfast to start the day

Fuel up at the start of the day. Don’t miss breakfast, and eat complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly, porridge with honey is good, as is muesli with dried fruit and nuts. A cooked breakfast will also give you plenty of fuel for the day, bon appetite!

At your lunch stop refuel with more slow energy release food, oatcakes, bananas and peanut butter sandwiches are all good examples. Chocolate bars and jelly babies make great treats too!

It is essential to drink plenty of fluids, especially in warm weather, dehydration is very debilitating, and can be life threatening. It is generally recommended to drink 2 litres a day, but in reality this varies with individuals, the weather, and the severity of the walk. Try to avoid caffeine rich drinks, like tea and coffee, as these are diuretic. For a warming drink in cold weather try hot chocolate, or a fruit tea with a spoonful of honey.

 

7. One Step at a Time 

When you start out, consider your ability level, don’t try to take on too much initially, start small and build it up steadily, gradually increasing the severity of the walks.

Think about the proposed route, and ask yourself these questions, ‘how far is it, how much ascent is involved, how long will it take me, when does it get dark, can I comfortably complete this walk?’ Once you have decided on the hike, leave a plan of your route and the time you expect to return with a friend or family member, so you can be found in an emergency.

8. Be Weather Aware (And other Mountain Hazards)

Mountains have their own weather patterns, you don’t have to be a scientist to know it gets colder as you get higher. In fact it gets colder at an average of 1.5C for every 100 metres of height gain, so if it’s 10C on the coast it could be below freezing on the summit of Lugnaquilla!

Check the weather forecast and look out particularly for temperature, wind speed and precipitation. A combination of low temperature, rain and wind will produce a wind-chill much cooler than the air temperature, and can lead to hypothermia, so be prepared. After heavy rain, mountain streams quickly become torrents and become very difficult to cross, avoid crossing water if at all possible, and especially during or immediately after, wet weather.

On a brighter note, don’t forget your sunscreen and a wide brimmed hat in hot sunny weather, and take extra drink too!

9. Respect the Mountain Environment

The hills and mountains are home to many plants and wild animals, as well as providing a livelihood for many farmers and landowners. We have a responsibility to protect this environment and to treat it with respect. Avoid harming livestock, wildlife, birds, plants and trees, and leave nothing behind when you leave.

When out hiking with a dog, keep it under control and on a lead when near farm animals and other people. Remember to act responsibly and ‘Leave No Trace’ of your visit: http://www.leavenotraceireland.org/seven-principles

 

10. Remember to Smile (It’s fun after all).

Hillwalking can seem really tough at first, wet cloudy days, long and sweaty climbs, aching limbs and heavy packs. However, the more you walk the easier it gets, and the rewards are many.  Stunning mountain views and wonderful days out you will remember for years to come, increased fitness coupled with a tremendous sense of achievement. All enjoyed in the company of friendly and likeminded people.

OK?  Let’s go.

DSC_1718 comp

Great views across the Wicklow mountains from above Glendalough.

Mountaintrails run a ‘Hillwalking for beginners’ course in April each year, this combines two guided training hikes and three informative training evenings in central Dublin, into one package. It is heavily discounted to encourage participation.

#jointheadventure

When you’re out and about in the hills and mountains at this time of year, you would be forgiven for thinking the brown, bare and seemingly lifeless hillsides offer little to see in the way of wildlife, but think again, you are surrounded by some of the most fascinating living organisms on Earth, the lichens.

 

Lichens are everywhere in the outdoor environment, they give colour and texture to much of the bare rock in the mountains, to tree bark in the woods, and to fence posts, graveyards and walls in the countryside.

 

They are ubiquitous, but largely ignored. So here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about lichens:

  1. Lichens occupy around 8% of the land surface of the Earth. They are often the first species to occupy bare rock, and act as a source of nitrogen for other species, such as birds. They are an essential component of many food chains.
  1. They are a composite, symbiotic organism, comprising a fungus, (a bit like bread mould), and an algae, (related to seaweed). Sometimes they are combined with a third organism, cyanobacteria. The fungi give protection and support, whilst the algae and cyanobacteria are photosynthesizers and produce food from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight.
  1. Ireland is very rich in lichens, having over 1,160 recorded species. There are around 20,000 lichen species on the Earth.
  1. Lichens fall into 4 basic types. Crustose, which form a crust on surfaces like rock and bare metal. Foliose, which have a distinctive upper and lower surface, and resemble foliage. Fruticose, which take the form of cup lichens (pixy cups), bearded (old man’s beard) and shrubby lichens (reindeer moss). And finally, Squamulose, which take scale or plate like form.

    Crustose lichen, possibly Ophioparma, clinging to bare granite rock.

  1. Lichens grow very, very slowly, less than 1mm a year, and a believed to be some of the longest living organisms on the planet, some have been found to be 4,500 years old.
  1. Lichen like forms of life have been identified in the fossil record as far back as 600 million years ago.
  1. Most lichens are very vulnerable to air pollution, as they absorb heavy metals from their environment. This makes them good indicators of pollution levels, and in this way they act as biomonitors.

    P1000137-1024x768

    A foliose lichen, with its leaf like structure.

  1. Lichens with known growth rates have been used to date geological events, such as the retreat of glaciers in the North American arctic.
  1. Lichens are able to shut down their metabolism during periods unfavourable to growth, such as extreme heat, cold and drought.
  1. Having adapted to life in marginal habitats, lichens have produced more than 500 biochemical compounds, some of which have been used as dyes, poisons and medicines by traditional native societies. Today they are used in the perfume industry.

Cladonia-coccifera-and-Cladonia-diversa-or-pyxidata-1024x768

 

Cladonia coccifera and Cladonia diversa, Pixy cup and Devil’s matchstick lichens. These are both fruiticose forms.

 

If you want to discover more about lichens, and specifically those found in Ireland, join one of our Wicklow guided hikes this winter at: http://mountaintrails.ie/guided-hikes-and-mountaineering-courses/

If you wish to read more, check out ‘ Lichens of Ireland’ – by Paul Whelan (Collins Press)

Or go to his website: http://www.lichens.ie/

A land where sea, sky and mountain meet, and the inspiration for CS Lewis’s ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the Mourne mountains in County Down, Northern Ireland, are the provinces only significant mountain range.  They sit on the east coast, 50km south of Belfast and around 100km north of Dublin, the Mournes are one of our most popular day hiking tours, starting from our base in Dublin.

DSC_1990

Descending the southern flank of Slieve Donard, and looking into the Annalong valley.

The Mournes are comprised of granite, and many of the tops are crowned with statuesque granite tors. They have steeply sloping flanks, vegetated with rough grasses, sedges, cottongrass and heather.  In places the slopes give way to imposing crags and cliffs, and here you will find the ravens and possibly see peregrine falcons. Look out also for buzzards and stonechat as well as the more common meadow pippit.

The range can be divided into the eastern High Mournes and the western Low Mournes, and in the far northeast corner can be found the highest peak and the highest point in Ulster, Slieve Donard, at 850 metres (2790ft).  Named after St. Domangard, a 5th C follower of St. Patrick, Donard is the anglicised version of his name, Slieve translating from the Irish as mountain.

DSC_1061

Slieve Donard and the Mourne wall.

Slieve Donard looks rather like an upturned pudding, with its’ eastern flank reaching down to the sea, and is topped by two large ancient burial cairns, and by the more modern tower, (one of three), of the Mourne Wall.

The views from the summit are spectacular, on a clear day the Isle of Man is clearly visible to the north east, and in clear air the mountains of the English Lake District and Snowdonia in Wales can be seen on the horizon.  If you can draw your eyes away from the coastal panorama and look inland, the whole of the Mourne mountains are laid out before you, valleys, crags and tors.

This compact range of mountains comprises 6 mountains over 700 metres, including the majestic looking and tor topped Slieve Binnian and Slieve Bernagh.

DSC_1601

Looking across the Mournes from Slieve Donard summit cairn.

The area is very popular with hikers, and is crossed by many paths, making navigation relatively simple. To assist further with navigation is a wall, the Mourne Wall, one of the ranges most distinctive and iconic features. Sometimes referred to as a miniature Great Wall of China, the wall is over 35 kilometres long, goes over no less than 15 tops, and encloses 36 square kilometres of land.

It was built between 1904 and 1922 as a dry stone wall, without mortar, and averages 1.5 metres high and 0.9 metres thick. Constructed by the Belfast Water Commissioners, it was designed to protect the water supply for city of Belfast from cattle and sheep, and at its’ heart lies the Silent Valley dam and reservoir, completed in 1933. A later reservoir, Ben Crom, was added in the 1950’s.DSC_1949

On the Brandy Pad.

Water from a second river enclosed by the Wall, the Annalong river, is diverted via a tunnel through the mountain of Slieve Binnian, to drain into the Silent Valley reservoir.

A clearly recognisable route through the mountains is the Brandy Pad and the Trassey Track, this was an old smugglers route from the 18th and 19th century, where ponies would bring contraband such as tobacco, wine and spirits from the coast inland.

Today this track sees only enthusiastic hikers, enjoying the mountain air and taking in the wonderful scenery.

 

The mountains of southwest Ireland hold many treats for the hiker looking for a great day out, and none more so than Purple Mountain, (An Sliabh Corca), a superb peak on the boundary of the Killarney National Park, in County Kerry.

The mountain has twin summits, joined by an impressively narrow and rocky ridge, studded with cairns and with precipitous drops either side.

High on its flanks lie steep scree slopes of broken rock, red sandstones shattered by millennia of frosty winters, which give the mountain its name.

 

The misty summit of Purple Mountain, take care when the cloud is low!

 

Purple Mountain has two satellite peaks, Tomies to the north and Shehy to the east, both are only a little lower in height, and attached to the parent mountain by broad cols.

 

Though not a giant, (it stands at 830 metres or 2723 ft), Purple Mountain offers stunning all round views.

To the north is the large and impressive Lough Leane with its scattered small islands, like so many green jewels set in the silver and blue waters.

To the south the mountain descends rapidly to the Black Valley, which lies almost at sea level and is surrounded by a phalanx of it’s own steep sided mountains.

To the west lies the Gap of Dunloe, a narrow glacial valley, with inaccessible ramparts of rock and cascading streams.

 

A narrow road runs into the 5 kilometre long Gap, which is a popular destination for tourists, who often take in the sights in horse drawn carriages known locally as ‘jaunting cars’.

Beyond the Gap rise the narrow ridges and stunning peaks of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, here are the highest mountains in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, Cather and Beenkeragh, and the views across to this wonderful multi-peaked range are magnificent.

 

A traverse of this fine mountain is best undertaken from north to south, this gives the easier and more gradual ascent, whilst giving the best views of the valleys and mountains to the south in descent.

 

Looking south from Purple Mountain towards the Black Valley, with the Gap of Dunloe below us.

 
If travelling by car, park at Kate Kearney’s Cottage, here there is a carpark, cafe and facilities.  Head back down the road and take the first right into a narrow lane, at the end of which is a gate into farm land. Follow the obvious track and some waymarking arrows to gain a low ridge that rises to the right.

 

Once on the ridge head uphill on a muddy footpath that becomes a narrow sheep path. Continue ahead onto a rounded hill immediately north of Tomies mountain, from here the path can be followed up onto Tomies, the summit of which has a large cairn and a circular rock built shelter to protect hikers from the elements. Head due south across a broad col and on to Purple Mountain itself.

(Be aware that in low cloud the way ahead is rocky and by no means clear and you will need a map and compass and the ability to use them).

 

Descending towards Lough Glas

 

The lofty summit ridge of Purple is a great place to have lunch on a fine day, take shelter next to one of its three large cairns.

Take time to enjoy the superb views as you descend Purple Mountain, following a narrow path that leads down to the secretive and tranquil setting of Lough Glas. Stop here to reflect on its natural beauty before continuing down the rocky and rugged path to reach the Head of the Gap.

This is the highest point reached on the Gap of Dunloe road and here you should head north down the road and back towards the start point.

 

As you walk, take time to look at the impressive rock walls and the tumbling water, and to enjoy the series of small loughs that occupy the valley. Soon it will widen out to rough pasture and a few scattered dwellings before you find yourself back at the busy cafes and car park.

 

Gap of Dunloe.

 

The hike will take approximately 6 hours; has 890 metres of ascent and covers a distance of approximately 16 kilometres.

As with any hiking, check the weather forecast before you go, and consider an alternative day if the weather is very windy and the clouds are low.

Suggested map: OSI Adventure Series – Macgillycuddy’s Reeks 1:25000

This is the first article in a series featuring some of our most popular Wicklow hiking itineraries.

The Wicklow mountains lie a short drive south of Dublin, on the east coast of Ireland. These rounded granite hills rise to 940 metres at Lugnaquilla mountain, but are more typically 600 -800 metres high.

The higher ground is primarily covered with heathland, sedges, mosses, bilberries and heather; while the lower slopes are forested with commercial plantations. A few ancient oak and birch woods remain and are now protected.

Glendalough translates as the glen of the two lakes, the Lower Lake is the smaller and nearby is the ancient monastic centre and the National Park visitor centre. The Upper Lake is much the larger of the two, a classic glacier lake around 1.5 km long, and it is here that we begin our hike.

The Glendalough valley is always a great place to start a hike, there is good parking, toilet facilities and plenty of food and drink outlets. Perhaps the one downside is that the waymarked paths get very crowded at holidays and weekends, this hike takes us away from the popular routes and onto a scenic ridge walk, with great views all around.

This hike is graded as hard in our itinerary, and has a total ascent of 700m (2300 ft), and a distance of 16km (10 miles).

 

Derrybawn summit

 

Crossing the valley floor on good paths we quickly begin our ascent on a forest track up through oak and birch woodland. The slope here is comfortable, and serves as a good warm up for the steeper ground to come.

Crossing forestry roads we begin the ascent of Derrybawn on a rugged footpath that weaves through pine trees before reaching the open hillside of thick heather and bilberry. The ground here steepens but is never difficult and after 350 metres of climbing we reach the summit of Derrybawn, a lovely small mountain that overlooks the Glendalough valley.

The views here are superb, and after a well deserved rest we head southwest along a heathery and undulating ridge path towards Mullacor, 657 metres high and our second summit of the day.

These slopes are home to a small herd of feral goats, descendants of animals that escaped domestication in neolithic times and now completely wild.

 

 

Our ridge now turns north west and broadens as we cross the junction with the National Trail, the Wicklow Way, and head up Mullacor. This is always a good spot for lunch, with wonderful views of the range’s highest mountain, Lugnaquilla, to our left and alternating valleys and broad mountain ridges to our right.

From here path becomes more indistinct and the whaleback ridge rises and falls as we approach Lugduff, only marginally lower than Mullacor, and our third and final summit.

 

The view to Lugnaquilla mountain

 

It’s now time to drop down into the valley, here there are no paths and we seek out a pleasant grassy rake to make our descent between boulder fields of steep and difficult ground, and best avoided.

As we reach the valley floor, sometimes boggy after rain, we have a good chance of getting close to the deer that live here, they are a cross between the native red deer and introduced Japanese Sika deer, a small to medium sized animal with red/brown markings and a distinct white patch on their rump.

Away from the waymarked trails and excessive human interference, these deer can be quite approachable and we may get the chance for some close up photography. Mountain hare also live on the slopes here, and we might be lucky and catch a sighting of these elusive creatures.

 

Upper and Lower Lakes, Glendalough

 

Reaching the valley floor our adventure continues with a crossing of the small river that flows out of the valley, before turning downstream over pathless open country.

We soon reach a waymarked trail and descend a rocky path via the ‘zig-zags’ to an old lead miners village, where we reach a well maintained track that follows the northern bank of the Upper Lake back to the car park.

Here there is the opportunity to get some refreshments before heading back to Dublin.

Mountaintrails is a guided hiking and mountain skills training business based in Ireland.

 

The mountains of Ireland and the British Isles have a diverse flora, and what can at first glance seem like a landscape dominated by rock, heather and grasses can reveal a wide variety of plant life.

Here are ten of our favourite plants to look out for when out in the mountains, (in no particular order). Some are quite common and easily found, others less so and require a bit of effort, but are then all the more rewarding when discovered. All of these lovely plants can be seen on our guided hiking tours in Ireland.

Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum

The iris like leaves of bog asphodel grow to around 10cm and can be easily overlooked as they blend in with the other plants in the boggy heaths and moors where it is found.

However, once the 20cm flower spikes emerge in June it is hard to miss. The flowers are 12-15 mm across, bright yellow and star-shaped, with orange/yellow woolly anthers.

 

It’s Latin name ossifragum, means bone breaker and it was thought to be the cause of brittle bones in cattle, though the lack of calcium in the soils in which it is found is a more likely cause.

The flowers were believed to have been used as a hair dye in Lancashire in the 1600’s. Maybe the first evidence of dyed blonde’s?

Find it in the west and north of Britain, and throughout much of Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Cabbage Saxifraga spathularis

St. Patrick’s Cabbage is a member of the so-called Lusitanian flora, a small group of plants that includes the Strawberry tree and which are native to Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

It forms a basal rosette of toothed, spoon shaped leaves from which emerges the single 30cm flower spike in May to August.

The five petalled, star shaped flowers are white/light pink and are borne on a number of panicles on each spike.

Find it growing amongst damp, acid rocks in the west of Ireland, where it is locally common. It is absent from Britain.

Spring Gentian Gentiana verna

This is one that you will have to go a search for. The spring gentian is widespread and common in southern and central Europe, but is rare in northern Europe, only being found in Teesdale in England and in the Burren in Ireland.

 

It grows on dry limestone grasslands where the piercing blue five petalled flowers emerge in May on the small 5cm tall plants.

It is said that picking the flowers and taking them indoors will bring great risk of being struck by lightning. You have been warned.

Common Cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium (left below) Hare’s-tail Cottongrass Eriophorum vaginatum (right below)

The white fluffy heads of these tussock forming, narrow leaved plants are produced on stalks that can stand up to 50 cm tall. These are fruiting heads and not the flowers, which are yellowish brown and borne on short spikes in April and May, and often overlooked.

They grow on wet, boggy ground with peaty acid soils and are widespread and common in west and northern Britain and throughout Ireland.

The major difference between the species is that common cottongrass has multiple heads, while hare’s-tail cotton grass has only a single fruiting head.

Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris

Common butterwort is easily recognisable by its’ basal rosette of yellow-green leaves, the plant is around 5 – 10cm across.

In May or June a slender stem emerges on which is produced a single violet like flower.

It is an insectivorous plant, the leaves exuding a sticky fluid that attracts insects. Once trapped, the plant then secretes enzymes that digest the prey.  In this way it supplements its’ diet as the bogs and wet flushes in which it lives contain very little nutrients.

Widespread and common in the west and north of Britain and in Ireland.

Fir Clubmoss Huperzia selago

The clubmosses are a curious group of plants, whose lineage dates back 400 million years when they grew up to 40 metres tall and helped dominate the forests of the time.

Today they are only a handful of species in Ireland and Britain, the most common of which is the fir clubmoss.

Growing between 5 and 10 cm tall these branching plants have dark green spiky leaves growing directly from the stem, giving it the appearance of a small conifer.

Exclusively found on higher ground and in the mountains, it is very common in Scotland and can be found in the mountains of England, Wales and Ireland too.

Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus

Known as the bilberry in England, blaeberry in Scotland and fraughan in Ireland, it is included here because we just love to eat them when out in the hills in late July and August.

A deciduous shrubby bush, it is easily recognised by its bright green young foliage in summer, and by its bare green stems in winter.

The pink, globular, pendant flowers are produced in May and early June, followed by the delicious black berries in late summer.

Widespread and common on acid heaths and open woodlands throughout Ireland and Britain.

Round-leaved Sundew  Drosera rotundifolia

Another carnivorous plant, round-leaved sundew is the most common of three species found in Britain and Ireland.

They are identified by a basal rosette of reddish/orange leaves that are covered in hairs, each one topped by a sweet sticky secretion .

These attract and then ensnare small insects, often curling inward to further trap the victim. Prey insects are subsequently digested by enzymes secreted from glands in the leaves.

These insects are the predominant source of nutrition for the plant, which grows in nutrient poor wet acid soils.

Between June and August the plants will produce a single stem from the centre of the rosette, on which bloom several small white flowers.

Found widely in Britain and Ireland, predominantly in wet bogs.

Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia

Bog rosemary is a small evergreen shrub, growing to around 40cm but more typically to 10 -20cm.

The leaves are long and narrow to approx. 3cm and are glossy green above and pale beneath. Superficially they resemble the leaves of the herb rosemary, from which it gets it’s name. It is a relative of the heaths and of bilberry.

The flowers are pale pink, urn shaped, and emerge in May and June.

It can be found in acid bogs, often associated with sphagnum moss and is present in mid Wales, northwest England, parts of Scotland and in central Ireland. There is a significant local population in the Liffey Head bog in the Wicklow mountains.

To discover these wonderful plants, and more, join one of our guided hikes in the Wicklow mountains.