The winds reach gale force as we near the mountain pass. I lean hard into my hiking pole, fearing it may buckle under the force of the wind at my back. My hooded jacket drawcords slap violently at my cheeks. I turn and look down the steep boulder field and see my wife, Debra, 20 yards below me. I press on, navigating through the running water cascading over rocks and oozing out of peaty soil. Minutes later, I’m over the pass and celebrating the absence of wind. “Hipster” sheep adorned in fluorescent green, blazed orange and pastel blue patches¹ graze contently in the soggy alpine meadow. I scan the steep descent down into the next valley. Ancient stone walls form an artistic mosaic of chevrons running down the mountain side and terminating in a maze of ovals and rectangles in the valley bottom. The ewes are baaing, Debra must be close.
Debra and I are hiking the Kerry Way, one of Ireland’s premier walking holidays. It’s a long-distance trek (130+ miles) that loops around the Iveragh Peninsula offering a unique experience in some of Ireland’s most dramatic and isolated countryside. The route crosses mountains, shoulders along stunning, sometimes vertiginous views of the ocean, and passes through many small communities.
Our guide to this foreign land is trip notes, describing the route, and provided by a local. Here’s a sample: “Cross over a style, keep left of the ruins, cross over another style, go right and follow the narrow tarmac for 1 km, cross over three more styles, go through a gate, mind the bull…”
Between the trip notes, trail signage, trusted compass and topographical maps, we manage with few problems. Oddly enough, the hardest areas to navigate were the tourist communities. After hiking all day in remote areas with no or few other walkers, we found the compass invaluable in navigating through the busy streets and visibility-restricting buildings.
One of the natural highlights of our route was Killarney National Park. While the lakes, rock formations, waterfalls and vistas of the park were stunning, it was the majestic Irish oak (sessile oak) we found most attractive. It reminded me of an open-oak woodland at home, dominated by white oak. The Irish oak, historically prized for its strong and aesthetic lumber, is now largely restricted to the Killarney region. A keystone species that supports hundreds of other species, the Irish oak, and its entire ecosystem, is under siege.
The invasive species Rhododendron ponticum has invaded these rare oak woodlands turning them into ecological “ghost lands.” The large ancient oaks remain, but the densely packed rhododendrons in the understory shade out the native plants, including young oak trees, and all the native animal species that depend on them. The National Parks and Wildlife Service, along with volunteers, are working to control the rhododendron, but many fear the effort is too limited to save the oak woodlands.
In areas where the rhododendron have not fully invaded, red deer, along with feral sheep and goats gobble up native plants and young oaks, preventing any flower or seed production. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has erected browser/grazer exclusion fences in limited areas, but the efficacy of this method is highly dependent on how well the barrier is maintained.
Garlic mustard, one of our worst herbaceous invasive species in the States, is native to Ireland and well behaved. We found it only occasionally in disturbed areas along the trail. The same was not true for Japanese hedge parsley, another invasive species we share. We found dense populations along popular tourist trails in the park.
Japanese knotweed, another nasty invasive species, was also frequent along roadways, ditches and waterways. We observed dozens of signs stating “Japanese knotweed, do not mow” along our journey. Mowing makes it harder for the herbicide crews to find it.
In a few short strides I make it back to Debra. She’s bent over an outstretched leg with both hands grasping a planted hiking pole. Her other leg is buried in the ground up to her lower calf. She’s pulling against the hiking pole and jerking her body wildly trying to free her stuck foot. Several ewes are staring at her intensely, jaws grinding back and forth as they chew their cud.
“Bloody hell,” I say. For a brief moment, I’m lost in the comedy of the scene. My wife is in death throes with Ireland’s tiniest bog while providing a spectator sport for the local residents. In one loud suction-pop sound, she breaks free, falling to the ground. Our shared laughter drowns out both the wind overhead and the baaing ewes.
And so it went. One step at a time, we traveled the Irish countryside. Along gorse-lined² trails, over stone walls, around stone ruins and past stone ringforts. Countless stones each placed by countless people before us. We were walking through a history book, the stones representing the words written on the pages of the landscape. There were moments when I felt I could read the story; a ringfort’s tall walls shouting a conflict of sword, spear and shield or a stone wall whispering years of grueling labor by a shepherd family.
Celebrating the completion of our trip with a pint of gat (Guinness) and a shot of Yellow Spot whiskey, my mind is flooded with all that I have learned about the rich and complicated history of this ancient land. It’s a story about civilizations, cultures, immigrants and emigrants: how they shaped the land and the land shaped them. It’s a story hinted to us by the forests, moorlands, mountain passes, lakes, rivers, bluffs, ocean, beaches, and waterfalls; then ultimately revealed by the people we met along the way.
My thoughts drift back to the Irish oak. The Irish oak woodland has survived the axe through the rise and fall of many empires. Greatly whittled away yes, but remnants still standing today. Will the Irish people find a way to save this gem of natural heritage, or will it quietly slip away, recorded in the history books as yet another tragic Irish ending?
¹Farmers paint their sheep for identification and as an indication that ewes have mated.
²A small native thorny shrub with yellow flowers.