Start/finish: Gortlecka cross roads, Burren National Park, Killinaboy.
Description: A short, looped trail with white arrow marks. Nature trail also known as the white arrow route. Very rich in habitat diversity –
limestone pavement, mature woodland and orchid-rich grasslands. Stunning views of the National Park’s eccentrically-shaped hills.
Distance: 1.5 km. Time: 1 hour. Grade: Casual.
Map Discovery Series Map No 51. 1:50 000. Ordnance Survey of Ireland.
The Burren, a two-inch map of the Burren uplands of north-west Clare. Tim Robinson. Folding Landscapes. 1999.
The site of the proposed Burren National Park visitor centre is located to the right of the first 100 metres or so of the trail. The centre was the subject of a prolonged socio-environmental dispute and the unfinished building was eventually demolished. The Burren National Parks and Wildlife Service now operates a visitor centre in the nearby village of Corofin.
Gorse (Ulex europeaeus) is a curious relic of the dispute. It actually thrives on lime-free soils. However, Gortlecka is one of the very few areas of the Burren in which it grows. Its seeds “slipped in” with top soil for the centre construction.
You soon descend sharply into a hazel/ash woodland. You have now entered a doline which is a funnel-shaped hollow formed by the collapse of superficial cave systems. The ash is the climax vegetation here and you can see it towering above the hazel.
The richness and diversity of the primitive plant communities creates a magical atmosphere. The ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts here are part of a botanical group known as cryptograms as it was not clear in the past how they reproduced in the absence of flowers and seeds.
You emerge to walk along a stony path. Go through a gap in a dry stone wall. It is well worth pausing at the erratic on the right of the trail as it serves as an outstanding viewing point of the “trident” of dramatically buckled National Park hills to the north east. Knockanes is the most northerly hill, Slieve Rua is in the centre and Mullaghmore is the most southerly of the three.
The limestone rocks in this area contain plenty of fossils of colonial corals. The coral skeletons fell to the ocean floor and compacted with calcium carbonate deposits from the sea water, and thus the limestone was formed in the Carboniferous period, between 300 and 350 million years ago.
You emerge from the woodland and as you move along the trail there is limestone pavement to your right. A venture onto the pavement is well worth while as it will afford you wonderful views of the National Park and beyond. The icon of the National Park, the buckled Mullaghmore hill, is to the north-east and the Slieve Aughty range of hills is to the east. One of the Aughty peaks Maghera is home to a prominent national TV/radio transmitter. Moylussa (532m) is to the south-west of Maghera and is County Clare’s highest point. As you progress along the trail there are some spectacular solutions in the rock chemically carved out by rainwater. The generic term for these pits, hollows and channels is karren.
You enter hazel woodland again. You will soon see a ruin of a stone house on the right hand side of the trail. It is a pre-famine dwelling. Even though there was huge pressure on the Burren uplands prior to the 19th century Great Hunger, there was only about one person per square mile living in the hills. Conversely there were up to 400 people per square mile living in the Burren valleys. Most of the houses of the destitute in the valleys were made of perishable materials and have not survived. So the pre-famine stone building legacy of the Burren uplands which survives is significant culturally. This immediate area would have been rough pasture in the 19th century. However, the hazel has advanced latterly with the absence of human pressure.
Pass through a wooden gate. You have now entered a very important wildflower habitat internationally. The habitat is known as orchid-rich grasslands. Essentially you are walking through a hay meadow where cattle graze in winter only. Crucially the meadow has not been subject to reclamation or fertilization. A staggering quarter of all of Ireland’s remaining orchid-rich grasslands are in the small Burren region. The meadow is just a small part of the 30,000 hectares of the Burren designated Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) under European Union law. Most of the SAC’s are in the hills where the prime conservation areas are located.
Some of the flower species which bloom in the meadow in spring/summer are primrose, cowslip, false oxlip, yellow rattle, knapweed, devil’s bit scabious and a host of orchid species. If you happen to hike here in autumn/winter, you will most likely meet with a very uncommon breed of cattle, Belted Galloways. The “Belties” are a small, hardy Scottish breed – a black cow distinguished by its white “belt” of a midriff. Keep an eye out also for a couple of Kerry cows amongst the Galloways. The Kerry cow is one of only 3 native cattle breeds in Ireland.
The extravagant blooming of flowers in spring and summer is explained in part by the low-intensity winter grazing of the meadow by the Galloways and the “Kerries”. The winter grazing of the Burren uplands is known as High Nature Value farming.
On reaching the end of the meadow, you go through a stile which brings you back to the trailhead.