From Sheep’s Head to slugs

The Irish Times

You’ll come across plenty of flocks, and perhaps even a prized Kerry mollusc, on a loop around this remote Co Cork peninsula, writes THOMAS BREATHNACH

SHEEP’S HEAD, the west Cork peninsula whose tip is an hour’s drive from the nearest town of Bantry, perhaps owes its unrivalled charm to its remoteness.

Sheep’s Head Way is an 88km trail along the peninsula’s narrow ridge that amounts to a four-day trek or a series of shorter walks, encompassing bogs, farmland, cliffs and hills. Today we’re taking the short loop walk – designated by red signs, versus blue for the long loop – at the tip of the peninsula. Heading south of the elevated car park, the walk begins on an undulating terrain of rocky sandstone and grassy moorland. The views are immediate in their impact. To the east lie Dunmanus Bay and Mizen Peninsula, to the west Bantry Bay and Beara.

True to the peninsula’s name, sheep are in abundance here: a recently sheared mountain ram rests on a rock face, soaking in, thanks to his peripheral vision, the views of the Atlantic Ocean and his harem of ewes at the same time. We descend briskly from our first viewing point, the impact on our knees nicely insulated by the tufty grass. To our right lies Lough Akeen, a lowly mountain mere sheltered by rugged hills. Its sky-blue waters and the reeds that border it lie motionless this calm day.

We next meet a small footbridge that crosses a stream of the freshest of water that feeds into the lough. At this point we are called to climb a number of large rocks that bring us to a small plateau at the edge of the peninsula. Here there’s a view down to Sheep’s Head lighthouse, which itself sits precariously off an escarpment high above the ocean.

Take the steps down and then up; the seven-metre structure offers views over to its sister lighthouse, Ardnakinna, on Bere Island, and Hungry Hill beyond. Leaving the lighthouse, we venture up the north face of the peninsula. At this point the route crosses some spectacular cliffs – they are unprotected, so take care.

This part of the walk showcases some magnificent flowers, many of which, because of the Gulf Stream climate, are unique to this area. Amid the quartz stone you can spot rock roses, bell heather and rare varieties such as dog violet. The cliffs here are less than ideal for nesting, so seabirds are not in abundance, though you can spot herring gulls and choughs. Wildlife enthusiasts might be more interested to know that the protected Kerry slug can be found in these parts. Tread carefully.

Even though the sun was beaming down the weekend we visited, some of this part of the trail remains slippery, and you’ll have to cross areas of marshy peat bog as you continue northwards. The terrain does not, however, seem to offer too much of an obstacle to a couple of Swiss pensioners who whizz past, much to our embarrassment. They’re clearly on a schedule. We’re not.

Our trail now brings us through a small valley of ferns, and we slowly veer inland. Trekking up hill and down dale, we walk along a series of stone walls that mark out small pastures. A deserted stone cottage, still intact bar the roof, throws light on a family that lived off this land decades, if not centuries, ago. A final climb up a hillside leads back to the car park and the panorama of the spectacular southwest.

Start and finish Turning Point car park.

How to get there From the village of Durrus, take School Road, then follow signs heading southwest down the peninsula until the road ends.

Distance Four kilometres.

Time Two to three hours.

Map Ordnance Survey Ireland Discovery Series 88.

Suitability Easy to moderate.

Refreshments Coffee shop at Sheep’s Head. Otherwise, stock up in Durrus or Bantry.