Sherkin Island Marine Station



Sherkin Island
& other Islands of Roaringwater Bay



Cape Clear

The Calves

The Carthys

Goat & Little Goat




The Skeams


Catalogues, Sandy
Quarantine & Jeremy



Mannin (& Mannin Beg)



Sherkin Island and the other Islands
of Roaringwater Bay

Every island has its own character and distinctive flora and vegetation. In this section we outline features of each island or group for the benefit of the visitor.

Map of Roaringwater Bay

Sherkin Island

Map of Sherkin Island

Sherkin has all the habitats present in the islands. It also has the largest flora. Obviously it received more attention from Marine Station botanists. It is more sheltered than the other islands and exhibits a wide range of topography and land use.

Sherkin, 10 minutes from Baltimore by ferry, is easily explored by the visitor. A tarmac road leads from the ferry landing-stage at Abbey Strand to the south western end of the island. Another road runs from the Abbey, past the Castle, the hotel and the Jolly Roger, to The Dock at the north-eastern corner of the island. Just to the west of Kinish Harbour the main east-west road forks and another good road runs to Cow and Silver Strands, with their fine sands and safe bathing. A network of footpaths and tracks enable the visitor to reach the western coast, Horseshoe Harbour and the lighthouse, but much of Slievemore, including the bay of Foardree, and the peninsula of Farranacoush are difficult of access.

The island rises to 112 m on its hilly backbone, Slievemore. The walk up - the summit is best approached from the south side - provides an opportunity to see interesting heathland plants and the high ground affords magnificent views across to Cape Clear and is a good place to watch for whales, porpoises and dolphins. In a valley on the north side lies Lough Ordree, fringed by an extensive reedswamp and marshes. These contain Bulrushes, the imposing Royal Fern and a rich sedge flora, which includes Bottle, Cyperus, Greater Pond and Greater Tussock sedges. Care should be taken for it is a deep and dangerous lake and drownings do occur.

Much of the island is rough grazing and heathland, with some woodland and scrub developing. The main grazing animals on the island today are cattle; there are no rabbits. The settlement at the eastern end has most of the island's facilities and the majority of the inhabitants live between the harbour and Trabawn. The population stands at about 100, which increases substantially during the summer months.

The coastal heathlands are best seen at the beautiful bays of Horseshoe Harbour and Trabawn. Horseshoe Harbour has several rare clovers and other plants, while Trabawn has a range of vegetation that includes very fine coastal heathland. The marsh at Trabawn has many wetland plants and the adjacent strand and low cliffs are species-rich. The low sward of the promontory on the northern side of the bay is a carpet of miniature flowers in summer. The pastures on the south-eastern side of the bay are bright with orchids and other grassland flowers.

The south side of Kinish Harbour has saltmarsh communities and the only substantial stand of woodland in the islands. Two climbing plants on walls are a feature: the vine-like Hop and the coastal subspecies of Hedge Bindweed, with pink-striped trumpet flowers. A relatively short walk along the northern branch of the road takes one to Cow and Silver Strands. Here the grassland on blown sand is a mass of orchids and other flowers in June. In late August, Autumn Lady's-tresses flowers freely by rock outcrops above the strand. Hop Trefoil grows on a wall near Cow Strand at its main locality in the islands. Another distinctive plant here is Sea Radish, abundant on the sandy roadside.

The stone walls and sheltered lanes of Sherkin have a varied flora, especially of ferns. The base of walls along the road to the Dock is a good place to see a range of ferns, especially Hay-scented Buckler-fern, Hard Fern and Soft Shield-fern. The settlement at the eastern end has many interesting plants associated with the long human occupation of the island. The Castle has a rich flora of weeds and ancient medicinal plants, including the stately Elecampane and Alexanders. By nearby cottages grow Hemlock and Wormwood. Many of the cottages have neat and attractive gardens, and the Fuchsia hedges, covered with thousands of pendulous red flowers, are magnificent all through the summer.

More on Sherkin Island

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Cape Clear Island

The largest and most hilly (up to 159 m) of the islands, Cape Clear has substantial areas of higher ground, much of it covered by heathland and farmland. The 120 or so inhabitants earn their living by farming, fishing and tourism. Cape Clear is Irish-speaking and a centre for the study of the Irish language and traditional culture. The island has a network of tarmac roads with a surprising amount of motor traffic.

Trees are few on this exposed island, but there are some shelter belts and many hedges. Pastures are grazed by cattle, and a few goats, and there is a large population of rabbits. There are extensive haymeadows on the island, but all appear to have been improved by reseeding and the application of fertilizers.

Wetlands are concentrated at the western end. As well as Lough Errul, the major water body in the islands, there are West Bog, Central Bog (drained in the 1960s) and East Bog. East Bog is the largest and is dominated by reed swamp. Smaller communities of damp- or wet-loving plants, including luxuriant ferns, are found along small streams and runnels. Drystone walls provide another fern habitat, notably for the lime- and frost-intolerant Lanceolate Spleenwort and Hay-scented Buckler-fern.

Lough Errul has a relatively poor flora apart from large populations of two plants. The southern, and to a lesser extent the eastern, margin is coloured pink in late summer by a dense stand of Amphibious Bistort. Much of the stony bottom of the lake is covered by a dense mat of Shoreweed, only seen when the water level is lower as in the dry summer of 1995. The waysides and Bracken-covered banks between Lough Errul and South Harbour have a number of interesting plants, including Marsh Mallow and Red Campion - Cape Clear is the only island in the Bay where the latter occurs.

Cape Clear is mostly bounded with steep cliffs and precipitous rocks, so sand and shingle strands are poorly developed, as is saltmarsh. The steep slopes above South Harbour have some of the best dry coastal heathland in the islands; Hairy Bird's-foot Trefoil grows here in the site where it was first discovered in Ireland by J. Emmet O'Donovan and others in 1953.

Hardly any tillage remains. Crops of Turnip Rape at the western end of the island are rich in weeds. One field in 1992 had both a golden carpet of Corn Marigold and a few plants of the very rare Henbit Dead-nettle. However, in 1993-95 it was under grass. Records held at the Bird Observatory show that Lesser Snapdragon has come up repeatedly over 30 years in fields near South Harbour. Note that access can be difficult and permission should always be sought from landowners.

Recent building above South Harbour has created open disturbed habitats suitable for weeds. Sowing of commercial wildflower seed in 1995 has confused the picture, but several arable weeds have come up in this area in recent years, presumably from buried seed. North Harbour is a good place to look for weeds and one rare plant at least, Bird's-foot Clover, survives amongst the cobbles of the harbour moles. Musk Storksbill is often frequent on waysides near the Bird Observatory, and can be found on walls right across to South Harbour. With it is the diminutive Sea Storksbill, a speciality of the Cape Clear flora. The top of the wall outside the Youth Hostel at South Harbour is a good place to see these two storksbills!

More on Cape Clear

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The Calf Islands

West, Middle and East Calf form a chain in the very centre of Roaringwater Bay. From higher ground on Cape Clear on a sunny day they are a striking sight, dark patches in a blue sea and remarkably low-lying. West Calf rises to 22 m, Middle Calf to just 11 m and East Calf to 19 m. They are consequently exposed and treeless. Nevertheless, all were settled and the last inhabitants left only in the 1940s. Today, cattle are still grazed amongst the ruins of the former farms. Hares occur on all three islands.

West Calf is less grazed and is dominated by rank grassland. West and Middle Calf have small areas of blown sand and Middle and East Calf have shingle strands. Middle Calf has marshy ground and a series of broad shingle strands at the western end. The strands have a classic seaside flora, including Yellow-horned Poppy, Sea Spurge, Sea Kale and Sea-holly. East Calf has more habitat diversity, with heathland on higher ground (including a famous locality for Spotted Rockrose), grassland over blown sand and a small lough surrounded by marshy ground rich in plants. The lough has yielded numerous records of aquatic plants, including pondweeds and water-crowfoots.

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The Carthy Islands

The Carthys are four low, rocky islands, very exposed and home to large numbers of sea-birds, mainly gulls. These damage the vegetation by trampling and over-enrichment by their droppings. North Island has in the past been grazed by sheep. There is some shingle and coastal grassland, but the flora is mostly plants of the salt-spray zone and common weeds, including stands of Hogweed and thistles. The only plant of note is Sea Radish, which is abundant.

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Goat & Little Goat Islands

Goat, surrounded by rugged cliffs, rises steeply to 32 m. The vegetation is heathland dominated by rank grasses and some gorse. The few plants recorded grow mostly on rock outcrops. There are traces of a former farm, around which the soil is deeper and presumably improved.

Little Goat is an adjacent sea-stack with very few flowering plants recorded. Both Goat and Little Goat are difficult to reach and to explore, and of more interest for their birds than their plants!

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Long Island

This is the largest island after Cape Clear and Sherkin. However, it is low-lying, with a maximum elevation of 29 m. There are a few permanent inhabitants, most of whom live on the northern side of the central part of the island. A good track runs for much of the length of the island, but fades into a path at the eastern end. The island is almost treeless. Heathland dominates, with some areas of pasture. There is boggy ground, with peaty pools that support a rich aquatic flora. Sheep and cattle graze enclosed areas of heathland at the eastern end of the island.

Stone walls, especially along tracks, are rich in plants and in one place at least, the rare fern, Lanceolate Spleenwort. A wall at the settlement towards the western end has a thriving population of the rare geranium Little Robin, known elsewhere in Ireland only from Cork City. Several of the gardens on Long have interesting collections of plants, some of which have escaped. These include medicinal plants and herbs, such as mints, Horse-radish and Comfrey.

The shingle and coastal grassland towards the western end has a rich flora including Little Robin, Yellow Horned-poppy and various uncommon weeds.

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Castle Island

Castle, rising to 36 m, is dominated by gorse scrub and bracken, with occasional willows and improved pastures grazed by sheep. There are ruined settlements at the eastern end and to the west of the tower (ruins of an O'Mahony castle). Wayside weeds, such as Good King Henry, Small Nettle and Musk Storksbill are relics of former human occupation and disturbance. A shingle strand south of the castle has a number of seaside plants, including a low-growing variant of Herb Robert.

The cliffs towards the eastern end are dissected by ivy-covered gullies and have a lush vegetation of tall plants, such as Royal Fern and Irish Spurge. Heathland occurs on the rising ground at the western end of the island.

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Horse Island

Horse is a low-lying island with a maximum elevation of 37 m. A stony track leads from the old village at the eastern end to the landing stage at the north-western corner. Much of the island is overgrown by scrub and bracken (the home, it should be noted, of numerous ticks), but the track is a convenient way to reach the most interesting habitats.

The soil of much of the island is clayey, damp and frequently water-logged. Willows grow well in the damp soil and are a feature of Horse, with several species and hybrids apparently introduced. Recently other trees have been planted, including Aspen and Birch, together with garden plants such as Tree Mallow and Pampas Grass. Sheep graze parts of the island, but goats were removed in 1994.

There are also some fine coastal grasslands dominated by blown sand at the western end. At the eastern end, rock outcrops alternate with some of the most interesting grasslands in the islands. Copper and small amounts of other minerals used to be mined in this area and the overgrown spoil heaps and adjacent grassland carry a special flora that includes at least two colonies of Common Broomrape, and Deptford Pink at its only known Irish station. Nearby in 1995 grew the largest group of Great Mullein to be seen in the islands. These imposing plants, up to 2 m tall, dominated an old trackway.

A large house at the western end of Horse is lived in from time to time and one of the old dwellings of the eastern settlement has been refurbished. At least three more houses are being erected at the present time, presumably as holiday cottages. This has not apparently damaged the most important habitats and, indeed, has allowed dormant weed seed to germinate, including that of some of the rarer weeds like Purple Ramping-fumitory and Sharp-leaved Fluellen.

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The Skeams

These two islands are very different in character. Skeam West is for the most part a west-east valley flanked by rocky, heathy ground. The valley has lush grassland. At the western end there is a shingle beach. The small settlement at the eastern end has been restored as a holiday property but remains deserted. Knotted Hedge-parsley grows here, together with other weeds and plants of disturbed ground. The church by the settlement is said to date from the 9th Century. Sheep are grazed from time to time on this treeless island.

Skeam East has a more varied topography including an impressive rock arch on the western coast. Heathland dominates the higher, rocky ground and pasture, which is grazed by goats and cattle, covers the lower, damper, sometimes marshy ground. A few planted conifers persist, but the island is mostly treeless. The ruins of a small settlement by the strand at the eastern end have an interesting weed flora. The strand is a traditional landing place for livestock and nearby grow Small Nettle, Wormwood and other weeds of local distribution in the islands. Pellitory-of-the-Wall, growing on the ruins, is a probably relic of former medicinal use by the inhabitants.

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Heir Island

Apart from Sherkin and Cape Clear, Heir has the largest number of flowering plants and ferns in the islands. The island is mostly low-lying, with the highest ground (up to 92 m) at the western end. The island has around 30 inhabitants. A road runs from the East Pier almost the length of the island, becoming a track and eventually a path. Houses are scattered, mostly at the eastern end and towards the west near the large inlet - which is spanned by a sturdy causeway.

Most of the island is covered by species-poor pastures that are grazed by cattle. The most interesting and significant habitat is heathland, which dominates the western end of Heir. The most westerly part is a coastal heath surrounded by cliffs and almost cut off from the rest of the island by a deep inlet. Heathy ridges, following the SW-NE direction of the rock strata, extend eastwards from here.

In the central part of the island, south of the old school, is an extensive marsh, dominated by a reed bed. The damp ground near the sea has a conspicuous stand of Parsley Water Dropwort in summer. The main inlet towards the western end has some saltmarsh on its margins and there is an interesting sandy saltmarsh in the south-eastern corner of the island. Nearby strands have fine growths of Sea Radish, Wormwood and the oraches that are so characteristic of strand vegetation.

The deserted school house on Heir is a notable site for ferns. Several occur in abundance on the walls of the old playground; of special interest is Rusty-back Fern at its main station in Roaringwater Bay, and Wall Spleenwort at its only station in the islands. Both benefit from the lime-rich mortar of the wall.

A few gardens, potato patches and areas of disturbed ground have arable weeds. These include fine stands of fumitories, Corn Spurrey, Field Pansy, Field Woundwort, Black Bindweed, Pale Persicaria and, apparently a more recent arrival, Ivy-leaved Speedwell. Two-rowed Barley in one place is a relic of former cultivation.

The choicest plant on Heir is Spotted Rockrose, which flourishes in at least two heathy places. Should you find this delicate plant, leave it for others to enjoy. It has survived here probably since the glaciers retreated and it would be sad for us to lose it now. It is very inconspicuous and the flowers are mostly fallen by the time summer visitors arrive.

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Catalogues, Sandy, Quarantine and Jeremy Islands

This group of small islands lies between Sherkin and Spanish. They have remarkably rich and varied floras, reflecting both a range of habitats and episodes of human disturbance. Each is different and distinctive: the Catalogues (a group of five small islands) and Sandy have heathy grassland, Quarantine has a small saltmarsh on the eastern side, Jeremy is rocky. Even the smaller of the islands have fragments of the plant communities of the larger islands and mainland - for example, Angelica on Quarantine, Purple Moor-grass on Jeremy and numerous sedges on Sandy.

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Spanish Island

Spanish lies at the eastern end of the Bay, near the mainland, rising to 32 m. The vegetation of Spanish is similar to that of the adjacent mainland. The island has extensive scrub, dominated by Gorse and Blackthorn, and hedges, with several small trees: Ash, Hazel, Holly, Oak and Sycamore. The east side, especially around the ruined settlement is very overgrown. Woodland plants such as Barren Strawberry, Enchanter's-nightshade, Wood-sorrel, Wood Avens and Yellow Pimpernel flourish in the shade of the scrub and Bracken.

Heathland occupies the higher ground, grading into areas of blanket bog. There is a mosaic of communities: Purple Moor-grass dominates the drier areas whereas wetter ground is covered with hummocks of bog-moss. On the coasts, which are muddy on the eastern side, there are some small saltmarshes.

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Inishleigh Island

Inishleigh is dominated by overgrazed pasture, with heath and coastal grassland at the western end. At the northern end of the island there is saltmarsh and a shingle strand. The island is grazed by cattle which cross over from the mainland at low tide.

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Mannin (and Mannin Beg)

Mannin, grazed by sheep, is mostly low-lying, and rises to just 20 m. Heathland covers most of the southern part of the island, with some coastal grassland and marshy ground. The northern half is overgrown with Bracken, but a few remnant trees remain near the ruins of a former settlement. There are a few small areas of saltmarsh, particularly on Mannin Beg.

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(As described by John Akeroyd in "The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork")

© Sherkin Island Marine Station 2021