Last week Marie and I travelled out of county for the first time since 2019! Yes, travel restrictions are lifting and we booked an AirBNB in Birr, Co. Offaly. You might well ask why Offaly? Surely that’s pretty boring compared with the many amazing sights in Ireland. Actually we had several reasons for the choice of location – it’s Marie’s home place, and while she has no close relatives there, we have graves to visit. And there’s lots of EV charging points! And it’s out of county.
We booked a self-contained apartment in a large, historic building on a the Ballincard farm close to Birr, which offered on farm walking. When we arrived and met the owners it became clear this was no ordinary farm, it is in fact a 120 acre private nature reserve. Dave and Irene, the owners explained they have been converting the farm to natural forestry practices for some two decades. Whilst not formally organic certified, it is clearly a naturalists haven. The mature plantations include huge old oaks, plus common and copper beech. The younger areas include birch, beech, oak, mountain ash and Scots pine. The trees are under a dense canopy which encourages straight growth, and thinning is carried out periodically to facilitate growth. But these plantations are never going to be clear-felled, hopefully they are forever. There are numerous wetland areas as well as channels providing natural irrigation. In the mature areas we are delighted to see large boxes and learn there are numerous owls, barn and long-eared, that make their home there. Dave explains a rich ecosystem of wildlife has developed over the years including many small mammals such as shrews, voles, field mice, red squirrels, frogs and many more that provide the owls with rich pickings. In addition there are badgers, we saw the droppings, plus foxes and recently a pine marten.
Until recently Dave has complemented the forestry activity with woodworking, producing a wide range of wood products for sale at markets around the country. However he is now focusing more on eco-tourism to complement his core forestry activity. This isn’t restricted to AirBNB, he also has numerous outdoor and indoor spaces suitable for larger groups. We were enthralled with the experience of being on the property and free to roam around and explore. As you can imagine the birdlife is a delight – both prolific and noisy.
One of the reasons Offaly would not be regarded as an obvious tourist destination is that the county is well known for its peat bogs, which until recently have been the location of a huge industrial effort to feed local power stations. For decades large areas of the county have been turned into brown moonscapes as vast quantities of peat were scraped up using purpose designed machines. The good news is, this has all come to an end, and there is now a big effort to reclaim the bogs and create carbon sinks, which coincidentally become vast parklands with trails and other visitor attractions. So while in Offaly we were keen to observe the results of these efforts and we visited one of the largest bogland areas – Lough Boora, for a day.
The park is huge and has been really beautifully restored. There are many trails of all lengths. We chose a 10Km trail that included passing by a Mesolithic site. The trails are well engineered, and take us into an amazing variety of landscapes. In addition to tree and other plantings, the park developers have commissioned many sculptures, exhibits, often using materials recovered from the bog, including bog oak and rocks.
The trail also went out to a large conservation area set aside for managing Grey Partridges. The Grey Partridge, one of Ireland’s most iconic native game birds was on the verge of extinction in the late 1990’s when its population fell to just twenty birds nationwide.
Nesting, brood rearing and over winter habitats are sown. Captive wild pairs are allowed to breed in captivity and then released into the wild with their chicks. Under management the grey partridge population has grown from approximately 50 birds in 2000 to over 900 today. We were walking for some three and a half hours and were captivated. Such a huge variety of flora and fauna replacing what would have been an almost endless brown mess.
Let’s put this in context. Lough Boora is vast – about 5000 acres. The park today encompasses only 20% of the 25,000 acres that were drained, stripped and mined for peat in Offaly. And that is just 20% of the area in Ireland once covered in peatlands, a wetland category that includes raised bogs, blanket bogs, and fens. And we might anticipate that much of this area will be restored to provide a significant contribution to Irelands CO2 emission mitigation efforts. Just in Offaly there are numerous boglands with trails in place, including Clara, Mongan, Raheenmore, and large parts of the Slieve Bloom Mountains Nature Reserve which are mountain blanket bog. Lots to explore.
So Offaly is a place to visit! We certainly will be back. We will definitely return to Ballincard and will be highly motivated to explore many of the restored boglands. In many ways we hope this won’t become a major tourist attraction because large numbers of tourists would destroy it. However, as I’ve said, this is one huge area with a lot of space. And eco-tourism will hopefully become very popular.