Bird's eye view: The inlet, saltmarsh and sand spit with the estuary beyond
Querrin is a small village on the County Clare side of the Shannon Estuary just in viewing distance of the market town of Kilrush. Today the main village sits along the road that runs from Carrigaholt to Blackweir Bridge and features mainly newly built houses that overlook the Shannon from an elevated position. The origins of Querrin however lie down at sea level. Here a narrow road lined by cottages leads from Querrin Pier right along the shoreline to an old graveyard known as Templemeeagh, the Church of Meade (this graveyard has a very intriguing history in its own right). It is unknown when the first people settled here but considering the topography of the area it is likely that there has been a community living on the Querrin shore for a considerable time.
To the south Querrin is protected by a rocky headland, known as Corlis Point. Extending from this headland is narrow sand spit that runs parallel to the main shore for about 1.5 kilometres and ends at Querrin Point where a vast sandbank is being exposed at spring tides. It is this sand spit that makes the area so alluring. The spit and the mainland form a u-shaped inlet with only a narrow, east-facing opening. The result is a sheltered haven that provides fresh water, food and easy connection to other villages along the estuary as well as a variety of habitats for wildlife.
Curlew & Lugworm
Today the inner part of the bay is a squelchy mudflat which gets exposed twice daily by the retreating tide and is home for worms, bivalves and other invertebrates. The main channel that exits the bay between the pier and the eastern end of the sand spit runs all the way through the bay and connects with an unnamed river that enters the bay from the west. Even at the lowest spring tide this channel retains some water. A number of tree-like side channels emerge from the main water course, spreading and dividing into narrower and narrower arteries before they reach the upper shore. Most of this upper shore has been colonised by cord grass and turned into a typical saltmarsh landscape. Where the cordgrass hasn’t invaded seaweeds cover the upper shore which is strewn with rocks and pebbles. The sand spit itself is a mixture of coastal grassland and a dune landscape dominated by marram grass. The southern side of the sand spit which is facing the open estuary is part sandy beach, part rocky shoreline.
The arteries of the saltmarsh
Less than a century ago however the place looked very different. Before cord grass took over, the bay was a proper sandbank without any major vegetation, similar to the sandy beaches on the southern side of the sand spit today. In the early decades of the 20th century, when the population was much larger than it is today, the bay was used for horse racing and even football matches. The pools that were left behind at low tide were popular for fishing; fluke, turbot and plaice often got stranded in the pools and became a relatively easy catch. Razor clams and other shellfish were also a common and regular food source. On the sand spit itself rabbits and mushrooms provided some variety and a weir on the Shannon side was used to catch salmon (the remains of another salmon weir are still standing further west at Rinevella Bay).
After cord grass was introduced in 1955 to stabilize the shore as it was done all around Ireland the place began to change. Back then the invasive nature of cord grass wasn’t known and over the course of only a few decades the plant colonized most parts of the inlet turning it into the saltmarsh with the adjoining mudflat we see today.
While cord grass is now seen as an invasive species, it had some positive effects on Querrin and its wildlife. When the tide is in the thick carpet of the grass provides shelter for the wading birds that visit at low tide in search for food. The snipe in particular enjoys the protection the cord grass jungle provides. Grey heron and little egret are also a regular sight sitting at the edge of the saltmarsh, resting and waiting for the water levels to drop.
In summer the upper reaches of the saltmarsh also host a number of wildflowers that only could take hold because of the stabilising effect the cord grass had on the sandy ground. Sea aster and sea lavender are the most striking with their pink flowers standing out from the green sea of the cord grass. Over on the sand spit bird’s foot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, burnet rose, bloody crane’s bill and other flowering plants thrive in the dunes and on the grassland. Meadow pipit, skylark and turnstone are known to nest here and shelducks use the old rabbit burrows to raise their offspring. On the other side of the inlet the reed bunting can be seen on occasion in the few stands of common reed that line the marshy land beside the road. Jackdaws and rooks are common and often join the waders, oystercatcher, redshank, ringed plover and dunlin to name but a few, foraging for food on the mudflat.
Lapwing with an Oystercatcher in the background
When summer comes to an end the atmosphere changes. The sun is now rising ever more to the south and puts a spot light on the sand spit and the small inlet throughout the day. The cord grass meadows have turned from green to brown and the winter visitors have arrived. Every year lapwing, curlew, sanderling, great northern diver, teal and others make the Shannon Estuary their home for the winter. The bird everybody is waiting for however is the brent goose. This bird breeds in arctic Canada and every year makes the long journey to Ireland to spend the winter in sheltered estuaries and bays all around Ireland’s coast. The first groups usually arrive around October and every year it feels like welcoming back an old friend after a long absence. The birds spend their time in the bays of the estuary, mainly Rinevella and Poulnasherry. In Querrin small groups of geese divide their time between resting on the sand spit or feeding either on the rocky parts of the mudflat or along the waterline on the southern side of the sand spit. At times the rather shy birds even gather right beside the slipway apparently unimpressed by onlookers.
Winter dawn at Querrin
A winter morning at Querrin Pier is a magical affair. From late November the sun rises in the south and when conditions are right the sky over the estuary glows in warm red and orange tones before the first light dances over the reflective mudflat of the inlet, making it glow in golden tones. All along the morning concert of the birds offers the acoustic backdrop unique to river estuaries. Once light levels are up the creators of the concert become visible. The mudflat is alive with birds: Waders, ducks, geese, herons, crows and gulls are all busy looking for breakfast. Some are probing the mud with their long beaks, others are standing motionless in the main channel waiting for an inobservant fish. One particular curlew however has figured out that there is also food to be found on the grassy parts of the pier and this individual can often be encountered pulling worms out of the ground or just resting at the edge of the quay.
The "Pier Curlew"
On first view Querrin isn’t much more than a bit of mud, sand and saltmarsh but the longer and the closer you look the more beauty you will discover. To me at least it is a very special place.
Carsten Krieger, December 2020
With special thanks to Robert Brown who provided much of the information for this piece.