Semi-natural grassland habitats that are not highly modified or improved for agriculture are becoming increasingly rare in the modern Irish landscape. They are characterised by a diversity of grass and sedge species and rushes in wet areas with a high proportion of broad-leaved herbs (wildflowers). Calcareous grasslands are found especially around Lough Corrib, Lough Mask and Lough Carra, where limestone gives the soil a high pH. They are particularly rich in species and present a beautiful flowering display during the summer. Wet grasslands occur all over the area, especially in Connemara. Many road verges and graveyards also have flower-rich grassy habitats akin to hay meadows. These grasses and wildflowers attract many insect species which in turn attract birds for feeding.
Hedgerows are linear habitats of trees, shrubs and ground flora associated with field boundaries and roadsides, that can be relict woodland fragments. Hedgerows are very important habitats for wildlife. They support several birds, mammals, such as badgers, and invertebrates and a good diversity of plant species. Hedges function as very important ecological corridors to facilitate movement of plants and animals through the landscape where natural habitats have been lost.
Limestone pavement is an internationally important habitat that is very rare in Europe and is found almost exclusively in Ireland in counties Galway, Clare and Mayo. It consists of exposed areas of limestone bedrock that has been fissured, broken or weathered to produce characteristic ‘clint and gryke’ features. Pockets of thin soil around the rocks support ferns, flowers and low shrubs with a generally very high diversity of plant species including a range of orchids. It is found around the shores of Lough Corrib, Lough Mask and, most notably in terms of biodiversity, around Lough Carra.
Peatlands are wetlands where the substrate is predominantly peat including bogs which are fed by rain and are highly acidic habitats. In Joyce Country, upland blanket bog is found in mountainous regions and lowland/Atlantic blanket bog is found in the Connemara lowlands and coastal areas. A number of other wetland habitats such as fens and reed swamps occur on the shores of the great lakes. Blanket bog covers over 35% of the area of our geopark project and has an average depth of peat of 1 metre to 2 metres but can be much deeper in pockets having deposited over the past 5000 years or more. The vegetation is pre›dominantly deer grass, cotton grasses, ling, cross-leaved heath and bilberry with a cover of sphagnum mosses, particularly on undisturbed areas. Black bog-rush grows in abundance especially on the lowland blanket bogs. Dry and montane heath habitat is found on the higher mountains and supports a distinctive range of plants including clubmosses and other specialised montane species. The Leam West Bog, a state-owned Nature Reserve to the west of Oughterard, is rich with diverse habitats and flora.
A variety of freshwater habitats are found throughout including lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, springs and flushes. Freshwater habitats are extremely important for the communities of plants and animals they support. Most of our freshwater habitats are of relatively good quality and unpolluted which is important for many rare and important species such as pollan, arctic char, Atlantic salmon, sea lamprey, brook lamprey, white-clawed crayfish, freshwater pearl mussel and otter all of which require very high water quality. Most of the lakes in our geopark project area also contain brown trout and pike.
Ireland’s only fjord is a glacial valley flooded by the sea that extends from the mouth of the Erriff river to the east of Leenane for about 15 km to the west. With an average depth of 45 m, its shallow and sheltered coastal waters are home to a varied coastal community that includes seabirds and otters but also sea mammals like dolphins and seals. Even basking sharks are sometimes sighted at the mouth of the bay. A large fishing fleet was present during the Herring boom at the turn of the 20th century, however it did not recover from its stock collapse 50 years ago. Today, a large shellfish farm occupies the centre of the fjord and supplies the area with fresh mussels, oysters, surf clams and razor clams.
Semi-natural woodland is dominated by native, broadleaf trees (most commonly oak or ash) or, rarely, by one of our few native conifers, yew. It includes scrub woodland dominated by hazel or other scrub; riparian and wet woodland close to waterways and in wetland areas, characterised typically by willows and alder and some demesne woodlands. Derryclare, part of which is a state-owned nature reserve, and the Clonbur/Cong Isthmus, most of which is owned and managed by Coillte, are important native woodland sites. The Clonbur woods in particular constituted the largest demonstration site for the “Woodland restoration in Ireland” project, an awarded EU-LIFE Nature 4-year project (2006 to 2009) co-funded by Coillte that saw almost 300ha undergo restoration work. Native woodland is a relatively uncommon habitat in Ireland, having been cleared by millenia of human activity. It is a very important habitat for wildlife as it supports many bird species, mammals, such as the pine marten and red squirrel, invertebrates and a wide diversity of plant species. The Tourmakeady Millennium Wood owned by Coillte has seen the replacement of 35 hectares of conifer forest by a native woodland planted in 1999 and offers an interesting example of the tree species and the fauna dwelling in the woods. The Hill of Doon on the shores of Lough Corrib to the North West of Oughterard offers a fine example of a sessile oak woodland with holly and occasional juniper, yew and ash. These woodlands support a very rich and lush flora of mosses and liverworts, amongst the best in Europe.
Buildings and bridges
Man-made built structures in the urban or rural environment (e.g. houses, farm buildings, bridges, walls, ruins and graveyards) can provide important habitats for a host of plants and animal communities. Houses and other buildings are mostly important as nesting or roosting sites for birds or bats. Ten species of bat are found in Ireland and all are protected. Many of them roost in attics of houses or other buildings during the summer months. Barn owls nest in farm buildings and old abandoned castles or houses. A range of mosses, lichens and other plants also grow on built surfaces.
Quite a large area of our geopark project is currently under some form of legal protection regarding its natural habitats and some of the animal and plant species that live there. There are 14 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), two of which are Lough Corrib and the Lough Mask/Lough Carra complex, and 4 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which are the three great lakes and a large part of the Connemara Bog and focus on the bird species conservation there. There are also two nature reserves
Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)
The Maumturk mountain range is another large SAC with specific conservation objectives for its habitats of wet heaths, blanket bog and its smaller lakes. The species protected there are the Atlantic salmon and the slender naiad, an aquatic plant that occurs very rarely in Ireland. The rare moss varnished hook-moss, which is protected under EU legislation, grows along the shores of Lough Mask. The lesser horseshoe bat is a specifically protected species of bat for which 6 out of the 14 SACs in our area have conservation objectives – indeed the 4 small SACs, Ballymaglancy Cave in Cong, Kildun Souterrain in the Neale and Moore Hall and Tower Hill in the Lough Carra area, are specifically protected as habitats for either hibernation or summer dwelling and feeding of this species. The protected areas provide opportunities for the development of populations of otter, Irish hare, common frog and pine marten.
Special Protection Areas (SPA)
Lough Carra hosts a nationally important population of the common gull, though the species is also present in Lough Mask along with the Greenland white-fronted goose, the tufted duck, the black-headed gull, the lesser black-beaked gull and the common tern who are all protected. The gulls and terns nest on isolated islands in the lakes. Similarly, the Lough Corrib SPA specifically protects the Greenland white-fronted goose, the gadwall, the shoveler, the pochard, the tufted duck, the common scoter, the hen harrier, the coot, the golden plover, the black-headed gull, the common gull, the common tern and the Arctic tern. A large section of the Connemara lowland bog south of Recess is also a large SPA with conservation objectives again for the Common Gull but also for populations of Cormorant, Golden Plover and Merlin.
Nature reserves are areas of importance to wildlife and are protected under ministerial law. Derryclare Woods Nature Reserve lies on the west shore of Derryclare Lough and encompasses 19 ha of native woodland. It is of particular importance for its diverse population of lichens. Leam West Nature Reserve is located to the west of Oughterard over an area of 373 ha. It is an area of national importance comprising both lowland and upland bog habitats. Both of these Nature Reserves are state-owned.