Category Archives: General


Ecological Mapping Courses 2015

I’ll be running three training courses in ecological mapping this spring:

– QGIS for Ecologists and Conservation Practitioners

– Mapping Biological Records with QGIS

– Introduction to Habitat Mapping


QGIS for Ecologists and Conservation Practitioners

Date: Thursday 23rd – Friday 24th April 2015

Venue: Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone, Co. Westmeath

Cost: approx. €243 for CIEEM members, €486 for non-members*


QGIS screengrabThis is the third year for this course, which I have successfully run for the Chartered Institute for Ecology and Environmental Management. The course is for ecologists and environmental managers who wish to learn how to incorporate GIS into their working practices, but who lack the means or institutional support to avail of the more expensive, commercial GIS packages.

At the end of the course, participants will be able to :

– Outline basic GIS concepts

– Display and query ecological data using QGIS

– Create (digitise) species records and habitat mapping data

– Prepare maps for inclusion in reports

The course will begin with an introduction to GIS. Basic GIS concepts will be explained and explored.   The open source GIS that will be used will be QGIS, powerful, open source, fully functional GIS software. The QGIS interface will be introduced and participants will learn how to open, explore and query data layers. Creating ecological data layers with QGIS will be covered, including point records of species and habitat mapping. Attribute table creation and management will also be covered. Easily available environmental data sources will be explored (e.g. open source base mapping and aerial photos, Natura 2000 site boundaries, river basins, soils & geology). Best practice in GIS data creation will be emphasised, including metadata. How to prepare maps for presentation in reports using QGIS will be introduced.

This course covers mapping habitat (or other) polygons, lines and points, as well as creating maps and other tasks. The National Biodiversity Data Centre course below focuses on mapping species point records. This course is a two-day course and will therefore cover more material than the National Biodiversity Data Centre course. If your main interest is using QGIS for a wide range of ecological mapping tasks, this course is for you.

* Course rates are payable in pounds sterling £180 members / £360 non-members. Part of the course fee is donated to the QGIS Project.

 Mapping Biological Records with QGIS

Date: Wednesday 4th March 2015

Venue: National Biodiversity Data Centre, Waterford

Cost: €50*


The tiny liverwort Cladopodiella fluitans dwarfed by mighty Sphagnum mosses

This course is for biological recorders, including both amateur and professional ecologists, who want to learn to use QGIS as a tool to assist in biological recording.

At the end of the course, participants will be able to :

– Explain what GIS is and describe what makes up a typical GIS

– Use the QGIS interface to explore spatial data

– Create a GIS layer from a species record spreadsheet

– Find and use freely available environmental data and maps

– Explore species distributions using hectad (10km square) grids

QGIS is powerful, open source, fully functional GIS software. It can be very useful in managing, exploring and displaying biological records. Workshop participants will be introduced to QGIS and how it can be used to perform some typical tasks, such as mapping biological records and exploring species distributions in conjunction with other environmental data. No previous experience of GIS is necessary.

This focuses on mapping species point records, whereas the CIEEM course covers mapping habitat (or other) polygons, lines and points. This course is a one-day course and will therefore cover less material than the CIEEM course. If your main interest is mapping species records and exploring them in the context of other environmental data, this course is for you.

* Part of the course fee is donated to the QGIS Project.

 Introduction to Habitat Mapping

Date: Wednesday 11th March 2015

Venue: National Biodiversity Data Centre, Waterford

Cost: €50


Best Practice GuidanceThis course is for early-career, graduate and student ecologists who want to learn to survey and map habitats in the field.

At the end of the course, participants will be able to :

– Compare and contrast the main habitat classification systems used in Ireland

– Describe how to plan a habitat survey in light of the project objectives

– Evaluate different desktop sources of habitat data

– Demonstrate how to survey and map habitats in the field

– Identify the limitations of habitat survey and outline possible next steps

A habitat survey is a fundamental method for gathering data about the ecology of a site. The objective of a habitat survey is to produce a habitat map – a clear spatial record of what habitats are present in a site and where they are. The workshop will provide an introduction on how to carry out the desk-based and field-based components of a habitat survey. It will be based on the Heritage Council’s Best Practice Guidance for Habitat Survey and Mapping. This course is GIS and computer-free.


Published Date: 17th February 2015
Category: General
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Heritage Week Events at Dún na Sí Heritage and Amenity Park

National Heritage Week 2014 is coming up next week, running from 23rd to 31st August.  Heritage Week is coordinated by the Heritage Council each year, and they put on a series of events throughout the country celebrating our natural, cultural and built heritage.

This year, I will be running two events at the Dún na Sí Heritage and Amenity Park in Moate, Co. Westmeath.  The centrepiece of the park is Westmeath’s only known turlough, a special kind of wetland and natural wonder unique to Ireland.

The turlough at Dún na Sí Heritage and Amenity Park - a very special wetland

The turlough at Dún na Sí Heritage and Amenity Park – a very special wetland

On Sunday 24th August from 3-5PM, I’ll be hosting a nature walk around the Park.  We’ll explore the wildlife of the park, especially the turlough, in a leisurely nature walk.  There’ll be flowers, birds, bugs and more.  All ages are welcome.  We’ll be meeting at the main park entrance by Gráinne Óg.


Wetland wildflowers in Dún na Sí Heritage and Amenity Park

If that gives you a taste for more, on Saturday 30th August from 2-4PM, we’ll be learning wetland wildflowers.  I’ll get you acquainted with some of the wildflowers that grow in the turlough.  No experience with wildflowers is necessary, and the event will be suitable for adults and older children.  Wear your wellies and bring your enthusiasm!

There’s more information on the events on the National Heritage Week 2014 website.  Just follow the links above.  I hope to see you there.


Published Date: 19th August 2014
Category: General
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Extinct Moss Re-Found in Raised Bog

Waved fork-moss (Dicranum undulatum)

Waved fork-moss (Dicranum undulatum)

I’m delighted to announce that during a recent trip to explore Clara Bog, I discovered a small population of waved fork-moss (Dicranum undulatum), a plant up until then thought to be extinct in Ireland.  It was previously known from only four other raised bogs in Offaly.  Last seen in Ireland in 1960, its known sites have been seriously damaged by peat harvesting.  The sites and other raised bogs in Offaly that were in reasonable condition were searched fruitlessly for the plant over 2005-2009.  Because the only known populations could not be found again and because of the damage caused to raised bogs in the area due to turf cutting, waved fork-moss was judged to be extinct in Ireland in the recent book on the Rare and Threatened Bryophytes of Ireland.

Clara Bog

Clara Bog

Elsewhere in Europe, waved fork-moss is a plant with a northern distribution found in bogs, poor fens and peatland pine forests.  Like Ireland, it is rare throughout most of Europe, except for Scandinavia, and is declining as a result of peat cutting, drainage and afforestation.  In Britain, it also mainly grows in intact raised bogs, where it is considered Vulnerable to extinction.  Waved fork-moss’s “reinstatement” in Ireland is very good news for nature conservation in Europe as well as Ireland.

The fact that waved fork-moss has been re-found gives us a second chance to conserve a species we thought was extinct.  Opportunities like this don’t come around very often.  The fact that it’s in Clara Bog makes the job of conservation a little easier, as the bog is a state-owned Nature Reserve and is managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.  It may be that the work blocking drains and rewetting the bog that has already happened there is responsible for the survival of waved-fork moss.

Remnant ribbon of raised bog cutaway from both sides

Remnant ribbon of raised bog cutaway from both sides

This little plant is a perfect example of the biodiversity that can be lost if we fail to conserve and restore our raised bogs.  Waved fork-moss and other bog specialists can only survive on wet, intact bogs, which are rapidly vanishing from the Irish landscape.  The National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan and the National Peatlands Strategy, soon to be finalised, may give us a second chance to conserve our raised bog resource.  But they will only be up to the task if they are robust and properly implemented.  We won’t have many more chances.


Special thanks to Gordon Rothero of the British Bryological Society for confirming my identification.


UPDATE:  The Irish Times ran an article on this on 19 June, which you can see at this link.

UPDATE 2:  And the Tullamore Tribune ran a nice article with some pictures.  There was a nice closeup of the plant in the print version.


Published Date: 28th May 2014
Category: General
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Intro to Ecological Mapping with Open Source GIS

As of today, there are still 3 spaces left in my Introduction to Ecological Mapping with Open Source GIS Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management training course.  You can sign up via the CIEEM website.

QGIS screengrabThe course will begin with an introduction to GIS.  Basic GIS concepts will be explained and explored.   Environmental data sources that are easily available will be introduced (e.g. GoogleEarth & Bing aerial photography, Natura 2000 site boundary layers, other National Parks and Wildlife Service datasets, river basins, bedrock geology).  The open source GIS that will be used will be QGIS 2.2.  The QGIS interface will be introduced and participants will learn how to open, explore and query data layers.  Creating ecological data layers with QGIS will be covered, including point records of species and habitat mapping.  Attribute table creation and management will also be covered.  Best practice in GIS data creation will be emphasised, including metadata.  How to prepare maps for presentation in reports using QGIS will be introduced.

QGIQGISS is open source.  You can support the QGIS project here.  Part of the fees from this training course will be used to make a donation to the QGIS project to ensure the future of this quality resource for ecologists and everyone else who uses spatial data.


Published Date: 2nd April 2014
Category: General
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Evidence-Based Sustainable Forest Management

I love talk radio when it’s done well.  You can really get a good insight into an issue pretty quickly if you have a knowledgeable and engaging contributor and a good host.  It’s even better when the host (or his/her producers) knows a thing or two about the subject and can ask good, probing questions.  But after the show comes the hangover.  The text lines open, and every gobshite who can work a mobile sends in their opinions.  Unfortunately, most are usually about as well considered as a toddler’s opinion on a suitable bedtime.  Little gets added to the discussion, except maybe some extra ratings for the station.

sustainable forest management

Exclosure in Camillan Wood, Killarney National Park

To help make decisions about complicated problems, you need to have a good understanding of the issues.  Ecologists and conservationists often wonder about how politicians and planners could let that development go there, when that place is so valuable for biodiversity.  Oftentimes, bad decision making is the result of bad information.  They’ve been told that the site only has an aul’ bunch of snails and swans and sure, can’t you find all the snails you want in your front garden?  Other times, incomplete understanding of an issue can lead to unintended consequences.  When overgrazing of woodlands becomes a problem, fencing out all the grazing animals is often the solution.  But this usually leads to a new set of problems, like a takeover by bramble or holly at the expense of other plant species.

In the Spring 2014 issue of Irish Wildlife, there’s a letter I wrote taking the magazine to task for an article on forest management in an earlier issue.  I hadn’t written it with publication in mind, though I did say I was happy for it to be published, and I’m not sure if my main point was well made.  The nub of it was that I thought the earlier article wasn’t well-informed and was misleading on several points.  And as I’ve been arguing, this sort of thing can be bad when trying to sort out complex issues, like sustainable forest management.

Sustainable forest management for production and biodiversity conservation is a complicated subject.  There are lots of factors at work and a lot of tradeoffs to be made.  If productivity is emphasised too much, then biodiversity suffers.  If all forests are managed to maximise biodiversity then productivity will probably drop.  The consequence of this is that we will need to import more of our timber and export the sustainability problem.  If the forests we are importing from are sustainably managed, then great.  But often times, imported timber comes from unsustainably managed tropical forests, or even temperate or boreal forests.  The recent suspension of Forest Stewardship Council certification of Swedwood, an Ikea subsidiary, for unsustainable forestry practices in Russia is an example of poor forest management on our doorstep.  Growing as much of our own timber in as sustainable way as we can is the most responsible solution.

sustainable forest management

Sitka spruce – good, bad or ugly?

This trick then is to balance biodiversity and productivity management, which isn’t a simple business.  Take the old “conifers vs broadleaves” argument that I’d thought we’d moved past – that non-native conifers are bad for biodiversity and native broadleaves are good.  You only need to think of red squirrels and their dependence on conifer forests in the parts of Ireland where grey squirrels have invaded to realise that it’s not that simple.  And what about non-native broadleaves?  Mature sycamore trees can support high abundances of invertebrates and a pretty good diversity of epiphytes, but sycamore is highly invasive in native woodlands.  Native woodlands are undeniably better for biodiversity than plantation forests, but plantations of native trees are not really much better than plantations of non-natives.  Generally it depends on what groups of plants, birds or invertebrates you’re interested in.  Things like forest structure, age and landscape setting tend to be more important than crop species.

sustainable forest management

Drain blocking in wet woodland

Another difficult decision is what should be the management priorities in which places?  Should all the timber production happen in these forests and all the biodiversity conservation happen in those?  Or should all forests be managed equally for productivity and biodiversity?  Research from forests and a wide range of other ecosystems shows that the relationship between biodiversity and management intensity is not linear.  Where biodiversity is high, a small increase in management intensity often results in a significant biodiversity decline.  On the other hand, where biodiversity is fairly low, it will take a much greater decrease in management intensity, or increase in restoration conservation efforts, to significantly increase biodiversity.  This suggests that it’s much more efficient to focus biodiversity management on conserving and restoring sites that are already in reasonably good shape than to bring all the species-poor sites up to a mediocre level of biodiversity.  In sustainable forest management terms, this means conserving native woodlands and other habitats within forests, restoring areas with good potential and establishing new native woodlands in places where they can be readily colonised by nearby native species.  This approach has been shown to be better for biodiversity than trying to make sure every hectare of forest has its 1500m2 (15%) biodiversity area.

In order to have the best forests we possibly can, we need to know as much as possible about how they work.  The BIOFOREST and PLANFORBIO projects and other research have contributed significantly to the understanding of plantation forest biodiversity and sustainable forest management, but we still need more.  Forest management needs to be based on hard evidence, rather than guesses and intuition.  Just as importantly, those of us who are debating forest policy and management need to know what we’re talking about if we’re to shed light on the subject instead of blowing smoke.


Published Date: 14th March 2014
Category: General
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Awarded Chartered Ecologist Status

George Smith in Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee USA

George F Smith PhD CEcol MCIEEM in the Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

I’ve just been awarded Chartered Ecologist status by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).  This means that I “work in accordance with high standards of professional conduct”.  Also, my “advice and practice is based on a fundamental understanding of ecology and the critical evaluation of scientific evidence” and I “communicate complex ecological concepts and ideas confidently and effectively to a wide range of audiences”.  When the CIEEM website is updated, I’ll be listed on the online Register.  All very exciting!

CIEEM is the main professional society for ecologists in Ireland.  One of its main goals is to uphold professional standards for ecologists and to promote best practice.  CIEEM received chartered status in April 2013, and applications for Chartered Ecologist status were only recently opened for all members.  My spies tell me that right now I am one of only three Chartered Ecologists in Ireland, though in time there will be several more.

Chartered Ecologists must demonstrate that they achieve a high level of competence in several areas of ecology and environmental management.  A well-structured competency framework is used by CIEEM to evaluate the abilities of applicants.  The areas of competency must include expertise in interpretation and reporting scientific evidence, good communication skills, and a high standard of professional conduct.  Other areas where I showed a high level of competence included habitat survey and evaluation, ecosystem management, ecological impact assessment, and data analysis.

CIEEM’s recognition of Chartered Ecologists should greatly improve the practice of ecology and environmental management in Ireland.  Clients and others reviewing the work of Chartered Ecologists will have the confidence that it has been done by an experienced professional.  Having chartered members places ecologists on a similar footing to other professions, such as engineers.  Ecologists will have a clear goal for professional development, and the competency framework will provide a good yardstick for achieving it.  The application is arduous and the interview is intimidating, as they should be.  But all the same I’d encourage all CIEEM members to apply when you’re ready.


Published Date: 17th January 2014
Category: General
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The Potential for Restoring Wet Grasslands

Yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and brown sedge (Carex disticha) in wet grassland

Yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and brown sedge (Carex disticha) in wet grassland

An interesting review paper is in press at the journal Ecological Engineering, entitled “Ecological consequences and restoration potential of abandoned wet grassland” (  The paper reviews the effects of agricultural abandonment on wet grasslands and assesses the potential for restoring species-rich wet grassland after abandonment.  Seventy-one (71) papers on wet grassland abandonment and restoration in continental Europe were reviewed.  No Irish (or British) research was reviewed because there apparently haven’t been any relevant studies done here.  So what, if anything, can we learn from the situation on the continent and how can it be applied here in Ireland?


Wet grassland in Co. Meath

Grazed wet grassland in Co. Meath

In Europe, abandonment of wet grasslands is a significant concern.  Although there are no comprehensive data for Ireland, abandonment of Molinia meadows was found to be the most significant threat to the conservation of that special type (Habitats Directive Annex I) of wet grassland.  Wet grasslands need regular, extensive rather than intensive management to maintain their conservation value.  Grazing or hay-cutting prevents the more competitive grasses from dominating and keeps trees and shrubs from invading.  In some situations, it may be a good thing to let a wet pasture revert to woodland.  But there are a suite of species that rely on wet, open habitats, including orchids, breeding waders and invertebrates, such as the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly.  Abandonment of marginally productive land in Europe is often the result of rural population declines, aging farmers, improved off-farm opportunities, and increased costs in farming marginal lands.  The situation in Ireland is exactly the same.  Intensification, or agricultural improvement in the form of drainage, fertilisation and weed control, is often the other side of the abandonment coin.  Some fields may be abandoned as a result of intensification in other fields when less land is needed to maintain the same levels of productivity. The review found that in many cases, the effects of wet grassland abandonment on biodiversity are apparent in three years.  Competitive grasses increase in height and cover and aboveground biomass and litter rapidly accumulate.  Tree invasion can happen quickly, or can be delayed for years if dense litter prevents seedling establishment.  Smaller species can be quickly eliminated as they lose the competition for light.  According to the studies reviewed, the losers frequently include legumes, orchids and fen or meadow species.  In general, small, stress-tolerant species decline during abandonment.  Natural nutrient enrichment may play a part as biomass formerly removed from a site is instead retained as litter, which eventually breaks down and becomes incorporated into the soil.  Although there aren’t any monitoring studies in Ireland that give us detailed data on the biodiversity effects of wet grassland abandonment, the same sorts of changes can be seen across the country.


The good news from the review is that abandoned wet grasslands seem like they can often be successfully restored to good conservation condition.  Depending on how long the grassland has been abandoned, the first steps are measures to reverse ecological succession: cutting trees and shrubs and reducing the abundance of dominant grasses, rushes and sedges.  Repeated mowing and removal of the cuttings is often the easiest and the most common method.  Cattle grazing was also found to be beneficial in most cases.  This would also have the benefit of exposing some bare soil by poaching to allow colonisation or regeneration from the seed bank of species that may have vanished from the site.  Where dense stands of reeds have invaded, a few studies have attempted more intensive restoration work, such as herbicide use or removal of vegetated turves.  In general, restoration can be successful in less than 10 years, where the site’s hydrology remains unchanged or is easily restored and where the soil fertility has not increased.  The review concludes that there are four key factors on which success will hinge:

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)

  • Seed sources and
  • Seed dispersal mechanisms:  If a nearby source of colonist species isn’t available or if there are limited opportunities for dispersal via wind, flooding or animals, then introducing lost species through seed sowing or hay-strewing may be required.
  • Soil fertility:  Grasslands that have been long-abandoned may be nutrient-enriched.  Mowing and removal of cuttings will probably be required.  In some extreme cases, topsoil removal may be needed.
  • Invasive species:  Abandonment and disturbance can lead to invasion by exotic plant species.  Sometimes, the disturbance caused by restoration activities can open an ironic window to invasion.  In an Irish context, Himalayan balsam and giant hogweed are likely to be two of the worst potential invaders in wet grasslands.


Abandonment of wet grasslands is a significant cause of biodiversity loss in Ireland as well as Europe.  Changing patterns of land-use are largely responsible.  If mechanisms can be found to reverse these changes, such as fit-for-purpose agri-environmental schemes, then it is possible to restore wet grasslands to good conservation status.


Published Date: 3rd December 2013
Category: General
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The Importance of Biological Records

Clara Bog

I will be running a small beginner’s bryophyte (mosses and liverworts) identification workshop tomorrow for the Clara Bog Visitors’ Centre.  It filled up rapidly and there are no places left.  Disappointing for those of you who aren’t able to attend, but a sign of great enthusiasm out there for getting to know bryos.  The workshop will focus on learning some of the mosses and liverworts of Clara Bog, which are the real ecosystem engineers of the wetland.  Maybe someday I’ll write about them in a little more detail, but not yet.

Sphagnum cuspidatum (green) & S. magellanicum (winey red)

Sphagnum cuspidatum (green) & S. magellanicum (red)

I’m a member of the British Bryological Society (BBS) “which exists to promote a wider interest in all aspects of bryology”.  I’m also the regional recorder for County Offaly.  That means it’s my responsibility to collect and manage biological records of mosses and liverworts from the county and more generally help the study and conservation of bryophytes.  I decided to take on the role of regional recorder for Offaly for a few reasons.  One is that trying to get to know the mosses and liverworts of a whole county is a great incentive for getting out there and learning more.  Another reason is that Offaly’s bryophytes are very poorly recorded.  That means that finding firsts, like first county records of a species, is pretty easy.  So I don’t have to work too hard for the lovely warm feeling of accomplishment!

The tiny liverwort Cladopodiella fluitans dwarfed by mighty Sphagnum mosses

The tiny liverwort Cladopodiella fluitans dwarfed by mighty Sphagnum mosses

One of the under-recorded parts of Offaly is actually Clara Bog.  When I started as regional recorder, the BBS only held records of seven mosses and liverworts from there!  This low number of biological records is incredible, because the high conservation value of the bog has long been known.  Ecologists have been visiting the bog for years, and it’s been the site of intensive research by Irish and Dutch ecologists and hydrogeologists since the late 1980s.  Pages and pages of research reports based on Clara Bog have been produced, and these have resulted in only seven records properly collated in the BBS database.  And because the National Biodiversity Data Centre mainly relies on the BBS for its biological records of bryophytes, that means there are only seven records for Clara Bog held by the national clearinghouse for information on biodiversity.  Obviously, lots of people have neglected to hand in records of bryophytes (and probably lots of other organisms) to the relevant recording societies and the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

Biological Records

This is a huge problem.  Without biological records telling us what species and habitats are present where, it makes it very difficult to make informed decisions.  Good biological records are important for telling us what species are rare or declining and thus might need measures put in place to conserve them.  Conversely, some species might be thought of as being rare and in need of special protection, when in fact they are simply under-recorded.  Good biological records are also important for telling us what sites are of special conservation importance.  We need this sort of information to prioritise conservation activities, even more so when the money is tight.  If you were to decide whether Clara Bog was worth preserving based solely on bryophyte records, you might look at the seven mosses and liverworts listed as being present in the site and decide no, there’s nothing special there*.  And you would be very wrong.

Sphagnum palustre in bog woodland

Sphagnum palustre in bog woodland

For those ecologists out there reading this, submit your records!  All of us, including me, are guilty of sitting on biological records we’ve collected in the course of our work or recreation.  Submit them to the National Biodiversity Data Centre or to the relevant recording society.  For those of you reading this who hire ecologists, allow and encourage them to submit records from your development sites.  The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management  encourages members to share biological records in its Code of Professional Conduct, as long as commercially sensitive and personal data are safeguarded.

Finally, if you’d really like to help do your bit for the mosses of Offaly, I’ll be leading another beginner’s day out on Saturday 12th October in Charleville Wood for the Offaly Naturalists’ Field Club and BBS Irish Regional Group.






* Well, no.  Really you wouldn’t, because one of the records is for Tetraplodon angustatus, narrow cruet-moss, a legally protected species only found in one place in Ireland: Clara Bog.  But you see what I mean, right?


Published Date: 4th October 2013
Category: General
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Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park Opening on Friday

Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park

The Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park in Moate, Co. Westmeath is having its official opening this Friday 20th September from 4.30pm.  The park is the final work of a dedicated bunch of local volunteers – the Midlands Amenity Park Association – who have been planning this for years.  The park has been developed on a bit of former common grazing now owned by Westmeath County Council.  It was known as the Cow Park, and it will always be called that by a lot of the locals, though “the Cow Park Park” doesn’t really have that certain ring.  You can find out more about the park and the opening on the park’s facebook page.

The amenity part of the park is in the middle of the site, bookended by the heritage parts.  One of the heritage bookends is the Dún na Sí Heritage Centre, operated by the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.  In the Heritage Centre are replicas of megalithic monuments, traditional cottages, a hedge school, and traditional livestock, and céilís are regularly held there.  The other bookend is a bit of dampish grassland that looks rather unassuming these days, but is really the jewel in the park’s heritage crown.  It’s actually a turlough, a special type of transient wetland that is virtually unique to Ireland.  The Cow Park turlough is one of the few to be found east of the Shannon and is the only confirmed example in Westmeath.


Cow Park Turlough in Winter (2012)

Turloughs are found in karst limestone landscapes, and their name is usually taken to be from the Irish tur lough meaning “dry lake”.  In the summertime they are grasslands, usually grazed by cattle.  In some turloughs, there is a permanent pond or wetland in the middle.  In the wintertime, when the water table rises, turloughs turn into lakes.  They fill quickly – over a matter of hours or days – via hollow, water-filled galleries in the bedrock that open out into one or more discrete swallow-holes.  These can be hard to spot when the turlough is dry, and it’s unclear where all the Cow Park turlough’s swallow-holes are.

This specific hydrogeological system with its strong seasonality is virtually unique to Ireland (there are reports of a turlough in Wales and some karstic wetlands in Slovenia that are at least very turlough-like).  Because of their unusual environmental conditions, they support very special ecosystems rich in plants and invertebrates.  The importance of turloughs to European biodiversity is such that they are recognised as a priority habitat in the EU Habitats Directive.  This means that many turloughs are officially designated as Special Areas of Conservation, though not the Cow Park (at least yet).

The Cow Park Turlough

It’s confession time here.  My wife is from Moate and I spend a lot of time there.  I used to go to the Cow Park years ago when I first moved to Ireland, armed with my (then) new copy of Webb’s An Irish Flora, trying to learn all the (to me) foreign plants.  I still have a lot of the plants I collected then pressed in a binder (Veronica scutellata, marsh speedwell, is the prettiest of them).  Once I got to know most of the plants in the Cow Park, I moved on to other pastures, and I never returned there for a serious look at the place.  I knew it flooded in the winter, but so did a lot of places.  I never realised it was a turlough.  In my defence, though, I’m in good company.  There have been a lot of surveys of the Cow Park carried out by competent botanists before and after me.  (I’m not naming names here.  You know who you are.)  It wasn’t until Faith Wilson surveyed the site in December 2011 for an Appropriate Assessment of the amenity park project that she realised that the vanishing lake is really a turlough.


Cow Park Turlough in Summer (2013)

The Cow Park turlough isn’t very big, but it packs a lot in.  In the centre is an area of rich fen dominated by bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), stoneworts (Chara vulgaris) and pondweeds (Potamogeton species).  This is usually permanently wet, but with the wonderful summer we’ve had, it’s completely dry now.  All the calcium carbonate that has precipitated out as the water evaporated, like limescale in a kettle, gives the vegetation a bleached look.  Hopefully it will recover nicely when the autumn rains raise the water table!  Around the central fen is a zone dominated by sedges (Carex nigra, C. disticha, C. hirta and others) with water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile), lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and others.  Above this zone are stands of yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus) and species-rich wet grassland.  A line of hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna) marks the upper water level.  A total of 138 plant species, including stoneworts, mosses and liverworts, have been recorded from the Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park site over different surveys, including my own.

The development of the park adjacent to such a valuable and sensitive ecosystem has meant a lot of challenges and compromises.  I have been advising the Midlands Amenity Park Association strike this balance in creating a local recreational amenity while at the same time safeguarding and taking advantage of the natural heritage.  For example, it was originally planned to excavate a permanent duck pond where it floods in winter.  The discovery of the turlough put an end to that idea!  A smaller pond was decided on instead, and some balancing between ecology and access was needed to determine where to place it.  Mark Boyle of Murray & Associates has been very flexible with the landscape and planting plans, and I’ve been helping advise on what species are suitable to plant and where.  Now that the turlough is no longer grazed by horses as it used to be, a long term management plan is being drawn up to maintain the biodiversity of the site.

Please do come along on Friday if you’re in the area, and see the new Dún na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park with its beautiful turlough yourself.  I’ll be there to help show people around and to explain what a fantastic piece of natural heritage they have on their doorstep.


Published Date: 19th September 2013
Category: General
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Biodiversity Benefits of Coillte in Public Hands

The news that Coillte’s forests are to remain in State ownership is very welcome.  The government had planned to sell the harvesting rights to Coillte’s forests while retaining ownership of the land.  The government’s plans for the sale have now been postponed in favour of “restructuring” Coillte, including a merger with Bord na Móna.  The government will, however, “consider all the options to maximise value from Coillte when the restructuring is complete in 18 months time”.

Glenregan-big-spruce---deadwoodThe main reasons for deciding not to sell the harvesting rights to Coillte’s forests were jobs, loss of money from the sale, and the well-publicised issue of recreational access.  I don’t know to what extent biodiversity was considered in making the decision, but what is clear to me is that the prospects for biodiversity conservation are much more positive with Coillte’s forests in public ownership.

What biodiversity is supported in Coillte’s forests, most of which are plantations of non-native conifers, especially Sitka spruce?  After a casual glance at your average Sitka spruce plantation, you might think that hardly any native species can make a living underneath the dense shade.  Are they really of any nature conservation value at all?  While it’s true that there are few species that occupy mid-rotation, densely shading conifer stands, it would be misleading to extrapolate this snapshot in space and time across the whole Coillte estate.  A significant amount of research has been carried out on biodiversity in Irish forests.  I participated in the BIOFOREST Project, a large scale, multidisciplinary research project carried out by University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and Coillte that ran from 2001 to 2006.  This was followed on by the recently completed PLANFORBIO Project.  Both these projects studied trends in biodiversity of several species groups across the plantation forest cycle, among different forest types, and compared plantation forests with native woodlands.  There were too many interesting results to outline them all here.  But both projects found that plantation forests can support significant native biodiversity, especially at the pre-thicket and thinned, mature stages and also in forest rides and roadsides.

So far so good, but Coillte’s forests are not just conifer plantations.  It inherited many hectares of native woodland and old estate woodlands from its predecessors.  A large proportion of these woodlands are now being managed primarily for recreation and for nature conservation as Biodiversity Areas and High Conservation Value Forests.  This is being done as part of a programme of measures certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as sustainable, responsible forest management.  An excellent example of Coillte’s biodiversity management is its EU LIFE co-funded project on restoring Habitats Directive priority woodland types.  Conifer plantations that are important for protecting rare or threatened species or that support diverse native ecosystems are also managed primarily for biodiversity.  FSC certification is the main incentive behind this good behaviour, which gives Coillte’s forest products greater marketplace opportunities.

If the harvesting rights to Coillte’s forest were to be sold, this would pose a serious threat to biodiversity.  Harvesting would have to abide by nature conservation legislation and Forest Service guidelines, of course.  But these are only minimum safeguards.  The real work in biodiversity conservation and management comes from the incentive of FSC certification and the greater responsiveness of a state-owned company to public input.  A buyer interested in the short term profits from fixed term harvesting rights would not be interested in long-term sustainability.  FSC certification would be at risk, and loss of certification would remove one of the main motivations for biodiversity management.

For now, the sale of harvesting rights is off the table.  If and when the sale of state forest assets (possibly along with peatland assets in a merged Coillte – Bord na Móna) is again considered, hopefully biodiversity will be a major factor in the decision-making.  If state forests are to be sold, then safeguards must be put in place to conserve biodiversity and retain positive management.  While the best method might be a stick in the form of conditions for sale or new regulations, there may be scope for carrots to incentivise nature conservation, like some form of payment for ecosystem services scheme.


Published Date: 20th June 2013
Category: General
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