As an ocean outpost at the western edge of Europe, Ireland has a natural character quite different from that of the Continental landmass. Its geology is remarkably varied, with rocks that range back over 2,500 million years. Its weather varies infinitely, too, as cloud-shadows chase across the island, and flowers grow abundantly in the mild, moist air. Once, long ago, Ireland was covered by ice, and the track of the glaciers can be read in the dramatic shapes of the mountains and the little drumlin hills of the countryside. The retreat of the ice left Ireland dotted with thousands of lakes, from the wide expanses of Lough Neagh and Lough Corrib to the tiny lakes of the mountains.
Ten thousand years ago, when the plants and animals began to recolonize, there were many that did not reach Ireland before it was cut off by rising sea levels. But what the island lacks in numbers of species, it makes up for in variety of habitats, including some that have virtually vanished from the mainland of Europe. Peatlands raised up by the growth of bog-mosses, sedges and grasses blanket the slopes of the mountains around the rim of Ireland. In the central plain, great domes of peat grew up from ancient lakes.
These strange and lonely landforms took thousands of years to create, and their specialized communities of plants and invertebrates are becoming increasingly rare in Europe year by year.
The saucer-like shape of Ireland has made it difficult to drain the land, so that many watery habitats and wetlands have persisted, attracting a rich bird-life. In summer, for example, the waders nesting in the flower-filled water meadows along the River Shannon are joined by the Corncrake, whose nighttime call, 'crek-crek', is now heard in few places anywhere in Europe. In winter, the Irish wetlands serve as a refuge for hundreds of thousands of wild ducks, geese and swans, flying in from as far away as Greenland and Siberia.
Some of Ireland's natural habitats are exciting because they are rare and special ecosystems. In County Clare, for example, the plants of the limestone terraces of the Burren are among the finest botanical sights of Europe. But other Irish habitats, not nearly so specialized, are to be treasured simply for their continuing enrichment to the countryside. The island is quilted with venerable hedgerows, which in other countries have been bulldozed away to make fields bigger. In the western counties, the landscape is braided with ancient, drystone walls which shelter wrens and stoats, ferns and lichens.
The fields within these walls are often tiny, and quite untouched by machinery or chemical sprays. In these moist meadows, summer brings a tapestry of wildflowers and a profusion of butterflies and bumblebees. On the offshore islands, in particular, with few roads and little farm machinery, you can find hay-meadows, mown with a scythe, with a flora unchanged through many generations.
The Office of Public Works is the State Authority with responsibility for the conservation of Ireland's National Heritage which it carries out through its National Park and Wildlife Service. For general information on visitor services and access and a list of available publications contact the Education Publicity Officer, Office of Public Works, 51 St. Stephen's Green, Dublin 2.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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