Last Saturday we had our inaugural event for the Great Irish Grasslands project. On one of the hottest days of the year a group of 17 led by Maria Long (NPWS) and Phoebe O’Brien (Botanist) followed the trail at Slieve Carran in the Burren National Park to explore the grassland habitats and their indicator plants. Before we had even introduced ourselves Maria made an exciting discovery of a Slow Worm !
The calcareous grasslands in this part of the Burren are managed using a farming system known as ‘winterage’ and are grazed only during the winter to allow the wildflowers to grow and flower during the summer. We noticed many of the Burren specialities such as Autumn Gentian, Dropwort, orchids, and even found a Mountain Avens still in bloom . A tiny Yew tree was spotted growing between the gaps in the limestone pavement – prompting a discussion on goats and wild grazers. We headed for the shade of the woodland surrounding St Coleman’s Oratory to avoid the strong sun and to have a picnic. Here we discussed why grasslands are important and the threats they face. Maria had brought along samples, and showed as how to identify four of the most common grasses in Ireland. The group added these to those they learned earlier: Crested Dog’s-tail and Quaking Grass .
Walking further into the grasslands surrounded by hazel scrub, Maria showed us an area that had been fenced off from grazing animals for 16 years as part of a scientific experiment. Surprisingly the scrub hadn’t colonised the area as much as one might expect. Perhaps the build-up of grass litter hampered seeds from managing to grow. One of the key findings from the experiment so far was the rapid decrease in the number of plant species. But the study revealed that our tiny wild snails seemed to be happy about the situation! It showed that to support a high number of plant species and their associated insects, grasslands does need to be grazed, but that taller unmanaged areas are also needed, to support other types of creatures too. So, like many things in life, a balance is needed!
Phoebe O’Brien, 18/08/2022
Photo Credits: Miriam Mortel, Mark O’ Mahoney, Phoebe O’Brien and Maria Long