The continuing story of Ireland’s biodiversity crisis

Recent reports by good investigative journalists give a comprehensive and accurate picture of the neglect and degradation of Ireland’s legally protected sites. One such report can be read here: https://www.thejournal.ie/endangered-species-part-1-5520770-Aug2021/. These reports, while informative, contain copious detail that can overwhelm the reader.

Here we focus on a single example.

Gortnandarragh Limestone Pavement is located on the southern side of Lough Corrib, about 7 km south-east of Oughterard in County Galway. The site extends to about 347 hectares in area and it is a Special Area of Conservation.

It consists of an exposed limestone plateau that slopes down on its eastern side to cut-over fen and bog. Parts of the pavement exhibit a well-developed system of clints and grykes, while other parts are shattered, with much loose rock. The pavement forms a mosaic with heath, grassland and scrub. To the east, the limestone habitats grade into fen and blanket bog. Much of the central part is open but the eastern side contains enclosures and is grazed by cattle.

The beautiful flora characteristic of limestone pavement and associated dry calcareous grassland occurs here. Examples include Bloody Cranesbill, Wild Thyme Thymus praecox, Spring Gentian Gentiana verna, Carline Thistle Carlina vulgaris, Mouse-ear Hawkweed Hieracium pilosella, Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, Goldenrod Solidago virgaurea, among others.

View of the karst landscape at Gortnandarragh, County Galway.

Small trees present in the more open areas include Common Juniper (frequent), Common Yew, Common Blackthorn, Common Hawthorn, and whitebeam, probably Irish Whitebeam. This tree, assessed as vulnerable on Ireland Red List No. 10 Vascular Plants is an endemic plant. Less than 1000 individual Irish Whitebeams are believed to exist. On the southern section, well-developed woodland exists, with Common Ash and oak over a Common Hazel understorey, with some Aspen.

Flora-rich habitat at Gortnandarragh, but for how much longer?

The entire site is of great interest for biodiversity, but some key areas for butterflies include the grassy track at M 19535 40913 (Corranellistrum), which holds Small Blue and probably Marsh Fritillary, while Brimstone and Brown Hairstreak have been recorded among the scrub immediately adjoining this grassy area to the north. The rare moth, Straw Belle Aspitates gilvaria ssp. burrenensis flies here in July.

The long track running east from M 19706 40304 provides easy walking through open limestone grassland, pavement, heath, scrub and eventually onto bog at M 20517 39967 (Kylemore). A range of butterflies can be found along this track, especially Dark Green Fritillary, Grayling, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Heath. Interestingly, the Small Heaths found where the grassy area grades into the bog are large and easily confused with the Large Heath butterfly. Walking south along the road that runs from north to south through the site, the area becomes increasingly wooded and Silver-washed Fritillary and Speckled Wood are well represented here, such as at Garrynagry (M 19480 39687). Overall, the more flower-rich open areas with scattered scrub are rich in butterflies, and this site deserves to be much better known.

Heath vegetation, like this Bell Heather, is abundant in some areas, especially to the west of the road in the centre of the site.

The site’s status as a Special Area of Conservation means the area is legally protected from a range of activities that can cause damage, such as land clearance, peat-cutting, land cultivation, drainage, wall construction, removing or disturbing rock, among other activities. The Statutory Instrument S.I. No. 492/2018 – European Union Habitats (Gortnandarragh Limestone Pavement Special Area of Conservation 001271) Regulations 2018 makes this clear, and states the penalties that may apply on conviction and who may take a prosecution:

  1. (1) A person who carries out, causes or permits to be carried out, or assists in the carrying out of an activity referred to in Regulation 5(1), without a consent or otherwise than in accordance with a consent given by the Minister under Regulation 30 of the Regulations of 2011, commits an offence and is liable—

(a) on summary conviction, to a class A fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or both, or

(b) on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding €500,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years, or both.

6 (3) Proceedings for an offence under paragraph (1) may be brought summarily by—

(a) the Minister,

(b) the public authority concerned, or

(c) a member of the Garda Síochána, in accordance with section 8 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005.

One of the functions of the National Parks and Wildlife Service is to protect Special Areas of Conservation. Conservation Officers (rangers) make site visits to keep a watch on the condition of our special areas.

Peat piled up on the bog.
This peat is placed where the limestone grades into the bog habitat at Gortnandarragh.

In July 2021 damage was seen on the site and a record of the locations was made, with supporting photographs. The damage consists of peat cutting on the bog which lies within the boundary of the Special Area of Conservation. The bog is intrinsically important, as well as being the type locality of the endemic fungus, Entomola jennyi, a toadstool, which has been found in a very small number of locations. Cleared woodland, cleared limestone, wall construction using local limestone and the collection of stone, presumable for removal and use in building the stone walls fronting several local houses, and possibly for use as outer-leaf facing stone, were observed. Further threats to the limestone habitat are the appearance of alien invasives, including cotoneaster, and the encroachment of native scrub on the karst.

Stone piled up on the site.
Stone piled up near the track that leads to the road that runs through the site.
A stone wall was made using limestone slabs with cleared stone and cleared woodland beyond the wall.

Butterfly Conservation Ireland contacted the area’s Conservation Officer and we received an acknowledgement and request for supporting information. Butterfly Conservation Ireland provided the information on August 30th, August 3rd and August 4th, 2021. After receiving no response from the Conservation Officer regarding any action taken, contact was again made by Butterfly Conservation Ireland asking whether the Conservation Officer wanted to make a statement for this report. The Conservation Officer directed Butterfly Conservation Ireland to the Department’s press office press@housing.gov.ie for an official comment. Butterfly Conservation Ireland contacted the Department on August 19th 2021. No acknowledgement or comment from the Department has been received to date (August 28th 2021).

We suggest that a daily report detailing the latest national ecological news be broadcast on RTE Radio’s Morning Ireland programme. It will not lack material.