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Biodiversity

What is biodiversity?

Biodiversity is the name we use to encompass all species of flora and fauna, both wild and domesticated, the genetic differences between individuals of the same species, the habitats in which they live, and how they interact with each other, and with their physical environment. In essence, if something is alive, it is part of biodiversity, and this includes people.

Biodiversity can be broken down and discussed at three separate levels as follows:

  • Genetic diversity, which refers to the unique DNA which an individual plant or animal possesses, and which is essential for the maintenance of healthy, functioning populations of different species.
  • Species diversity, which is simply the variety of all plants, animals, fungi, algae, and other living organisms, both wild and domesticated. Over 31,000 species are found in Ireland, while species new to Ireland, and often new to science, continue to be recorded here.
  • Ecosystems diversity, which are the relationships between different species, their habitats and their local, non-living environment (geology, hydrology, micro-climate).

Biodiversity is not a standalone entity, it's linked to built heritage (think of barn owls, house martins or wall rue), cultural heritage (think of Fionn MacCumhaill and the salmon of knowledge or fairy hawthorn trees), and other environmental factors (lichens are used to measure air quality while invertebrates measure water quality).

The health of our environment is dependent on the health of our biodiversity, as each element is dependent upon, or responsible for another element. For example, it is alleged that Einstein predicted that if the humble bumblebee became extinct, then the human race would follow in four short years, given that almost 90% of the world's vegetation requires pollination, herbivores require vegetation, carnivores require herbivores, and so on.

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Biodiversity in County Clare

Oliver Cromwell's ultimatum to the Irish people, 'To Hell or to Connaught' included County Clare. The idea of trying to farm the open limestone landscape of the Burren in the north, the peatlands in the west or the Slieve Aughties in the east must have seemed a fate worse than death to Cromwell. We now know however, that by doing so, he inadvertently made us custodians of one of the most unique and beautiful parts of the world.

County Clare is bursting at the seams with biodiversity, from the common daisy found in nearly every back garden, and plucked to reveal one's true love or strung together to make a daisy chain, to the rarest and most beautiful of orchids hidden between the vast limestone pavements of the Burren, which attract thousands of visitors to Clare each year.

Biodiversity can be full of grace and agility like the choughs at Loophead, or slow but steady like a garden snail. It can come right up close like the ducks at Lough Derg, or be as elusive as the pine martens in Dromore Woods. It can be cute like a hedgehog, or comical like a puffin. It can be big and strong like the Brian Boru Oak, or as fragile as a butterfly on Tullaher Bog. It can inspire us, make us smile, or simply take our breath away. In any event, it is ours. No matter what part of County Clare you may find yourself in, you'll find rich and wonderful biodiversity all around. You only have to look.

The limestone landscape of the Burren in North Clare is unmistakable, with its annual display of spring gentians, bloody cranesbills, mountain avens, and early purple orchids, but on closer inspection, the Burren can also be found hiding such botanical gems as the dark-red helleborine, autumn lady's tresses, and Irish orchid.

The wetlands of the east Burren are equally special, with turloughs, which empty and fill seasonally, providing habitats for rarities such as the turlough violet and scarce emerald damselfly, while Lough Bunny is regarded as one of the most nutrient poor (oligotrophic) lakes in Europe.

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Around New Quay and the Flaggy Shore, the waters are rich in shellfish, with spider crabs, velvet crabs, lobsters, oysters and mussels, while the shoreline is carpeted with seaweeds, periwinkles and limpets. In the wider bay, the not-so-common, common seal can regularly be seen out fishing.

The 'twisted rocks' of Blackhead, immortalized in the Luke Kelly song, are home to peregrine falcons and kestrels, while further south, razorbills, choughs and puffins can be seen from the famous Cliffs of Moher.

The sandy beaches and dune systems of Lahinch, the White Strand, Spanish Point and Quilty draw thousands of holidaymakers each year, while the mudflats and sandflats which stretch further south towards Lurga Point support hundreds of wading birds like purple sandpipers, dunlins and turnstones.

Further inland, where the bedrock becomes shale, the extensive springs of Mount Callan provide the source water for the Inagh, Annageeragh, and Annagh Rivers, while its peak overlooks several lakes including Doo Lough, Cloonmacken Lough, Drumcullaun Lough, and Lough Keagh.

To the South and East of Doo Lough, the landscape softens into peatland habitats. Cragnashingaun bog and Lough Acrow Bogs are home to the carnivorous sundew plant, bog-building sphagnum moss, hares, frogs and red grouse.

Sponges, corals, sea-fans, jewel anemones, purple sea urchins, and starfish populate the reefs around Kilkee, while the sandstone strata of the sea cliffs stretching down towards the Bridges of Ross and Loop Head provide excellent breeding platforms for sea birds such as the guillemot, kittiwake and fulmar.

The lower reaches of the Shannon Estuary are home to Ireland's only resident population of bottle-nosed dolphins, while Carrigaholt and Poulnasherry Bay are important shellfish waters for oysters and scallops, with the rare freshwater pearl mussel making its home in the Cloon River.

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Together, the Shannon and Fergus estuaries are one of the most important sites in Ireland for overwintering wildfowl and waders, with rare birds such as whooper swans, golden plovers, and bar-tailed godwits being regular visitors, while dunlins, black-tailed godwits, and redshanks often reach internationally important numbers.

In mid Clare, from Corofin down towards Ennis, the karstic limestone landscape has been eroded and smoothed by glaciers into limestone pavements and natural parklands, through which the River Fergus and its tributaries now flow. The environs of Ennis are hugely important for bats, and particularly for the rare lesser-horseshoe bat.

Ballyallia Lake is a sanctuary for wild ducks such as wigeons, teals, gadwalls and shovelers, while pine martens, stoats, and rare lichens inhabit the hazel woodlands of Dromore.

The landscape between Newmarket-on-Fergus and Broadford is littered with lakes, including Fin Lough, Rosroe Lough, Lough Cullaunyheeda and Doon Lough. Fish in these lakes, such as pike, perch, breem and roach feed on the abundance of mayflies and other water invertebrates.

The mosaics of blanket bogs and wetlands on Slieve Bearnagh are home to myriads of butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and other insects, while the woodlands on the lower slopes are carpeted with bluebells, ramsons and wood anemones.

The high numbers of fish in Lough Derg, including pollan, Ireland's most unique species, and a landlocked population of sea lamprey, have recently attracted white-tailed eagles (also known as sea eagles), in addition to its resident cormorant population.

Hen harriers and merlin soar above the old red sandstone of the Slieve Aughties, overlooking forestry, lakes, blanket bogs and heath in search of small birds and mammals. This is one of the top two sites in Ireland for these birds of prey.

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In gardens, hedgerows and green roads all across the county, there is ample opportunity to encounter our many colourful birds such as goldcrests, blue-tits and chaffinches, butterflies such as the orange-tip, common blue and peacock, and many other creatures from ladybirds to hedgehogs.

Our woodland and scrub resounds in Spring to the calls of chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat. These tiny warblers fly here from Africa to breed, while County Clare also provides an important stronghold for that harbinger of summer, the cuckoo. Of course, the cuckoo itself relies on a plentiful population of meadow pipits and dunnocks, to utilize their nests, and trick them into raising its own young.

The houses and barns of towns and villages support breeding swifts, swallows and house martins, all species which migrate thousands of miles from their wintering grounds in Africa so that they can use the long summer days to catch sufficient insects to raise their young here.

While many fields now support only a rye grass sward, our road-side verges still support wild flowers, bees and butterflies which once flourished here in great abundance, but which are becoming much less common in County Clare, and in Ireland as a whole. In many cases, our roadside verges are the last refuges for many species.

Biodiversity gives County Clare its character and charm. It adds colour and sounds to our towns and villages, and is the life-force of our rural landscape. It is at the core of the affinity which Clare people have for their county and the essence which attracts tourists to County Clare.

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Buds of the Banner - A Guide to Growing Native Trees and Shrubs in Clare

This publication is a partnership project between Rural Resource Development and Clare County Council and it has been initiated as an education and awareness measure to encourage and assist the public. This practical guide provides information on the great variety of trees and shrubs that are native to County Clare. You can choose for colour, shape, height and wildlife value, and to suit your soil and site conditions. This step-by-step guide will also show you where and how to plant your native trees and shrubs, including some great design ideas for the garden. Most importantly, it provides practical ideas for making your garden, village or housing development more attractive and nature friendly by planting native buds.

The Living Farmland - A Guide to Farming with Nature in Clare

This publication is a joint initiative between Rural Resource Development, Leader Group in County Clare, Clare IFA, Teagasc and Clare County Council. It is primarily intended as a practical guide to farming with nature in Clare. The aim was to produce a publication for farmers that would be a valuable reference work providing simple advice on nature conservation and protection of important habitats in the context of practical farming. The publication includes eight profiles of Clare farmers who tell the story of how they have successfully incorporated environmental management into their farming enterprises in ways that will inspire others.

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Biodiversity – Working for us

While there is merit in conserving biodiversity in its own right, there are also a number of critical services which biodiversity provides for society and the economy including provisioning services, such as the production of food and clean water, regulating services, such as the control of climate and disease, supporting services, such as nutrient cycling and crop pollination, and cultural services such as spiritual and recreational benefits. Some of these are detailed below.

Food

Notwithstanding the provision of wild foods such as fish, shellfish, mushrooms, nuts and berries, our agriculture sector is heavily reliant on a healthy biodiversity. Cattle and sheep production in Clare, as with the rest of Ireland, is grassland based, with only a very small proportion reseeded each year. Over the last number of years, it has become increasingly evident that species richness in grassland swards results in more productive and cost effective grassland management, as well as producing much tastier meat than a rye grass sward. In addition, there has been a huge increase in resistance to herbicides and pesticides in our tillage and horticulture sectors, resulting in a return to more natural forms of pest control.

The conservation of genetic resources for native agricultural breeds and varieties is also very important, whether it's the Ballyvaughan seedling apple, Galway sheep or Tipperary turnips.

Water

While water quality in Clare is generally good, there is a huge variety of both point source and diffuse pollution, including domestic and commercial wastewater treatment, surface water run-off, industry and agriculture. Biodiversity, and particularly wetlands, are essential for water purification. Water is constantly being recycled, however, the vegetation on wetlands such as bogs, fens, marshes and swamps slow down the flow of water, allowing pollutants to be trapped and filtered out, while microorganisms break down the organic matter. These natural processes are the basis for constructed wetlands such as reed bed wastewater treatment systems and attenuation ponds.

In addition, it is the invertebrates living in water, such as mayflies and stoneflies, which are regularly used to measure water quality.

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Medicine

While the medicinal benefits of herbs have been known since the time of Clare's most famous herbalist, Biddy Early, it is among bacteria, algae and fungi that the most recent medical advances have been made, from penicillin to bifidus actiregularis. In the last decade, there have been several outbreaks of new life-threatening, and potentially epidemic diseases such as swine flu and avian influenza, as well as many diseases where there is no cure available. As there is estimated to be at least 7,000 species of algae and fungi yet to be discovered in Ireland, there is significant potential for identifying new cures to diseases.

Climate change

It is widely acknowledged that climate change and biodiversity loss are the two biggest environmental issues worldwide, and both are inextricably linked. The conservation of biodiversity in Clare and Ireland can slow down the rate of climate change in a number of ways, while conversely, biodiversity loss can exacerbate climate change.

Carbon sinks and carbon sources have become part of the vernacular among primary and secondary schools. Here in Clare we have two main carbon sinks and potential sources, namely our bogs and our woodland. Most school children understand the process of photosynthesis where trees and other green vegetation take in carbon dioxide (a mixture of carbon and oxygen), use up the carbon, and release the oxygen. In this way they act as carbon sinks. County Clare is one of the most forested counties in Ireland with around 15% forestry cover, although some of this is species poor conifer plantation. The loss of woodland, and particularly broadleaved woodland, reduces the size of our carbon sink, as well as a loss of habitat for birds, mammals, insects, fungi and lichens.

Peatlands contain and absorb carbon dioxide in the same way as trees and other vegetation, but in much higher quantities. In fact, the world's peatlands contain four times the amount of carbon as all the world's rainforests, however, peat only retains carbon if it's moist. Therefore when a bog or fen is drained, they become major carbon sources, releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the peat decays and oxidises.

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Wetlands, as mentioned above slow down the flow of water, and so help to regulate flooding, however, their loss not only exacerbates the level of flooding, but also its speed, which leads to flash flooding. Wetlands can contain huge volumes of water (bogs, for example, are made of over ninety percent water) and when a wetland is drained, the water must go somewhere, and water will always flow to the lowest lying areas. The protection and retention of river floodplains from infilling, reclamation or development is also vitally important to ameliorate the impacts of flooding.

Coastal erosion is an on-going process, while sea level rise is generally regarded as an impact of climate change. Coastal habitats such as saltmarshes and sand dunes act in a similar way to wetlands in reducing the impact of coastal erosion on soft landscapes. However, coastal defences and developments close to coastlines can not only damage these sensitive habitats, but can also result in coastal squeeze. Coastal habitats adapt to erosion by naturally migrating inland, however, inappropriately designed and sited developments and defences prevent this migration, and combined with sea level rise, the habitats become trapped and 'squeezed' between the two forces, resulting in their eventual loss.

Soil fertility

As most gardeners know, the more earthworms in the soil the better, as they help to mix up the soil, aerate it, and improve its structure, however, its not just earthworms which contribute to soil fertility. Microorganisms such as fungi and bacteria help break down organic matter such as dead vegetation and animal manure into humus, which provides nutrients to plants, holds moisture and improves soil structure. Plants themselves can contribute to soil fertility. Clover for example is a nitrogenous plant, meaning it increases nitrogen in the soil, a vital nutrient for plant growth, while trees and shrubs bring nutrients from the sub-soil and bedrock (including important trace elements) to be distributed over the top soil via leaf litter. This is of particular value for farms and gardens where crops and animals (and ultimately humans) need such nutrients for good health.

Crop pollination

Whether it's true or not, Albert Einstein has been attributed the quote 'if the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live'. The rationale behind the quote is that around 90% of all the world's flowering plants depend on pollination by animals to reproduce, including over three-quarters of the staple crops on which we depend for food. While bees are the most notable pollinators, there are many other insects which help pollinate, including butterflies, hoverflies and moths. However, here in Clare and worldwide, pollinators are in decline for a number of reasons, including diseases, parasites, invasive species, fragmentation of their habitats, intensification of agriculture, the use of pesticides and chemicals, and climate change. More than half of Ireland's 101 native bee species have significantly declined in numbers since 1980, with one third now threatened with extinction.

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Bio-mimicry

Bio-mimicry is how science and technology copy nature's design in order to increase efficiency. For example, the eye of a moth has shown scientists how to create an anti-reflective coating for solar panels, the wings of a dragonfly inspired panels on a boat called 'Solar Sailor', which harnesses both solar and wind energy, super adhesive bandages have been modelled on the structure of a gecko's foot, and trains have been modelled on the head profile of a kingfisher. Bio-mimicry encourages us to look afresh at nature for ideas and models of sustainable design, and there are ever increasing opportunities to bring together ecology, biology, design and technology.

Education

Biodiversity has always played a role in education, particularly within the curriculum of primary schools, and it is well recognised that outdoor activities add enormously to the relevance and effectiveness of children's learning. However, curriculums, and consequently schools, have tended to use national, or even international case-studies to teach, thereby overlooking the wealth of case-studies available on the school's own doorstep. Increasingly, there is a focus on place-based education, which immerses students (of all ages) into the local landscape and local biodiversity, and offers more relevant and multi-dimensional learning opportunities than classroom-based education.

Recreation, amenity and well-being

There is an increasing appreciation of the recreational and amenity benefits of biodiversity as evidenced in the development of green infrastructure plans for Ennis and Shannon, in neighbourwood schemes such as Lees Road and Ballybeg woods, and in the popularity of walking trails throughout the county, such as the recently opened Doolin to Hags Head Walkway, and the proposed West Clare Railway route. However, it is important to understand that many of the health benefits, and particularly the mental health benefits, arising from these areas are inextricably linked to the biodiversity available. Children with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms and behavioural problems when surrounded by trees and animals in natural settings, while hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees and other aspects of biodiversity from their windows. Simply surrounding ourselves with the sounds of nature is proven to reduce blood pressure and stress.

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Inspiration and culture

'Great art picks up where nature ends' is a quote from Marc Chagall, and certainly the biodiversity and landscape of Clare has long attracted and inspired countless artists, as well as being the instigation behind the success of the Burren College of Art. However, it's not just artists who come to Clare to be inspired, as evidenced from the huge volume of songs, stories and poems which describe our local biodiversity in vivid detail, from the music of Sharon Shannon to the words of the philosopher John O'Donoghue. Indeed many parishes and townlands throughout Clare have names associated with biodiversity, or local songs describing their landscape.

Biodiversity is also central to many aspects of our cultural heritage from the Latoon Fairy Tree where the Munster fairies are said to have rested on their way to war, to the Herbalist, Biddy Early, who was convicted of witchcraft due to her knowledge of herbal medicine. Reputed to be 1,000 years old, the Brian Boru Oak in Tuamgraney is one of the oldest and most famous oaks in Ireland, while at Loop Head, the lover's leap is the story of how Diarmuid and Gráinne fled from Fionn McCumhaill and the Fianna, by jumping from the mainland to the island.

Threats to biodiversity, including invasive species

In County Clare, there are several threats to biodiversity, but perhaps the biggest and most important threat is a lack of recognition, and more fundamentally, a lack of appreciation for biodiversity. It is regularly viewed as a luxury, and the critical role it plays in the health and wellbeing of our society is overlooked.

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In many cases, there are efforts made to protect our more rare and sensitive habitats and wildlife, such as those within designated sites, however, there is a failure to recognise that these rely on connections to other sites and the wider countryside to ensure the migration and genetic exchange of wild species. In these situations, the more common habitats such as hedgerows, small groups of trees, streams, small lakes, river edges, wet grassland and marshy areas are just as important to the survival of these rare and sensitive habitats and wildlife. This is particularly relevant to the protection of bats, which rely on hedgerows and other corridors for protection when commuting.

There are many examples in County Clare where development (from housing and wind farms, to industry and roads) , land reclamation and forestry plantations, particularly over the last two decades, have effectively obliterated habitats and their species. In a landscape like ours, where there is a high proportion of sensitive ecosystems, and habitats around every corner, these will continue to be threats. Therefore it is vital that development is appropriately sited, the need for, or extent of, land reclamation is reconsidered, and forestry plantations are more species diverse, and not planted on sensitive habitats.

There is a worrying overreliance on using engineering solutions to environmental problems rather than identifying and assessing alternatives. This is particularly relevant in relation to wetlands and floodplains. With regard to flooding, very often the solution simply results in somewhere else being flooded. To exacerbate the situation, existing or proposed engineering works carried out on other developments are not taken into account. In site preparation works, there is often little regard given to the effects on the hydrology of adjacent wetlands.

Deterioration of water quality, as a result of both point source pollution and diffuse pollution, is a significant threat to aquatic ecosystems. Phytoplankton and macro-invertebrates (such as mayflies, stone-flies and caddis-flies) are extremely sensitive to water pollution, and the loss of these species will resonate impacts further up the food chain, from fish and amphibians, to otters and birds.

Disturbance to wildlife, and particularly birds, occurs as a result of inappropriately sited development and increased recreational pressure. The use of jet-ski's and power boats in areas where birds feed can result in significant disturbance, while dogs which are not kept on leads also disturb wildlife.

The spread of invasive alien species is a particularly important threat to local biodiversity as they compete for space and food. Aquatic invasive species are spread when recreational and pleasure crafts are moved around inland waterways without proper washing and care that they are not transporting invasive species. Dumping of garden cuttings in wild areas can introduce non native species, while ornamental garden species such as certain pondweeds have escaped into wild aquatic ecosystems. Inappropriate management on invasive species can also exacerbate their expansion, such as in the case of Japanese Knotweed. 

The following links provide best practice guidance for the control and management of invasive species:

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Giving something back - What can I do?

Unlike climate change, biodiversity is tangible, and the effort you put in can be seen at a local level (think about planting a flower), so roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!!

Biodiversity does not require erecting a fence and a 'do not touch' sign. In fact, the opposite is often true, such as the case in the Burren where active management is helping to conserve the landscape.

Simply enjoying biodiversity adds value to it, while biodiversity which has links to local history and culture is even more valuable, particularly to local communities. Recognizing and recording the role played by biodiversity in local history is therefore an important aid to biodiversity conservation.

The relationships between a single species and other species in their habitat have evolved over millennia to become interdependent. The introduction of new species requires beginning from scratch in order to create similar relationships, therefore, always choose native species and avoid releasing exotic or non-native species into the wild.

How often have we cleared large tracts of habitats, only to try and replace them with the same in the new landscape plan? Where possible, retain existing habitats in our gardens, development sites and farms. Avoid cutting hedgerows between March 1st and August 31st as this is the prime breeding season for birds.

'Neat and Tidy' is rarely good for biodiversity. Where possible, manage lawns and grassy areas as traditional hay meadows, mowing only once a year in late summer and avoiding all chemicals. Even doing this around edges and in corners will encourage wild flowers, butterflies and insects, birds and other small mammals such as hedgehogs. Remember, what we often consider to be weeds can be important for biodiversity, such as nettles (Several species of butterflies) and knapweed (Around 14 different invertebrates).

Feed the birds!! Bird feeders can be the difference between life and death during harsh winters and in return provide plenty of colour and song, while nest boxes for both birds and bats provide invaluable refuge for breeding.

Contact information

Shane Casey,
Clare Biodiversity Officer,
Clare County Council,
Áras Contae an Chláir,
New Road,
Ennis,
Co. Clare
Telephone: (065) 6846499
Email: scasey@clarecoco.ie


Congella McGuire,
Clare Heritage Officer,
Clare County Council,
Áras Contae an Chláir,
New Road,
Ennis,
Co. Clare
Telephone: (065) 6846408
Email: cmcguire@clarecoco.ie

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Page last updated: 25/09/13