We’ve spent the last couple of days of our Irish escapade exploring a stunning valley of ancient Sessile Oak woodland in County Cork’s rugged western coast.
The Glengarriff Nature Reserve encompasses a rich mix of woodlands, bogs, rocky mountainsides, wet heaths and riverine habitats nestled in the drainage basin of the surrounding Caha Mountains. From the bare hillsides of the upper catchment, splendidly-named tributaries such as the Coomarkane, Owenacahina and Canrooska run into the gurgling Glengarriff brook. The river cuts through a landscape of Old Red Sandstone from the Devonian period, though the valley’s glacial formation is evident in the scattered boulders and fissured rocky outcrops in the catchment area.
Spending time in towering Atlantic rainforests has made for a refreshing change after the stunted patches of trees we’re endowed with on Bardsey. It’s not just the amazing Old Oak Woodland that populates this 300-hactare reserve, though: wet copses of willow, downy birch and alder flourish beside the flowing river; lush meadows with buttercups and wildflowers occupy pockets of open land; there are tussocky parcels of blanket bog and heathland studded with Bog Asphodel, Sphagnum moss and clumps of Cross-leaved Heath; and patches of the ubiquitous coniferous Sitka, Scots pine and Larch forest punctuate the canopy from historic forestry.
The woodland itself is amongst the few patches of proper Ancient Sessile Oak woodland that avoided the axe and saw which befell (quite literally!) most of Britain and Ireland’s forests in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whilst the valley has suffered the foreign invasion of conifers, rhodedendrons, japanese knotweed and some other exotics, the habitat is on the whole fairly intact and wild.
Magnificent Sessile Oaks make up what can only be referred to as Atlantic Rainforest: branches laden with an epiphytic cloak of mosses, drooping lichens, polypody ferns and various herbs. Bare rocks are similarly clad in mosses, rarer filmy ferns in some areas, St Patrick’s cabbage and english stonecrop.
Throughout the patchwork of woodland and open areas is a brilliant diversity of insect and bird life. Whilst a little tricky to pick out amongst the tangle of branches, feeding flocks of fledgling woodland birds include long-tailed, blue, great and coal tits, chiffchaffs, blackcaps, goldcrests, treecreepers and robins. I glimpsed a couple of young grasshopper warblers in an area of scrub; blackbirds and song thrushes were busy provisioning young; jays were conspicuous with their raucous screeching; and flocks of finches passing overhead included crossbills, siskins, redpolls and bullfinches.
There was a superb variety of insects to discover: dazzling beautiful demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo) by the riverside; bright crab spiders (mesumena vatia) poised on flowerheads for unwary prey; hoverflies, bees and long-horned beetles visiting blossoming bramble patches; dragonflies, froghoppers and moths aplenty amongst the tussocky molinia grass of the bogs.
Oh, and did I mention the clouds of midges? It seems Irish midges are equally insufferable as their Scottish counterparts, though thankfully confined to the bogland!
The botanical side of things has proved really enjoyable whilst wandering the various forest trails too, Mum providing a useful commentary to satisfy my novice attempts at IDs. Here is a selection of images from the floral side of things…
A superb area to explore – we’re headed to County Kerry next, with a more coastal-themed few days