Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ireland: The Burren

The northern coast of County Clare lies at the edge of one of the strangest landscapes in the world: the Burren, a mosaic-like expanse of limestone bedrock crisscrossed with soil-filled cracks. To early visitors, it was a barren wasteland. 

The Burren, however, belies its appearance – it is one of the botanically-richest corners of Europe, with a number of plants practically confined to it.

Ivy (Hedera helix cf hibernica)
We were there too early in the season to see it at its best, though there were certainly plants about: this is a local form of Ivy ( probably Hedera helix var. hibernica) [I can hardly call it English Ivy in Ireland!].

 Before we turned inland to explore the interior of the Burren,  a final scan of the coast turned up a pair of Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) - Brant to us North Americans – swimming quietly amidst the floating seaweed.

After the geese, we headed eastward in search of a suitable bit of Burren countryside to explore (much of the area is part of the Burren National Park.  This bit seemed to fit the bill nicely: limestone pavement split into blocks as neatly as if an army of stonemasons had been at work.  Spring blossoms were already starting to emerge from the cracks in the stone.

As Eileen's photo shows, I decided that the best way to experience the area was to adopt an up-close-and-personal approach.

That way, I could get on close terms with lichens (this appears to be a species of Caloplaca).

This bleached shell belonged to one of the more than 80 species of land snail that live in the Burren, but I have no idea which.

Wood Dog-Violet (Viola reichenbachiana) poss
Wood Dog-Violet (Viola reichenbachiana) poss
There were not many flowers about yet, but the few I found were worth examining.  These violets may be the Wood Dog-Violet (Viola reichenbachiana), which has slenderer petals than the Common Dog-Violet that we found in the south.   Their petals are not overlapping, a marker for this species.

Early-purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)
Early-purple Orchid (Orchis mascula)
A visitor from the tropics might think this an odd place for orchids, but they are here nonetheless.  This is the Early-purple Orchid (Orchis macula).

Tormentil (Potentilla erecta)
This little yellow blossom is Tormentil (Potentilla erecta).

Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
The star attraction on the Burren is the Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna), a highly-localised specialty (at least in Ireland) with, according to Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, the brightest blue flowers in the whole of the British and Irish flora.  We may have been too early for most of the Burren flowers, but at least we were on time for this one.

Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
Spring Gentian (Gentiana verna)
The blue of the Spring Gentian really does glow against the grey of the limestone pavement.  Though a special attraction here, the species actually has a very broad range across Eurasia.  According to the account of the species on Wikipedia, it is one of the smallest of its genus, is notably rare in northern Europe, and has been the subject of a number of odd superstitions - notably that if you bring one into your house, you risk being struck by lightning.  I suspect that an early conservationist came up with that one!

The most striking symbol human presence on the Burren is the Poulnabrone Portal Tomb, one of the most frequently-visited ancient monuments in Ireland.  

Radiocarbon dating places it at about 3800-3600 BCE - meaning it has been standing on this lonely spot for almost six thousand years (the visitors' rope is more recent).  The Burren landscape may seem inhospitable (even to flower lovers), but the tomb stands as evidence that people have been here for a very long time.

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