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Landscape and Natural History
Ireland, the island was formed by rising seas as the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted. It has been shaped into a unique blend of mountains, bogs, lakes, rivers, and remote wave-lashed islands. Coastal erosion ensures that the islands nature is in a constant state of change. Ireland's plant and animal life, although impoverished by its early isolation and continuing remoteness, is still diverse and all the more interesting because of the strange combinations of arctic/alpine and southern species which live side by side on Irish soil.
Ireland's rock framework is composed of a central, low-lying limestone plain, hemmed in by a rim of mountains, with only the occasional break allowing access to the sea. The central plain is, for the most part, covered with a mantle of boulder clay deposited during the Ice Age and overlain in the centre by raised bogs - unique domes of peat covered in their pristine form with sphagnum moss and heather. A flight across Ireland confirms its legendary green mantle, though today this is pock-marked with extensive brown 'deserts' where the raised bogs are being stripped to supply hungry electricity generating stations and the equally demanding domestic fuel and horticulture markets.
Ireland's rich green pastures have been nurtured over the centuries by the steady fall of rain carried on westerly winds. Much of this rain eventually finds its way into the centre of the 'saucer' from whence the mighty River Shannon carries it back to the Atlantic Ocean. The Shannon is a broad, sluggish river, expanding at intervals to form some of Ireland's largest Loughs - Allen, Ree and Derg. It drains an area of about 15,000 square kilometres, almost one-fifth of the area of the country, and drops only 147 metres on its 336-km journey from source to sea.
To the north, and linked by canal to the Shannon, the complex and beautiful Lough Erne meanders through 'basket of eggs' drumlin country north-westwards to the coast. Further north and east still, and very different in character, is Lough Neagh, Ireland's largest lake. Broad, shallow, and almost devoid of islands, this enriched lake is Ireland's premier inland waterbird haunt, and in winter it is host to tens of thousands of ducks.
The River Bann carries the bountiful waters of Lough Neagh to the north coast where they enter the sea not far to the west of the Giant's Causeway with its famous basalt columns - formed at a time when America was breaking away from Continental Europe. The legend surrounding the formation of the causeway is even more remarkable. An Irish giant built a path to Scotland to fight a battle with a Scottish foe.
Inland are the tidy picturesque Glens of Antrim. Then comes Belfast Lough, industrialised, but still a regular home for shorebirds, and Strangford Lough, arguably the most outstanding coastal wildlife habitat in Ireland. In autumn it receives the first skeins of Brent geese as they return from their breeding grounds in Arctic Canada, and in summer it is host to breeding Terns which have travelled northwards from their wintering areas off the coast of Africa. Beneath its waters the sea-life is rich and beautiful.
The Mountains of Mourne, tall and imposing, are part of a granite landscape which cradles Carlingford Lough, well known for its wildlife, too. Further south, granite hills again rise to dominate the coastal scene in Dublin and Wicklow, with Lugnaquilla Mountain (920 m) taking pride of place above this moorland plateau which is dissected by long, forested, eastward-running valleys.
The coastal lowlands in the south-east of the country boast some of Ireland's most ancient rocks, about 2,000 million years old, and some of its finest coastal wildlife habitats.
To the west, extensive deposits of Old Red Sandstone have been crumpled into a series of east-west running ridges and valleys, the latter descending into broad shallow bays separated by rugged peninsulas which project finger-like into the Atlantic. Carrauntuohil (1004 m), guarded by steep and treacherous crags, is Ireland's highest mountain.
The mild climate in the south-west brings flowers into bloom earlier than anywhere else in the country, and allows plants such as the strawberry tree, which is usually, found only much further south in Europe, to flourish.
Offshore, standing firm against the Atlantic breakers, the Skellig and the Blasket Islands are home to many thousands of breeding seabirds, among them gannets, puffins and Manx shearwaters. The rich waters off the south are temporary home to whales, dolphins and porpoises on their seasonal migrations.
Deceptive in its barrenness and lunar landscape, the Burren is one of the most fascinating areas in Ireland for the naturalist. Growing side-by-side are arctic/alpine plants such as the mountain avens and warmth-loving species such as the maidenhair fern. The limestone is permeated with caves that carry water away from the surface to the lowland rivers to the south, or down to the coast where it sometimes emerges again only below sea-level.
To the west, the Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren limestone and have many features in common with it. However, to the north, across Galway Bay, there is a very different landscape - blanket bog, lakes and steep rocky ridges of ancient, unyielding quartzite. This is Connemara, another area of contrasts and conundrums. Heathers more typical of southern climes and mountain plants more at home in the Arctic grow in this exposed and inhospitable outpost of Ireland. And in winter geese come from Greenland to feed in its soggy bogs and whooper swans from Iceland to find sustenance in its small, infertile Loughs.
Wind-swept open spaces are the essence of west Mayo, with its vast expanse of blanket bog pressed up against the sinuous quartzite ridge of the Nephin Mountains. The bogs, though, come to an abrupt end at the spectacular, contorted cliffs of the north Mayo coast, from which there is a panoramic view across Donegal Bay of the limestone buttress of Benbulben to the east, in Sligo and the stupendous cliffs of Slieve League and the mountains of Donegal to the north-east.
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