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Ring of Gullion Biodiversity

The area today has a rich flora and fauna with many nationally and internationally important habitats and species.

Biodiversity in RoG

Species

Oak

Oak

There are two types of oak tree, the sessile and the pedunculate. The main difference between the two is that the sessile oak does not have stalks on its acorn. The Irish Oak( quercus petraea), the National Tree of Ireland (Daire ghaelach), is sessile and grows in the Ring of Gullion area where it thrives in the higher rainfall and shallow soils that do not suit the lowland pedunculate oak. The oak is a deciduous tree , which means that it loses its leaves in autumn and can grow up to 40m tall and up to 12 m around. They can live for more than 500 years and only start to produce acorns when they are 50 – 60 years old. The oak’s leaves are broad and have 5-6 evenly shaped lobes on each side. The oak provides a home for hundreds of species of insects, birds, mammals and other plants and is an important hub of biodiversity in the region.

Ash

Ash

The ash tree is deciduous from the family Oleaceae. The Ash tree grows best in a cool climate, on the moist, well drained soil, in the Ring of Gullion trees can grow up to 30 meters tall. Their bark is smooth and grayish in young trees and becomes furrowed in a diamond pattern in old trees. The bark can be used as a cure for warts and ash oil is useful for stomach upsets. They have a strong wide root system and grow well spaced apart. The wood of the ash tree is strong and elastic, and has been used over the years for building everything from boats to aeroplanes but today in Ireland is mostly used to make hurleys which are traditionally formed from the curve of the trunk where it widens into the root system, as this natural curve makes stronger wood than simply cutting a curve.

Beech

Beech

Another deciduous tree, the beech is not native to Ireland and was introduced as an ornamental tree in the great gardens and houses of the 18th century. They spread dense shade and their leaf litter prevents many plants from growing under them, however because they flower early before the beech forms its leaves the bluebell is often associated with beech woods making an indigo carpet between the pale smooth towering trunks of the trees which can grow up to 20m tall in the woodlands of Gullion. The fruit of the beech tree is called beechmast and is often thick on the ground, traditionally pigs would have been fed on the mast and many forest mammal also feed on it. Beech bark has many aromatic compounds in it which were used to improve the taste of beer. The leaves are used in the manufacture of gin adding colour and sweetness to it.

Heather

Heather

Heather grows in the uplands of Gullion in areas with acidic, poor and often water-logged soil. The heather does not seem too badly affected by the cold, windy and wet conditions; on the upper slopes the species to look for is Bell heather, while lower down cross leaved heather is more common. This sea of pink and purple is a haven for small mammals and insects. Each heather flower makes 30 seeds so a single heather plant can produce 150,000 seeds per year, but they don’t all germinate and in some places where the soil is badly eroded we are giving the heather a helping hand by growing the seedlings on in local primary schools to plant out later in the year.

Hazel

Hazel

Hazel is most commonly seen as a shrub and generally does not have a main trunk, instead its natural habit is to grow many smaller stems or rods. Traditionally hazel would be coppiced or cut down to a low stump to encourage this way of growing. The straight strong poles which are easy to harvest would have been invaluable for making fencing, hurdles and furniture, particularly when they were turned or “bodged” on a lathe to make chair legs. Hazel has yellow brown twigs and in winter has green catkins that turn fluffy and yellow in spring releasing pollen into the air. Hazel nuts are the favourite food of red squirrels, but the reds are fussy, eating the nuts only when fully ripe, while the grey squirrels will eat even unripe green nuts not giving the reds a look in!

Rowan

Rowan

A slender tree with ascending branches reaching to 15 metres. It has grey-brown bark and grows on poor soils, in areas with high rainfall. It produces dense clusters of small creamy white flowers in May. Later in the summer bunches of berries form which are a striking bright orange/red. A native tree, it grows to its greatest height in mountainous areas and can seem to almost grow out of solid rock. Because of this is often called the mountain ash. You can make a jelly from the berries which is excellent served with roast meats. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of many moths, including the larger Welsh Wave and Autumn Green Carpet. Caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries. Rowan flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees and other pollinating insects, while the berries are a rich source of autumn food for birds, especially the blackbird, mistle thrush, redstart, redwing, song thrush, fieldfare and waxwing.

Hawthorn

Hawthorn

This tree is commonly part of hedgerows but can grow as a small tree with a single stem. These twisted knarled individual trees are often called fairy trees and are said to mark entrances to the land of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. It is bad luck to cut them down. The bark of hawthorn is brown-grey, knotted and cracked and the twigs are covered in sharp thorns. The Hawthorn is sometimes called the May flower named after the month that it flowers in; the flowers are highly scented white or sometimes pink. When they are pollinated by insects they set to form bunches of bright red berries or haws. In early spring the leaves are tasty in a sandwich and are sometimes known as poor man’s cheese, but the berries are not very good to eat unless you are a blackbird.

Elder

Elder

Elder is a small deciduous native tree growing in woodland scrub and hedgerows, it is not very long lived surviving to around 60 years only., they can grow up to 15 m but the main bole tends to be very short. The flowers of the elder are born on large flat umbels, wach flower is a creamy colour and is highly scented. The flowers make wonderful cordials, a type of champagne and can even be fried in batter to make fritters and when they have been pollinated by insects they set to form dark purply black berries which can in turn be used to make wine and preserves or add a vitamin c rich kick to a traditional apple pie. It was thought that if you burned elder wood you would see the devil, but the tree was useful as an insect repellent and they were frequently planted next to a cattle shed or a privy.

Frogs

Frogs

The common frog feeds mainly on land but returns to the water of ponds, streams, bog pools and ditches to breed every spring. They sometimes gather in large numbers at this time of year and a group of frogs is called an “army”. They hibernate under rocks and piles of dead wood. Frogs lay eggs or spawn which hatch into tadpoles, these later lose their tails and grow legs to metamorphose into mini frogs. Frogs don’t drink water, they absorb it though their skin, they also breathe through their skin which they have to keep moist. They are insectivorous using their sticky muscular tongue to catch flies. Frogs are endangered by loss of habitat, fires and domestic pets like cats.

Smooth newts

Smooth newts

The smooth newt and the common frog are the only amphibians in Ireland, the smooth newt hunts insect larvae and snails under water, but can live on the land, although it needs to lay its’ spawn in water and will return to the same pond every year, which is usually the same one it was born in. A really interesting newt fact is how easily they can lose and re-grow even rather complex body parts such as limbs, spinal cord tissues, and even eyes. The presence of newts in a pond indicates that the water is clean as they have permeable skin and are susceptible to harmful chemicals and changes in water chemistry. If the water is clean however they can live for many, many years.

Pine martens

Pine martens

In areas where pine martens are recovering, grey squirrel numbers are down and red squirrels seem to be doing better, but no-one really understands why yet. The pine marten is an omnivorous, tree dwelling member of the weasel family. In Irish is known as the cata crain or cat of the trees. They have long dark chestnut brown fur with a distinctive creamy coloured throat. Pine martens have a long slender sinuous shape and are about the size of a pet cat. Once heavily hunted by gamekeepers, the number of pine martens is now slowly increasing, but sadly the most common site of them is squashed on the road. The pine marten likes wooded areas where it can hunt at night for small mammals, birds, beetles, caterpillars and even carrion.

Otters

Otters

Ireland holds the densest population of otters in Europe, so keep a look out in the lochs and rivers of the Ring of Gullion and if you are lucky you might catch a glipse of this elusive creature. The best time to look is evening and early morning as they are nocturnal. Otters have dense waterproof brown fur that is paler underneath. They have very good eyesight under water and also use their whiskers to feel the vibrations of the fish, small mammals crustacea and frogs that they eat. Otters have large lungs and can slow their heart-rate right down so they can stay underwater for more than 4 minutes. They are very playful often making slides on the banks of rivers and they mark their territories with spraint or droppings, the smell of these tells other otters that a territory has been taken.

Red Deer

Red Deer

The red deer is Ireland’s largest land mammal, weighing in at around 110 kg and standing 1.5 meters tall. Look out for it high on the slopes of Slieve Gullion where it feeds on grasses, heather leaves and twigs. It has a bright red-brown summer coat with a buff coloured rump, their coats grow longer, thicker and browner in winter. Only the male (stag) has antlers, in the autumn these stags enter the rutting season when a strong male will compete with others to collect a harem of up to 40 females. They challenge each other by roaring, so listen out for the deep bellowing of a stag in rut in the Ring of Gullion during October. The young deer are born in May and June and are frequently hidden away in deep grass or bushes while the mothers feed. If you find a young deer do not touch it, it has not been abandoned and if you move away the mother will return.

Buzzard

Buzzard

This majestic bird is sometimes known as a tourist eagle as its soaring habit and wide wings causes many people to think they have seen an eagle. Another problem with identifying this bird is the fact that its plumage is very variable ranging from dark brown to almost white, but a dead give away is the outspread fanned feathers like finger on the end of its wings.
Buzzards were almost extinct in Ireland but have recovered spreading south from a stronghold on the Antrim coast and they are now a common sight round the Ring of Gullion, especially noticeable in spring and summer when they soar high in the sky and whistle loudly. Other birds notice them too and you will quite often see them being mobbed and chased by other small birds.
Despite its impressive size, the buzzard is not a major predator, preferring a diet of carrion and earthworms, although sometimes it will take live rabbits or even frogs. . their liking for carrion means they are vulnerable to the laying of poison bait put out to kill foxes etc
Buzzards tend to pair for life and circulate round a large number of nest sites in a territory using a different one each year. They have a curious habit of decorating their nest with fresh green foliage often using herbs that deter fleas and mites.

Raven

Raven

The raven is the largest bird in the crow family, twice as heavy as a common crow with a wing span of almost 1 metre, they are also very long lived (40 years in teh wild and upto 70 in captivity). They fly more like birds of prey than other crows, soaring and carrying out acrobatics. They are good hunters but also scavenge carrion and eat nuts fruits and seeds too.
Ravens are very, very clever, out-performing chimpanzees in some intelligence tests, playing with each other and even with other animals. Ravens can imitate other birds mimicking crows dogs and other animals. Their penetrating loud croak signals that something has disturbed the raven and this call can be heard kilometers away. Some ravens have even been taught to say a few human words.

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NIEA DoE N&M DC Biodiversity

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Ring of Gullion AONB
Crossmaglen Community Centre,
O’Fiaich Square,
Crossmaglen,
BT35 9AA.

Tel: +44 (0)28 3086 1949
Slieve Gullion Forest Park: +44 (0)28 3031 3170
Email: info@ringofgullion.org

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