a new departure for us but still with a focus on Ireland’s Wild orchids. Roscommon is almost universally limestone and is part of the large midland low lying plain of central Ireland with the Shannon River marking its eastern edge. A tall, narrow, county that makes up for its lack of height by a huge variety of Limestone and Bog country. Today we are studying a slightly elevated area of limestone south of Strokestown and west of Athlone This features many of the structures and erosion patterns so many of us know from The Burren in County Clare. Here in Roscommon these features are often buried under rough pasture or wild woodland like the hazel woods in among the karst hills of Clare.
Today we are visiting Dysart and more particularly, Killeglan Special Area of Conservation. We have come to live
in Roscommon in recent years and have slowly come to appreciate its landscape and large views stretching into
the midlands. Killeglan is one these sites and has long been protected as part of a limestone countryside partially
emerging from a thin coat of soil..
Wonderful forgotten Roscommon places
Roscommon, is one of Ireland’s larger inland Counties. Hence no sea, no saltwater shores, few cliffs but a very varied and rich flora and fauna thriving on Limestone uplands with many SACs (Special Areas of Conservation, and other specific Nature Protection projects.
WildWest records and celebrates Nature, Habitat, Scenery on the western seaboard of Europe bringing you reports on how our wild communities (plants, animals, insects etc) are surviving in Ireland and other western extremes.
6th June 2021
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Two groups of orchids growing separately. Two species. The
one on the Left is a Green Winged Orchid with its ‘cousins’ the
Early Prurple Orchid
Orchid SpeciesEarly Purple(Orchis mascula) A very familiar early orchid with its spotted leaves and early flowers identifying it as an Early Purple Orchid Plant (RIGHT) is the Green-winged Orchid(Anacamptis morio)Recognisable with plain sturdy pure green leaves. The spur is largely horizontal whereas the Early Purple has an upward pointing spur.The identity of the plant is clinched by the green striped upper sepals on the ‘hood’ over each flower.
A Charming Exotic.. Dense-flowered Orchid Neotinea maculata
But, NOW, an even more elusive and exotic plant. This one was recorded from this site in 2016 and, maybe, after that? It is typical of The Burren, probably its main haunt in Ireland. It does not occur in Britain but is ‘native’ to the warmer Mediterranean region so its occurrence in Roscommon, and in Ireland in general, makes this a very rare and unique part of our biodiversity.. Hence its familiar description as ‘’’ the Irish Orchid”. It is specifically a plant of dry limestone areas such as The Burren and Killeglan.
Location and Association:
Very near to where we park the car there is a water feature on the opposite (karst) side of the road. This is a dry valley (BELOW LEFT) with steep curving bouldery sides indicating strong flows of water at certain times, though we have never seen it except totally dry and hot.The bottom of the channel is only 1 to 2m wide, flat, and with a continuous cover of very short grass. This and the limestone environment is just the same as the facies in which it occurs in The Burren. Even there, though, it occurs in large numbers spread over a wide are of gently sloping sun-facing limestone pavement again with tightly cropped grass areas in between the bare karst limestone and the few bushes that survive in the more sheltered areas. The conditions at Killeglan, also, seem to meet the very specific needs of this species.
Habitat and Occurrence:
We only found one specimen here to make this species’ rarity even more pronounced. Orchids produce abundant seed and this is dispersed by wind. Presumably this is how our specimen arrived in this specialised nook — though the role of water must not be ignored either? This site borders the road frontage of Killeglan SAC. It is the end of a steady slope leading towards that boundary road. The erosion and the size of the complex suggests that this ‘water feature’ can handle and disperse considerable quantities of water during times of flash flooding? How this little orchid survives these conditions may be due to small boulders crossing the channel and a dense mat of short grass throughout the area. This feature is not indicated on the Geology Survey of Ireland map nor are there any other water features reported from the SAC indicating that this area of conservation is a small area of uplift in the limestone. Water features abound outside the SAC and water tracing shows water movement underground from higher limestone features to the south east, particularly a quarry. The dryness of this habitat and its ability to cater with heavy rain are comparable to the way The Burren karst runs water away underground.These geographical features may pose a possible reason as to why this exotic little orchid survives here and in Clare and a few other places in Ireland but not in Britain — where karst features are rarer? Of course, we could have missed many more. Our purpose here was to record the the occurrence of Green-winged Orchids in the SAC over recent years. That involved much fieldwork and smaller orchids could easily have been missed during the process.
Topography:This SAC site is well chosen; its raised stony profile is unusual for the Midlands though there are some similar plots outside the defined SAC. West of the site are boglands and the callows before the R. Suck is reached. This plays a major part in draining this central part of Ireland but Killeglan rises steeply from the river level up to about 130m. at the highest point in this SAC. Altitude often plays an important role as to where elusive orchids may, or may not, occur. Orchids like the Dense-flowered can be evident from 50m up to 300m (in The Burren). Another similar orchid, the Small White Orchid, seems to specialise in altitudes of 250 - 300m. in Cavan, Sligo and Clare. This distribution might suggest opportunity and vulnerability. Wind feeding dispersal of seed and grassy nooks providing the opportunity. Dells with a rich lime content provide the shelter and the nutrients these plants need!
Features:The Arrow in the photograph (ABOVE) shows the location where this specimen grew. In mid channel, just behind a row of 5 small ‘stepping stones’. If you visit the site this rocky feature stands out and provides the easiest way of entering the area. The feature can be seen on online aerial photographs about 100m south of a gate between two green (reclaimed) fields.Climb to the top of the highest mound and notice the various channels. The one shown here runs north east and drains through a small sump around the corner. We suspect the 5 stones around the orchid may well survive temporary flooding and this means of placing a record is far more accurate than any GPS. (Most naturalists now carry digital cameras; upload this image to your camera and refer to it when you are on site. (Or, contact us for further information.)
Associates:In The Burren Mountain Avens are often associated with the Dense-flowered Orchid. Just as in Killeglan Cowslips are often associated with Green Winged orchids. If you go to south Roscommon in mid May look out for those glorious clumps of Cowslips right across the fields or in swathes under trees. Is this Wall Rue a site marker too?The Wall Rue fern (Asplenium ruta-muraria) is associated with very dry stony limestone mounds — either natural or man-made. These mounds have no soil and consequently attract drought resistant plants that can survive in arid hot niches where more leafy plants would quickly die.
Why record the Green Winged Orchids?
Green Winged Orchid was once widespread and common in traditional farming Ireland. But intensification and improvement has made meadows more lush and this has marginalised this species of Orchid. Of course such farming has benefited Ireland’s agriculture and our well being. But, thankfully there are pockets, such as this one, where various factors have combined to make it more practical to set aside an area for nature rather than clear the land… These pockets will form a link across the country where vulnerable species can survive. These sites are owned and cared for by farmers.
Aerial View of Killeglan Special Area of Conservation.
Observations on Orchid Distribution 14th and 19th May 2021 at KilleglanIf we draw a line from the parking place, at the top right of image, diagonally south westwards across the site we cover the major part of the Green-winged Orchid distribution here. Areas east of the red and yellow walls were largely fruitless (Our description.) The few scattered specimens were mainly under bushes or near rocks to gain shelter. Similarly the zone north of the green wall was explored in some detail but without success. The large area alongside the road also proved negative but was searched less and was more eroded by feeding of stock during the Winter. No animals were seen on the site during either visit.The altitude of the site also increases steadily along this line from 73m near the road to 77m in the red zone, 82 - 85m in the Blue zone and 84 - 92m. for the very few red flagged specimens on the far side of the yellow wall.Pattern of distribution. There is often a reason for plant distribution. It can be based on suitable soil conditions or also on climatic factors — like the way the wind blows or the sun shines. The large blue cluster in the middle of the site seemed to have favourable ground conditions with much short grass in larger flat patches. This seemed to favour both the Green-winged and Early Purple Orchids with very little discernible differences between where each grew but often each species grew more comfortably in their own company! What is the magic ingredient?
The SAC extends further west and south than shown in the aerial view above but became stonier with higher vegetation that suited a small dispersed population of Early Purple Orchids. Only two Green-winged Orchids were found in this higher ground which was also more exposed and notably chillier with a steady breeze passing over the highest point of the SAC. Beyond this zone the ground fell away into the Callows and boglands of the Suck River — a large flat area with a consistent altitude of 50m. This makes the SAC a notable upland, detectable by wind, and possibly providing down-drafts to deposit seed in sheltered areas for it to grow.
In this section we associate our specimens with the place in which they live. In our field work we carry 2 cameras and 1 fairly accurate hand-held GPS. All these gadgets carry clocks so it is very easy to associate an image of an orchid with the place they were found. The Mountain Field is actually a group of small fields where the ground levels off for a while after gaining 10 - 12 meters as you walk up from the road. It is the centre of the blue flag area in the aerial view above. Walking up the slope only a few examples of the Green Winged Orchid were seen. On crossing the small wall into the first cluster of orchids we knew we had hit the mother-lode and had a busy afternoon of photography and mapping ahead of us. This site is now a remnant and one can assume that when fields were small and land use was traditional, these orchids would have been all over this limestone heartland. But they cannot grow in green fields (unless fenced off) so they occur in pockets that for one reason or another have been left natural — and nature fills them!
WEST Habitat (Above)This isolated specimen was at the western edge of the cluster where numbers of records were starting to decrease rapidly. This was a healthy individual plant. Looking over the wall, west and south, showed bigger wilder fields with less open sheltered short grass that this species loves.Referring back to the records map it can be seen that very few specimens were seen and marked. Unfortunately, failure to get results does lead to a reduction of effort! West of this point conditions looked similar but orchids (Green Winged) were very rare. A pair of horses may have contributed to the reduced numbers though there were more Early Purple Orchids here than in other parts of the SAC.
NORTH Habitat (LEFT).
Image shows the most northerly specimens. The first clue to their success in this location lies in how lush the grass and foliage is and the number of significant bushes and trees that are present. Both of these factors can help in providing a moist facies on an otherwise exposed and hot bare limestone upland. Perhaps these plants are marginalised and their true habitat is rich mixed natural grass land and woodland edges? The white Mountain Everlasting (Antennaria dioica) are often found in limestone grassland. It seemed to be associated with the Green Winged Orchids on this site? On comparing these images with the aerial view shown above it can be seen that these 3 little fields look greener than most other areas of the SAC. However, there may still be many Green Winged Orchids still waiting to be found both in the blue zone and in the whole SAC.LEFT:These plants were certainly thriving here when we visited them. Many specimens were smaller than these two which looked very comfortable with their buds just emerging from the tight tube formed by sturdy upright leaves. It is like the early leaves were guiding the emerging plant up through the grass until they could manage to break through and let the full delicate flower emerge!
EAST Habitat (Above) There are actually 7 specimens in this photograph but we have reproduced the image to show the landscape more than the plants, but this is a rich location for many budding orchids.The photograph seems to indicate that boulders have been removed from the site presumably to make ‘better’ grassland. In the absence of grazing during the Summer, this policy seems to also cater perfectly for the needs of the Green Winged Orchid.This site is on the tip of the eastern bulge in the bottom half of the blue location diagram above. All the pictures shown in this panel represent the furthest part of each compass point that a large group of flowers were found in these mountain fields.
SOUTH outpost This healthy pair marked the southern tip of the Green Winged stronghold. They were in long grass and were part of a good population that suddenly vanished at the bottom of the blue zone. Fields to the south were well searched, looked suitable on the ground, (and from the air) but no further numbers were found.Further south, beyond the Yellow Wall, the grass looked greener and was studied but no Green Winged Orchids and only a few Early Purple orchids were encountered.So then it was time to head back to the car and our delightful find of The Dense-flowered Orchid, a great rarity for this part of the country!
In their own Place/Habitat — The Mountain Field
The 4 corners of the Blue Zone:Images from the edges of the Blue-flagged group; they are intended to show the environmental condition at the margins of this colony of the Green Winged Orchids and focuses more on the habitat and associated vegetation. The first obvious factor in these images is the good growth of grass and the comparative absence of visible stone. Also, while many of the small walls are broken, they still do provide some shelter in this relatively flat land for the species to germinate and settle over many years. There seem to be more bushes and greener grass in this area; look at the aerial view above!
Green Winged Orchid(Anacamptis morio) is abundant here and these images display the plants as we came across them plotting their position one by one to get a baseline figure for the numbers of specimens in this particular population at this time.
A common association in an undisturbed habitat, Wherever you see Cowslips you may come across Green Wings. So keep a weather eye out for distant clumps of yellow!
One of the paler colour forms found here. No white or biscuit forms were seen with mauve to deepest glowing Plum red as in the specimen Far Right (a bit washed out by the day)!
Sharing its affinity with the Early Purple Orchid this plant protects its developing bud with a tube of tightly wrapped leaves.
Unusual pattern on lip makes this plant different, Normally a simple track of parallel dots down the centre of the labellum serves as a landing strip for fertilising insects.
The deeper plum variant; it looks darker on a bright day when it is breaking out of the low grass.
A newly emerging flower with protective leaves, closed flowers and open flower-head.
Leaves greener and opening up to the Sun. Labellum drooping down but striped hood at top of flower a strong protective structure.
Labellum wide open, rotation of flower clearly seen and protective hood still together unlike in the Early Purple where they would be wide apart by now!
Study of Green Winged flower in more detail:
As this species is not exactly common, when we get an abundant display in nice weather conditions we like to analyse features and differences of the species involved. Often this relates to colour but this population was unusually consistent and the more extreme colour variations were not seen at this site. The specimen (far RIGHT) was an exception with a contrasting pattern of purple and white between the sepals (top) and the lower petal — initially white (with green veins) — to provide a distinct pattern to the early flowers!Species identification from above:This species provides many many keys to identification but it is still possible to mix it up with a dark Early Purple Orchid and close examination is required to detect the ‘green veins’ on the upper Sepals. When doing a biometric analysis of a colony speed is often required. In a large field with few of the Green Winged Orchids, we have come to view the hood of both species from a standing height to clarify identification; this speeds things up! The Green Winged retains a tight enclosing ‘hood’ for most of the flower’s life whereas with the Early Purple the two lateral sepals are pointed and quickly separate pointing upwards like a joyous victory sign! This produces a tridactyl style pattern which is readily discernible from some distance away
Early Purple: 3 Sepals are clearly seen and become clearer as flower ages. The forked shape identifies them!
Green Winged OrchidSpur ends in a unified Hood with the 3 Sepals only indicated (ABOVE) with a dotted line.
Unified Hood clearly visible in all three open flowers seen here. The sepals carry the distinctive green veins on the outside and inside of the the 3 sepals.
A mature specimen with sepals wide open. They still combine to shelter the flower; the hood remains rounded when viewed from above. The pollinia, and two upper petals guarding them, are clearly seen in the lower flower.
A front view of a Green Winged Orchid flower. The feature it derives its name from can be seen quite clearly on the 2 lateral sepals and to a lesser degree on the upper sepal. The ‘Green’ veining appears green on the inside of the sepals and on both sides of white or biscuit colour varieties but the lip is never striped.
Identifying 2 species from standing position by the shape and pattern of their upper Sepals. Don’t mind the colour; just look at the shapes.
BELOW: An Example of Colour VariationOne of the few examples at the Killeglan SAC showing significant colour variation. The upper part of each flower is purple whereas the lower part made up of lateral sepals is white with green lines. Bear in mind that these flowers like many orchids go through a rotation as the flowers emerge which means that the upper sepal is the dorsal sepal — not the case with all orchid species.
Farewell to Killeglan:
Farewell to a lovely mysterious enthralling Roscommon habitat with so much of interest to engage us in the peace and quiet of a broad horizon. It has been absorbing getting to study this wild place — that not many will know — but where it would be a pleasure to get to know people involved in years to come.It is so important that we try and maintain our cultural and natural richness as inevitably Ireland develops more and more — if it is just as a place of research and tranquillity…
Three Final Landscapes of this remote part of
LEFT:A fine Hawthorn tree symbolising the start of Summer, as one of the larger clumps of Cowslips we came across starts to wither as Spring ends. A handy associate of the Green Winged Orchid, this plant marks the limey ground that orchids love — even when the limestone substrate is not visible. RIGHT:Rockier terrain as the gentler slopes to the north start to decline towards the Suck River to the West, a land of green fields and broad bogs reflecting the commercial Ireland of years past and years to come. It is great that there is time for both within such a short distance. Long may we cherish both sides, Nature and Prosperity.
www,WildWest.ie is a voluntary project aiming to portray and report our wonderful environment but also seek to persuade heavy hands to treat our country and our countryside gently, so others can enjoy in the future what we have taken for granted in the past.It will not always be here unless people with health and strength can find time to devote to conservation and striving to keep our place healthy and natural and a treasure for everyone to enjoy.
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Safe for the next Generation…
As we left this site it was nice to look back and see the rocky hills behind and the road home ahead. But there was one more surprise — this little group all flowering together in a corner of the main colony. LEFTEven here it was hard to get 7 specimens in one shot. Small colonies do occur with up to 12 within a square metre. This resilience seems to imply that whatever may happen these rare and significant plants they may continue their own lives , safe in this sanctuary, for another thousand or more years.One wonders how they got here? Perhaps carried by wind into a place where the rocky ground made agriculture hard to undertake. How many people have looked at these little plants and put their own names on them? We call them Green Winged or Green Veined Orchids.The only Irish name we have for them is…Magarlín féitheachInterestingly this is the same name as given to the Early Purple Orchid, also abundant on these hills and very similar in general appearance though they are indeed separate species!
BELOWSite Panorama: From the southern border of the SAC this view looks North Westwards across the Special Area of Conservation with the main area for the Green Winged Orchid lying in the middle of the image where the ground is higher and more level.It is believed that this is the main area where this species grows in concentrated numbers in this SAC and it is a place worth visiting in mid May any year that suits you!
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