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Nearby Places 1 With restricted travel possibilities there are many local fens, bogs, limestone hills etc. that yield interesting material when investigated  closely. This area (NP 1) between the Boyle River (a branch of the Shannon) and Lough Key Forest Park has many small lakes. Surrounding land has a thin cover of peat in most place with also a few deep bogs.

The Knockvicar Limestone lakes

We, like much of the World, have been limited in what we can do. We are based in Roscommon in North West Ireland but the name of the Site does deliberately imply that we would like to explore Nature in other parts of Western Europe. Apart from Britain, we have had little success in this — but check out our Orchids of the Chalk  study in SE England. Relax Outdoors / Keep your Distance Edvard Munch, "Adam og Eva", 1909. FOTO: Munchmusee Image from:  NOW, with Covid 19 we are limited in time we can spend outdoors and the distance we can travel. We are proud of the way our Country has responded but, like many, we seek activities to keep us alert and healthy. Hence the study of Nearby Places. We have identified 3 sites and are working on these:
This is the first of a series of visits to interesting or beautiful places near where we live. The common feature of this area west of Knockvicar, in north Roscommon, is that they are all close to the Boyle River and are all on underlying Limestone base which makes the soil alkaline and increases fertility.


The Knockvicar Limestone Lakes


The south Bricklieve High Pastures


L. Gara’s Marsh and Fragrant Orchids

Why are we doing this?

Environmental health, mental health, physical health necessitates that we share, appreciate and enjoy the outdoors. It is the WildWest way of getting through Covid! Others love to run or walk or do their gardens, if they are lucky enough to have them. We like to explore, photograph and promote our landscape in a way that we enjoy and which we hope may introduce others to the pleasures to be found in the quiet pursuit of Natural History. The correlation between environment and health has never been so dramatic and we all hope that by living quietly and avoiding spreading the Covid bug we may soon have our Country back again! These lakes are very close to us and, typically, we have neglected them in our pursuit of the more glamorous wildlife habitats such as The Burren (Clare) and the sea cliffs and and vast sandy beaches of Sligo. It is good to spend time in your own place and it is amazing the amount of interesting places there are when you stop the car at 5 or 20km rather than a 100km? Better for us and better for the countryside. We are less fatigued and have more time in the fresh air and consume less resources. Some of these Limestone Lakes (L. Key and Oakport Lough) are now much cleaner than in a ‘normal Summer’. There is much less boat traffic and none by heavy Cruisers since the Covid lock down commenced in March. Water quality has dramatically improved with holiday cruisers not in use and lakeside tourist facilities greatly reduced. L. Key has, in certain areas, suffered badly from waste discharge into its water with the phosphate content triggering potentially toxic Cyanophyceae blooms — this has not happened this year!

What is so special with this small area of North Roscommon?

Perhaps it is just home; the place where we bring the dog, where we walk routinely and see the passage of the seasons — dramatic in the broad leave trees and not so obvious among the conifers. Full of pollen in the Spring, these places can be restful and offer shelter during colder or wetter weather. The lakes are small and hardly used commercially at all. The small lake above, Laundry Lake, is away from the main walks and only infrequently will you meet people there. It is a pretty lake and we know little about it except that it is settled on a strata of limestone, a small piece of which is visible in the above photograph. Laundry Lake is home to a prolific fringe of reeds, Birch and Alder trees with little of the more useful (but less attractive) commercial softwoods bordering the lake. The owners of the land are probably developing this area more for social and environmental purpose than for the production of timber. A lot of the land may be too marshy and we note that, as we write, some areas of poorly developing conifers are being removed. Hopefully, they will not be replaced.

Laundry Lake

From ABOVE LEFT… Wild Garlic, Canal leaving L. Keel, and Bridge and Lock built as part of the infra- structure needed to manage the Rockingham Estate in the 19th Century
ABOVE Abundant young Bird Cherry plants line the paths around Oakport Demesne Park.   RIGHT Whilst on the shore of Oakport Lough this bunch of the slightly rare Summer Snowflake. This seems to be spreading down the Boyle River as a large colony exists on  a mid-river island just downstream of Boyle.

Fin Lough

Fin Lough is an interesting lake about a kilometre west of the Oakport group and draining into L. Key as opposed to the Boyle River. It is more isolated, largely undisturbed, and has more acidic influences even though the underlying limestone presence is evidenced by features such as a Crannog and a few raised rocky habitats on the shore margin beloved by individual Scots Pine. Alongside the water outlet at the west end of the lake there are, again, several areas with peat build up to 1m. similar to the much deeper turf beds to the north which are still being harvested. Fin Lough is basically a fen with a tendency towards acidity, presumably, for the usual reason of high rainfall promoting sphagnum growth. So this lake has both acid and basic loving plants. Among the latter are the typical fen plant, the Great Fen Sedge (Cladium mariscus). This and Marsh Orchids (Dactylorhiza incarnata spp) and a pH of 7.7 confirm this lake as a fen — not too common in Ireland. Another famous fen is the Pollardstown Fen supplying water to the Grand Canal in Kildare. That fen is also renowned for its populations of orchids, and its Saw Grass (another name for Fen Sedge) and the clear lime water characteristic of such lakes and waterways — as seen under the bridge above.
LEFT: Fin Lough looking towards the setting sun on a Spring evening. All these its shores are fringed with reeds, sedges and then typically Bog Myrtle starting to colonise the tree fringes as the site gets drier.

Limestone Lakes

Underlying all this country is a smooth slightly sandy blocky limestone. In the 19th Century this resource was used widely between two Demesne (pronounced ‘domains’) developed by people gifted land in return for their services to the British Empire. However, these people left us a wealth of heritage, both natural and built, which survives today either intact, repossessed, or derelict. But the exploitation of the ubiquitous limestone bedding for walls etc. made the rich mineral wealth of the rock available for lime loving plants  and animals.. Also works of engineering both in Rockingham and Oakport Demesnes provides a glimpse of past history and a wealth of new habitats.

Lime everywhere…

This woodland is on the shore side of Fin Lough. Uncut limestone walls were often used to separate agricultural land being cleared from nearby lakes or bogs. The walls here were probably an attempt to protect the enclosed land from the consequences of flooding — at which it was singularly unsuccessful! The only long-term effective development of the land was achieved by building a small bridge with a raised road on either side to facilitate crossing at times when both the woods and the land were inundated by rising flood water.

Orchids growing in natural undisturbed settings.

Many orchids, but not all, are lime-loving plants and thrive in Ireland on exposed or shallow limestone that makes up so much of the country. They are equally happy growing on Chalk the other lime rich rock that occurs so widely over south east England but not found in Ireland. Many Marsh Orchids  grow in wet or swampy areas (fens) similar to bogs in Ireland — but they are drawing on an alkaline substrate not far below.
The engineering tasks and the walls that remain standing, or broken down, seem to have made a major contribution to the local environment in terms of plant diversity and abundance. Lime loving plants now grow on the walls and near where fallen walls have led to lime leaching into the sodden soil making the pH more attractive to more species. In many locations the first indication of a rich substrate may be the species present in the fields and roadsides or growing in the rubble or the actual stone walls themselves. This is quite a feat as not only may they be overdosing in lime but such plants need to be tolerant of drying out. ABOVE & LEFT This mixed wood is between the lake shore and the protective wall about 100m. further back. It is a typical woodland of Birch and Alder but with notably stronger growth. Also there is a good growth of that Irish native, the Spindle (Euonymus europaeus) LEFT: The Ivy-leaved Toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) is such a plant. The ‘muralis’ refers to walls with which it is always associated. These grow along all estate walls in both old properties and are also typically found on bridges or other dry stony habitats. Whether they are only found on lime… we aren’t sure? Not all limestone building and soil enrichment is recent. Many Irish lakes have Crannogs in them which are basically just a collection of local boulders piled high to raise a dwelling above the level of winter flooding in order to protect livestock or people. Limestone Island: (LEFT) This ‘island’’ on the south side of Fin Lough may be a possible Crannog, though it could conceivably be a natural, though infrequent, outcrop of bedrock.  It is presently used as a base for fishing and at low water it can easily be reached from the shore. BELOW A quick check using a horticultural test kit indicates a pH of about 8. Fens are typically around pH 7.7 upwards. Conditions in which sphagnum grows in peat bogs can be as acidic as pH4. This is much too low for any calcium loving plants to consider as home!
LEFT & RIGHT Early Purple Orchids Colour variants… Two spectacular Early Purples (Orchis morio) from the Spindle Wood (Far Left) On the south side of the lake, in that wood with the limestone walls, a magnificent colony of Early Purple Orchids in full flower were found on the 10th May. Early Purples are well known for having a great variety of colours. but they can be always be recognised by having an upward pointing spur at the back of each flower as seen in both images. Apart from colour variants the Early Purple Orchid is a very consistent species with any change in shape or appearance often reflecting damage while growing...
RIGHT Early Marsh Orchid  (Dactylorhiza incarnata spp.) was found in among reeds and grasses and Bog Myrtle on the less developed eastern and northern sides of Fin Lough. Unfortunately this side of the lake has been planted with commercial conifers and, even more sadly, Laurel and Rhodendron have made a jungle out of the undergrowth. These species are now migrating out into the native north shore, acidifying it as they go! Bog Myrtle Myrica gale
The image (LEFT) shows a jumble of rocks, many sharp edged indicating recent origin. This Early Purple Orchid is scarce around Fin Lough but does occur commonly in certain selected places, near L. Keel canal, in the woodland surrounded by limestone walls, and on this isolated jumble of limestone rocks. These provide the alkaline base required to trigger successful settlement of this species in this localised niche. In other parts of the lake where the surface is acidified by sphagnum and where acid- loving rhododendrons can grow, the Early Purples are replaced by Marsh Orchids. There seem to be multiple factors controlling the exact habitat right for a specific orchid species and the Early Purple surprisingly must be one of the most alkaline loving species growing, as it does, all over The Burren and scarce around other acidic shorelines. (L. Allen)

Sedges of Fin Lough, Knockvicar

This small fen has a complex flora with both acid and alkaline loving plants present. This reflects its underlying limestone substrate very close to the surface in some places and the presence of a blanketing bog varying from 0.5m to over 2 m. in the surrounding areas. The larger beds of turf are presently being mechanically extracted revealing the bedrock underneath and providing access to an alkaline habitat for such species as need it. e.g. Fragrant and Common Orchids. Other plants like Marsh Orchids benefit from the acid covering, and the wet margins of the lake, and flower in good numbers in certain parts of the lake. However, it is the pattern of occurrences of Sedges, that must singularly reflect the alkaline conditions around the lake and it is why this lake is known as a Fen. We list many of the local Sedges (and Rushes) and indicate where and what conditions they need to thrive. Some of these are rare plants by and large restricted to fen habitat. This habitat is not common in Ireland and, perhaps the most famous one is Pollardstown Fen in Kildare. Greater Tussock Sedge, Carix paniculata RIGHT This sedge is widespread and forms the larger tussocks in the middle to upper flood levels around the lake. It is a tussock forming Sedge with heights up to 2m. and offers a good base for other plants such as Phragmites. . Carex paniculata  develops its tussocks by producing side shoots around the edges of individual plants especially at the periphery of the tussock. Some tussocks will have many flowering heads . The one shown is a good example. The reproductive stalk can be traced all the way down to ground level and will have c. 5 - 10 accompanying leaves. The flowering stem itself is very tall and thin and relies on a hard triangular cross section to keep the cluster of heads erect. 
Detail of this Sedge: This plant produces 2 or 3 flowering heads on top of the single triangular flowering stalk. The large leaf showing is a Phragmites reed growing on the tussock but the narrower darker green leaves are the Greater Tussock Sedge. These leaves are flattened but with clever ‘reinforcing’ along the edges and middle crease to give strength to the gentle hanging appearance of the tussock.

Limestone Hillocks:

Small low dry ‘islands’ occur around the edges of the lake. This one (LEFT) appears natural and provides a ready refuge for trees and bushes, particularly the Bog Myrtle which expands and reclaims land drying out around these bases. They also provide a secure base for mature trees whereas most of the commercial tree planting around the lake is simply growing on the peat layer. The other ‘island’ described above has a similar effect but has much tumbled fractured limestone slabs maybe indicating recent man made formation? Great Fen Sedge Cladium mariscus RIGHT A large sedge associated with the fens in England. In Ireland its stronghold would be Pollardstown Fen in Kildare. It is not common but dispersed in central and western Ireland wherever limy water is found. Pollardstown Fen is a well known location and the high point feeding water into The Grand Canal. It is a large plant of 2.5m and grows in alkaline rich lake shores and boggy areas. In the image (RIGHT) a patch of this sedge in Spring is defined by its typical orange colour. It always occurs in discrete patches, often associated with Marsh Orchids reflecting its water and nutrient requirements.
LEFT: Great Fen Sedge leaf edges: An important characteristic of this sedge is its startling  hard leaves with reinforcing in the form of teeth along its central fold and both edges. Freshly grown new leaves in early Summer may develop highly dangerous edges which can cause serious injury particularly to children. Far Left: Sedge Flowering Head: In early June these flowers are hard to find but they grow rapidly as the plant puts on a spurt of growth. These plants were about 1.2m on the 5th of June. They are a good species to examine later in the year to so as understand the ‘sedge format’. People often consider Grasses, Rushes and Sedges together. These Sedges have strong round hollow flowering stems with stalks bearing open clusters emerging at the upper leaf joints. Flowers are simple in sedges and may be single sex or both. We are not sure of the details of the Great Fen Sedge.. Sedges normally are smaller grass-like plants with solid, often triangular flowering stalks but this one has massive hollow round stalks and corrugated leaves — great engineering!

Other varied Sedges…

Grasses and Rushes

LEFT & BELOW Here we include some other non-sedges  that are either rare and beautiful or important or significant players in limestone country with an overlay of bog forming vegetation. Because of climate, present and past, many unused areas of land on a lime or glacial substrate will still go on to generate peat based on the high level of rainfall and the generally mild climate. Fens occur often where springs enter at the bottom of glacially scraped hollows on limestone and this remains their main source of water for millenia. As Rose* points out, Rush flowers are essentially similar to Lily and Tulip flowers but clustered together in tight heads. (* Francis Rose. The Wildflower Key 1981) is a very detailed and technical work still available in some good Book Shops.) The Toad Rush (BELOW) is a good example of these flowers…
Crested Dogstail Cynosurus cristatus. a very slender tall elegant grass with delightful tiny pink flowers in Summer. Found in numbers around the lakes and in cleared land.
Black Bog-Rush Schoenus nigricans A bit of a west of Ireland specialty widespread on moors, waste ground and bogs. Peat or marshes with a hard calcareous layer under about 1m. of bog occur nearby but we haven’t determined if this is the case at L. Finn
Soft Rush Juncus effusus Early stage in the growth of this rush. The flowers are still yellow but recognisable if you enlarge this picture. Damp land or sloping fields in a wet climate. Can grow to 1.5m.
(BELOW) Lesser Tussock Sedge Carex diandra One of the rarer sedges in this locality. It can vary from having a large tight spike to separate individual glumes as it matures. It has a very thin concave triangular stem noticeably greyer than its ridged corrugated leaves. It is a circumpolar species widespread in Ireland but declining in Britain due to drainage. It can be found in fen carr but also tolerates acid conditions.
Bottle Sedge Carex rostrata A very striking sedge in June when the glumes are maturing. It grows from a rhizome as a perennial and is widespread. Stems are 3 sided and this plant can form tall clusters. It is common to see it in this condition — grazed tidily as far as the fruit by Deer!
Remote Sedge Carex remota A ‘grassy’ looking sedge forming dense rounded very bright green tussocks in wet areas and woodland margins. Perennial with small rhizomes. The spikelets are  very far apart on long stems. The lowest one is the only one to carry a bract which is very long and makes the clump look grassy.
Yellow Sedge C. demissa pH tolerant, this small yellow sedge is abundant in the Fin Lough marshes and Fen. Grows alongside Great Fen Sedge (an alkaline loving plant). In June the many heads are bright yellow and strongly spiked. Jaunty flowers with stem and bract issuing at sharp angles at each head.
Carnation Sedge C. panicea Not abundant but fairly widespread in these fens, this small small sedge produces alternating female catkins distinctly lime and chocolate coloured ‘eggs’ with just one male catkin.
 RIGHT and  BELOW Tufted Sedge C. elata  A graceful busy sedge forming large tussocks up to 1m. near water. Initially the stalks are upright but gradually as they mature and fruits develop they droop towards the water providing very popular perches for Damsel Flies. Fruits are green but lack the hairs of the Common Sedge. A very important species of these fens, lake shore, and other limestone base habitats.
Toad Rush Juncus bufonius A weedy little annual plant found on lake shores, muddy tracks, etc. Included here to show the flowers of Rushes. These share a ‘grass-like’ form but as Francis Rose points out, their flowers are similar to Tulips.
Creeping Bent Agrostis stolenifera        (Panel BELOW) This branching feathery Bent started to flower here in May in fine but windy weather. The flowering head of one large plant (1.2m) was brought into the shelter of a polytunnel to try and get a steady image. The flowers developed over the next few days. We could confirm identification if there was an index to Grass flowers! But it is a beautiful and frequent ground spreading (i.e with a stolon) plant of previously cleared land . Species chosen to illustrate grass flowers.
Close-up images of this Grass: These three files are from the same plant. Our identification is from the image on LEFT and could be subject to correction. Also our Magnifying Glass link is not so strict as normal. There are slightly larger images available but possibly not clearer. Do have a look…

The Marsh Orchids:

Finally, and with some relief, back to the more familiar Marsh Orchids. Early stages of these orchids, and the Early Purple Orchids, are shown at the top of the page. These species both thrive in alkaline fens with acid compost developing on a shallow cover of peat — as in the limestone lakes and ponds studied here. The images (BELOW) are from early June when the Marsh Orchids of Fin Lough suddenly burst into flower in good numbers. These are an attractive but particularly short flowering species this year, as the site was unusually dry. Other orchids nearby, such as the Small White Orchids of the Bricklieve Mountains to the north, have also suffered a shortened flowering season exposed to sun and wind. We hope we have got some good images of the Marsh Orchids. The white specimens in particular were very prone to dropping petals. Early Marsh Orchid * Dactylorhiza incarnata incarnata * Dactylorhiza incarnata
Classification: Marsh Orchids are often classified using a trinomial format. All these specimens are, we believe, a taxon known as incarnata. Other (older) nomenclatures are used in various parts of the world. For example : Dactylorhiza incarnata incarnata  (this subspecies) Might also be referred to as… D. incarnata. We tend to refer to them familiarly in the binomial format. Separation and identification of subspecies often requires genetic fingerprinting whereas many of the phenotypes one comes across can consistently  be recognised and grouped by differences in appearance. Colour variation: The Marsh Orchids as a group and, in particular, the D. incarnata form are notorious for colour variation from purple to bright red to pink to canvas color and (of course) white as shown here. All specimens here are of the same species. The Photographs: All images shown on the right are from Fin Lough. They are known as Early Marsh Orchids. They tend to be tall and straight, but easily bent plants with a broad diamond shaped labellum. Far RIGHT The stems are thin as are the long leaves which are sturdy enough and wrapped around the stem. This separates this form from from the Narrow Leaved Marsh Orchid (D. i. traunsteinerioides) typical of even more limy areas such as the Burren, Marl lakes etc.

Different Horses…

Never trust an Orchid; we thought we had this job done! All the orchid pictures above this heading were taken around the 5th of June. They were already starting to wither in the very hot sun at that time. These plants were very shrunken and brown at our next visit.

 LEFT and Right

both images 18th June 2020

A spontaneous quick visit en passsant surprised us with the specimens shown here. The colour variation in both groups is similar with approximately half of specimens examined being pure white, i.e. no labellum markings even. These plants had obviously emerged and flowered within the past 5 days and had certain qualities different from the earlier group. Is this just down to weather changes and the end of a long drought, or are the differences observed significant?
The fact that they are growing in the same location and have the same pattern of magenta and white plants leads one to suspect they are the same plant assemblage. Further investigation is needed. RIGHT Annaghmore Lake orchids Another group of Marsh Orchids was observed on the south side of Annagmore Lake near Elphin on the 14th and 27th June. This is a marl lake, very dry at the time of first visit. On the north shore alongside the road in deep rushes and sedges a dispersed colony of Marsh Orchids have been studied. Mostly they are tall and thin and growing in tussocks among rushes Two groups of orchids were emerging a few weeks apart with the newer ones possibly being D. traunsteinerioides with its thin form and very long narrow leaves or an incarnata x traunsteinerioides  hybrid. All specimens observed were ‘normal’ colour differentiating themselves from the Fin Lough group!  This Marl Lake group were also well past their flowering prime (on 14th June) and it seems likely that they flowered at about the same time as the initial group recorded at Fin Lough. Indeed we have records of Marsh Orchids starting to flower there at the end of May when they were eaten by deer. Exceptional weather conditions in Ireland at that stage probably brought on this early flowering.
RIGHT: An early emerging Marsh Orchid photographed on the 7th May. When last seen it had been eaten by Deer but the emerging lower bud was still intact.
There are three small lakes clustered close together, as part of the old Oakport Demesne, west of The Boyle River (a branch of The Shannon) and south of L. Key. 1. Laundry Lough 2. Derreen Lough, and 3. Black Lough We would also include Oakport Lough (nearby on the Boyle River) and Loughs Fin and Keel in the L. Key Forest Park… All these lakes have one thing in common; they occur in a low lying swathe of country that uniformly has a base of Carboniferous Limestone, appropriately named the Oakport Limestone Formation. This lies close to the surface and is almost horizontal. The presence of a limestone substrate is key to the abundant flora and the presence of some interesting lime loving orchids. In some areas there is a coating of acid loving plants and thin layers of peat — thicker turf beds are harvested nearby.
Below LEFT: Dog Rose Rosa canina RIGHT: Red Campion Silene diooica A beautiful partner in a deep green wood ––for the ubiquitous Bluebells BELOW: Heath Milkwort Polgala serpillifolia Found in among pine needles in forest beside Fin Lough
Compact Rush RIGHT Juncus conglomeratus Widespread on hilly rough and marshy land with mainly acid conditions. It produces one fruiting body. The straight extension above the fruit is a bract separated by a ligule.
““Please note, as usual, many of these images are backed up with larger images which show the detail we discuss much more clearly. So just remember to click where you see the Magnifying Glass”

What Lakes?

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A tumble of Limestone.

BELOW: Two of the numerous Early Purple Orchids growing on a limestone Island.

Some Local Flowering plants:

“Sedges have edges… Rushes are round… Grasses are hollow… Right up from the ground.”