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An exploration of wild & interesting places in Ireland and their western European/American flora and fauna…
Habitat 2: The plants and places of The Burren, Co Clare


Welcome to our view of the Burren,  this exciting and wonderful area in County Clare which has fascinated visitors for generations with its wealth of plants — many seen only in this area — and for its curious and unusual landscape of karst, bare rocky hills, limestone pavement, hazel scrub and woodland. This reflects a weeks exploration of the area in early May 2017 during a very hot sunny week at a time when Ireland was entering an unusual 5th week without rain! Perfect timing for the Dense-flowered Orchid which was present in good numbers. But too early for many other orchids and other unique Burren plants. We will be back! This habitat was really first explored by a young man, employed by the Geological Survey of Ireland in the mid 19th Century, who had a lifelong (albeit a short one) interest in botany. He roamed these hills and mapped both the rocks and the distribution of its special flowers. The geology of The Burren is spectacular; to understand it more see the GeoNEED Report. or the GeoPARK  website.

Rock Erratic and a famous Geologist…

Visiting The Burren again, we became aware of the work of the Father of the Burren, a Geologist who did the baseline mapping for this area (and many other parts of Ireland) — detailed, hard, back-breaking work — and then wrote a detailed study of the plants as well! Our appreciation to this man is shown RIGHT. Large boulders such as the one shown below often form ready landmarks for some botanical treasure growing nearby. Ones this size are frequent but not numerous so it is often easy to say that such-and-such a plant lies 10m to the south (for example). A man met surveying an area of flat rock desert (Rockforest) was puzzled why all these stones seemed similar. He had expected them to have traveled much further with the ice. But to the north and west is the Atlantic and to the east are lowlands. These rocks had only made fairly local journeys coming from the north east and the large grassland plain of flat limestone. These local ice movements left some areas devoid of soil and other fields with rich grass, one a botanist’s delight and the other some good grazing! This specimen was below our lodgings and marked the boundary between 4 green fields and a large area of gently folded karst on the northern edge of a local fen, Castle Lough.

Images from Burren Fenland

Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala All over the Burren Abundant on the driest of slopes with its multi-petal flowers worshiping the sun, these flowers — fresh when we arrived — were starting to wilt as the week wore on. Normally 8 petaled this specimen had a double row of petals. Lime loving, it has waxy looking dark green (drought resistant?) leaves. The other aven, the Water Aven is of a different genus and has quite different characteristics. Also found in The Burren. (See below in the Mixed Habitats  section.)
1. Field Mouse-ear Cerastium arvense Hill pass south of Ballyvaughan In a bank of Saxifrage these flowers of similar size and also brilliant white don’t at first stand out. This is a member of the Pink family along with Campions, Sandworts, Ragged Robin, etc. The 5 petals are deeply notched unlike the saxifrage shown on the Right
2. Mossy Saxifrage Saxifraga hypnoides Same site as LEFT This is the perennial saxifrage seen all over the Burren where there is a bit of ground cover over the limestone enabling the mosses (with which this plant is often associated) to survive. Note that these petals are not notched and the plant has the typical red fleshy stems and ‘claws’.

Upland Habitats…

Fenland Habitats…

Stonewort Chara globularis Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka Normally a green alga but now dried up after a very hot dry Spring. Associated with limestone lakes and absorbs marl from the water. These multicellular algae have some of the appearance of higher plants with leaf whorls and bud like structures. The name Stonewort comes from attachment of Calcium Carbonate to the algal filaments. They are often associated with the plant on the RIGHT.
Saw Sedge Cladium mariscus Fen at Castle Lough, LEITRA Very tall sedges with numerous upward facing teeth on both side of all leaves; so watch your hands!. Another plant associated with marl fen type lakes. For and close up image of the interesting leaf edges click HERE.
Greater Pond Sedge Carex riparia Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka Found in association with the Stonewort and the Saw Sedge at this very dry Fen. However this is the remainder of a much larger lake and there was still plenty of shallow water to sustain ducks and at least Egrets. The water was densely filled with various algal species  and was clean and evidently provided the variety of fish and frogs and invertebrates at least 6 Little Egrets required. We are aware that Carex riparia is not widely recorded from The Burren but can be dominant some east Burren sites. If you have any queries about our identification do please Contact Us. 
Shrubby Cinquefoil Potentilla sterilis GORTLECKA An attractive sturdy bush up to 1m. high found typically on the higher slopes around a fen or a water body. Evidently a terrestrial plant that can stand some flooding. This is an early flowering species. Many bushes were scattered over many sites in The Burren but this is the only one with a flower remaining… Yes, just one!
Guelder Rose Viburnum opulus Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka A favourite shrub but normally because of its brilliant white flowers. This one had the most delicious pale primrose yellow sterile outer flowers. Presumably the smaller fertile flowers would follow this colour. Is this a local variety or a symptom of the prolonged drought?
Red Valerian Centranthus ruber Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka A stunning display of red against the hard grey rocks on the upper shores of this fen away from much risk of flooding. This is a plant of walls and quarries and cliffs.
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka Some interesting birds were present but all cameras were focused on the plants! This is a Common Sandpiper sensibly nesting on the upper karst shore of this fen so her brood would be safe from any heavy rain. But the nest is not here; it’s nearby. This Sandpiper is engaging in ‘distraction display’. She was fluttering and fussing and pretending to have a broken wing in the hope that we would follow her away from her nest and eggs. We left her in peace but she remained constantly alert as long as we were in the area and then would have sneaked back to the nest.
Carline Thistle Carlina vulgaris Fen at KNOCKAUNROE, Gortlecka Not a true thistle but these dead Carline Thistles are a feature of many habitats in the Burren. On the Karst these dried up dead heads survive from the previous year looking rather similar to the dull colour of the flowers in July. Young Carlines were only emerging in May.

Other Fen Habitats:

The images below reflect a gentler fen associated with Lough Bunny in the eastern Burren. This is shallower and the fen floor was even and dry and largely covered with grasses with a whitish colour due to lime precipitating out of the hard water during the recent drought. The horses seemed to be enjoying it. The edge of the fen was a much shallower affair with either a short stretch of exposed limestone bedding or else going straight into farmland or woodland. Small wet patches maintained a population of Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) towards the centre of the fen. A special shoreline plant of this area was the Mountain Everlasting pictured below…
This species (Antennaria dioica) has male and female plants. The pink ones are female! These are plentiful at the edge of fens in The Burren. It is a low spreading perennial but when observed closely it is most rewarding.

There are a lot of other habitats which it would be pointless to specify in this article reflecting a higgledy-piggledy 1 week visit to such a unique place.

So, below, we have dodged the issue and grouped our remaining photographs in a somewhat non-botanical grouping. However, many of these plants

do occur across many habitats, e.g. the ubiquitous Milkwort, some Violets, Early Purple Orchids. Whereas other species are very habitat specific, e.g.

Spring Gentian, the Dense-flowered Orchid, Hawkweeds, etc.

We have, also, grouped together in the following section the many Violets we have taken from diverse locations — on top of Karst hillside and at the

bottom of fens, in woodlands and in marshes. One of these violets is even called a Fen Violet and is very specific; other species such as the Heath

Dog Violet is found more widely. But we need to display them side by side as they are tricky to identify.

Dunmore Wood, East Burren

The Violets Viola spp, VARIOUS Violets were specifically sought in different habitats this week. Dark blue violets were widely present across all habitats and high up into the hills among the driest of limestone habitats. Violets reflecting the flower colour one would expect of Fen Violets were found in fens, but they did not always match the characteristics of that species. Criteria conflicted and the inevitable conclusion was that there were two species present and hybrids possibly being generated between them. Samples of the phenotypes encountered are shown below and adoption of identification has been attempted — subject to considerable reservations!

Criteria for Identifying Violets:

1. No stems above ground. (Marsh Violet is the only Irish representative.) 2. Leaf stalks and fruits and leaves… downy. 3. Flowers scented or unscented. 4. Flowers deep blue, spur paler, notched… or, Flowers pale lilac (RGB 230,215,255), spur darker and un-notched. 5. Leaves as long as wide or much longer than wide 6. Shape of back of leaf important, cordate (two curves), lanceolate (tapered to stem) or truncated. (These hints are part of a key that would need to be applied in the field… but time was short!)
The assumption that violets shown in this column are, based on their flower colour, Fen Violets is easy to make. The colour is distinctive, similar to that of Marsh Violets, and consistent wherever they are found. There are certain other criteria that support this. The leaves do seem considerably longer than they are wide. The tips of most of the leaves are broadly rounded, perhaps more so than the Heath Dog Violet shown on the left. They also display lanceolate leaves where both ends of the leaf taper to a point or to the leaf stalk. They also have a very short greenish spur which may, or may not, be notched. Two of these photographs are taken from the Rockforest Fen floor, the one in the middle is taken from the mid-shore karst habitat to the south of the fen (or is it a turlough) at Knockaunroe near Gortlecka. It has shelter in a deep gryke and seems to be thriving on a day when other plants were wilting. This seems to suggest  that habit-wise it has the attributes of a Fen Violet. It certainly  has the perfect colour and — from a photographer’s point of view — this colour is much easier to snap. It seems ‘a flatter colour’ that maybe does not reflect so much light? Both these violets are recorded from The Burren and some further examination should clarify our confusion.
It is the colour that immediately catches your eye. Bluer than these photographs which were taken on a very bright day in a very dry fen, after some time feeling that we weren’t going to find any violets at all. This scarcity of violets except in very specific locations would support the view that some of these could be Fen Violets and the rest Heath Dog Violets. Violets were scarce at first but then became suddenly abundant on the south side of the dry fen and at a certain height above the dry floor. We had been concentrating our search on the fen floor. This might imply that water conditions were suitable for the plants to start growing some 6 weeks previously when it last rained Also, a big bonus for these to be V. canina is that they all possessed distinctly notched and yellow spurs markedly different from either V. riviana or V. reichenbachiana. In fact a common pattern was for the pedicel to lie through this notch and along the top of the yellow spur imitating a rather unusual caterpillar with a thin black line down its back! This indicates the shortness of the spurs and the yellow colour contrasted very well with the dark blue. These pictures were taken in bright sunshine. The group image at the bottom best shows the true colour. Various books describe features of this species as… leaves oval to lanceolate with a rounded base… distinctly bluer flower… blunt yellowish spur… Many other characteristics are specified (like hairless stems). But, by focusing on the flowers, inevitably all our photographs failed to show clearly the leaf and stem details. Clearly more technical photography is need to sort out this difficult group. Again, any comments appreciated…
V. canina images
V. persicifolia images
Heath Dog Violet Viola canina Mainly ROCKFOREST Fen
Fen Violet Viola persicifolia Mainly ROCKFOREST Fen
Finally, BELOW, a group image to reflect the habitat and the way the Heath Dog Violets grow here. This location on this day was a dry arid environment with a dusty sandy substrate in many areas. In the bottom of the hollow and along its northern fringe with scrubby farmland, no violets of either species were to be found. Then, moving towards the sunnier southern fringes of the fen large banks of the Heath Violet began to appear. They were concentrated on dry banks and small bushes where presumably they were getting enough water to thrive.  They were lush with brilliant flowers and strong leaves. This is the way this violet was found in other karst regions of Rockforest and The Burren in general. Being perennials seems to make them bushier. The Fen Violet was much less common with only a few flowering specimens available to photograph in among the other lusher violets with which they seem to co-habit! In conclusion the colour of the flowers and the slightly greater ovalness of the leaves on the Fen Violet marked them out as a distinct taxa but maybe cross breeding?

8 more Burren Beauties…

From the general Mullaghmore area and from Dunmore Wood in east Burren
Cowslip Primula veris Grassy karst at RockForest Likes limestone; loves The Burren. Widespread in fields and karst, wherever there is some vegetation to moisten it.
Common Milkwort Polygala vulgaris Gortlecka Widespread in the Burren in karst and farmland or scrub. Similar needs to Cowslip and another beautiful colour!
Dark Red Helleborine Epipactis atrorubens Dunmore Wood and Lough Bunny In Springtime you get the beautiful twisted leaves. But we have always missed the beautiful crimson flowers of late July!

Various Species from Mixed Habitats.

Water Avens Geum rivale CARRAN Likes wet and shady conditions so often found in woodland edges This was a stunning group from a flooded stream.
Three-cornered Garlic Allium triquetrum In a small Church graveyard between the north coast road and the sea There are a group of 3 pungent white flowered ‘bulbs’ often associated with burial sites, Wild Garlic and Summer Snowflake being the others. Always nice to see lush and strong in among the gravestones.
Mouse-ear Hawkweed Pilosella officinarum LEITRA Widespread in The Burren and the most easily recognised Hawkweed, this plant is not without its charm and rewards certain observers with attractive downy rosette of yellow/green leaves and a bi-coloured yellow and brown flower. However these plants are of european origin and are a massive problem as invasive species in North America. Not one of the nicest of Burren plants… but ubiquitous! There are hundreds of hawkweeds and some botanists obsess about them. However, we prefer to fall back on the idea of axiophytes— plants so beautiful that we have to conserve them! Hawkweeds are a curiosity but way down the pecking order of beautiful Burren plants.
Maidenhair Fern Adiantum capillus-veneris North Coast, near BLACK HEAD This, on the other hand, is definitely one of Clare’s rarest and most beautiful plants. Its delicacy and softness has to be observed to be believed Perhaps this photograph does not properly show it off. It is a native plant and typical of such a habitat, limestone cliffs and caves close to the sea. It is scarce in the rest of Ireland and also in Britain. However, it is a global species found in nearly every continent. Wikipedia reports that…   “It often may be seen growing on moist, sheltered and shaded sandstone or limestone formations, generally south-facing in the southern hemisphere, north-facing in the north, or in gorges. It occurs throughout Africa in moist places by streams. On moist sandstone cliffs it grows in full or partial shade, even when unprotected.” Adiantum capillus-veneris. (2017, May 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:52, May 23, 2017 [MORE]
Garlic Mustard Aliaria petiolata Dunmore Wood A common Spring hedgerow plant but perhaps the location is significant as this may be the one plant cited here which is not a Burren specialty. It is shown as being absent from North West Clare. This specimen was seen and photographed in the outstanding and beautiful Dunmore Woods along with emergent Broad- leaved Helleborine. This woodland is sometimes described as east Burren or lowland Burren but is definitely worth a visit if the high mountain pavement becomes too hot on a Summer’s day — plenty of water and a good variety of broadleaved trees…
Dense-flowered Orchid Neotinea maculata LEITRA The ‘jewel’ of The Burren. But this year specimens were small and struggling with a long drought up to mid-May. This is the best  specimen seen. A self- fertile species, flowers do not need to open for the species to survive On several repeat visits to this area an assessment was made of the population. Plants were occurring on a flange of the hill between more heavily vegetated valleys where none were found. In an area of 2 Ha. 11 were seen but on many repeat visits only one group stood out. We reckon  a factor of 2 could be applied… giving us a population of 22 plants for the area. Many other similar outcrops could be seen nearby  meaning that there may have been 100 or more in this townland. Similarly with the RockForest area lower down the road. So, though often hard to see, there seems to be a significant population in The Burren. This is the biggest occurrence outside of the Mediterranean.

From the Quarry at Gortlecka:

There is a gentle hill bordering the Car Park at Gortlecka Cross where a small quarry used to operate. Then the site was planned as an interpretive centre for The Burren. This idea was abandoned and there is now a fine interpretive centre (The Burren Centre) built in the town of Kilfenora beside the ancient Cathedral. But the old quarry is also well worth a visit. It is a peaceful place between two marked walks and few people ever come into the quarry. The quarry is very small with a clear swallow hole at one end so that the quarry remains dry. It is unfenced but a tumbled maze of boulders of various sizes seems to keep animals out and has lead to it becoming a refuge for some more special plants and unusual plants of the Burren. Below we list a few of the amazing and rare (or unusual) species that were just bursting up from the calcareous dust that is now the quarry floor in between the boulders… But sit and take in the peace and quiet too!
Twayblade Listera ovata GORTLECKA Widespread in the Burren in karst and farmland or scrub but also a common species in much of Ireland. It is a fascinating species which goes on to form quite a tall plant with widely spaced flowers with long forked lip dangling below. This can just be seen in one of the quickly developing lower flowers in this freshly emerging specimen. They were all over the place in the less sunny parts of the quarry.
Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera GORTLECKA Literally ‘the insect carrying’ orchid. Bee orchids also grow in this quarry but we were a bit early for them this year. The Fly Orchids were only emerging but the more you looked the more you see, often like this specimen with just a single flower. This ‘fly’ has one of its ‘antennae’ missing. One wonders what is the logic of this bait — presumably to attract more flies?
Yellowwort Blackstonia perfoliata GORTLECKA A striking looking ‘weed’ when it first emerges, this is a cousin of the Common Centaury also widespread in Ireland — but many other members of this group are now rare. This plant is not an orchid but it shares a peculiar colour much akin to that of the young Fly orchids. Unfortunately it was not yet in flower. It seems you have to visit The Burren every fortnight to see all its blossoms!
3. Spring Sandwort Minuartia verna Hill pass south of Ballyvaughan This completes our trilogy of small creeping white-flowered perennial plants from this single site. This is another Co. Clare specialty. Belonging to the same family (Pinks) as the Field Mouse-ear this plant can be identified like all Sandworts from having no notches in the petals and the petals being slightly longer than the very pointed sepals. It was interesting to see these 3 prostrate shrubby similar plants from two separate families, the Pinks and the Saxifrages, growing together in one very confined area. The Mouse-ear and Sandwort are quite rare and were not noticed in other parts of The Burren…

Ballyvaughan Pass site.

This is the site where the 3 creeping plants (described ABOVE) were found — an interesting place we have not seen mentioned in the botanical annals. Steeper cliffs and deeper valleys with richer grassland and more abundant wildflowers than in some dryer parts of the Burren, reflecting, possibly, the fact that this is the highest mountain area within sight of Galway Bay? This site is near the top of the pass (Lat/Long 53.05853, -9.14677) and the deep valleys and grassy cliffs are right beside the road. All the species found were close by along with Mountain Avens and a few solitary Early Purple Orchids (including one just discernible against the sky in this photograph). This habitat was not under threat but other hills to the west had been leveled in a concentrated programme of clearing Hazel Wood and then removing rocks. More botanical observations from this site would be very useful.

Three quite similar white flowered hillside plants seen alongside the R480 in a pass south of Ballyvaughan:

Burnet Rose Rosa pimpinellifolia LEITRA In beautiful bud and flower all over the rocky places of The Burren. With beautiful striped sepals and petals largely white but with streaks of purple. This is a widely distributed plant in the Burren as it is a lime loving plant. The hips must be abundant and would surely be useful for a Tea or a sweetened syrup for a breakfast spread? Any ideas? Please Contact Us!
Bloody Cranesbill Geranium sanguinium LEITRA Are these red or purple? The name implies they are ‘bloody’ in both languages. But in bright sunshine  they seem  purple. Maybe it is my eyes or the time of year or the camera. Certainly the buds and young flowers will look redder than this…
Dovesfoot Cranesbill Geranium molle LEITRA A much smaller relative of the Bloody Cranesbill found growing along the Famine Road in Leitra. The flowers are about a ¼ of the diameter of that species. It has the most delicate lilac coloured flowers  and the leaves do resemble (somewhat) the hairy feet of a dove!
Spring Gentian Gentiana verna Fahee Some splendid Gentians between Fahee North and South at the top of the switchback mountain road These stunning flowers are the deepest of deep blue, almost an unnatural colour but so striking when they burst into life as they were doing here in early May.

Our Journey:

Early Purple Orchids Orchis mascula Rockforest These orchids were the first to greet us as we climbed up onto the rocky plateau about 1km east of Mullaghmore. As its name says it is one of Ireland’s earliest Orchids — but not normally this colour! Such a stunning collection of albino versions of this plant is rare and very striking and it was good to see them lasting all week!

Frederick James Foot, Geologist,


Frederick J Foot  was born in 1830 in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, educated in Ireland and graduated from Trinity College. He took his degree in the Engineering School, where Geology formed part of the course. He became attached to this science and was appointed by Sir H.T. de la Beche on 1st August 1856, an Assistant Geologist to the Irish Branch of the Geological Survey. He was also a member of The Dublin Natural History Society, and was a fellow of the R.G.S.I. He was appointed Geologist in 1862. During his extensive Geological survey work around Ireland he found time to study wildlife publishing, among other papers, an important account of the distribution of plants in The Burren (Trans. R.I.Acad., 24, 1862) This was the first detailed account of the flora of that remarkable region. He is known in Clare as 'The Father of the Burren'. He also studied the marine zoology and the mammals of Co. Clare and discov- ered the remains of Cervus megaceros (the Irish Elk) in a bog in Longford. Also in Longford, he studied the occurrence of the Tunbridge Filmy fern (Hymenophyllum tunbridgense) which is rare apart from the south west of Ireland.  He also discovered, for the first time in Ireland, the Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposideros). Frederick Foot, this eminent and enthusiastic geologist and biologist,  tragically drowned in Lough Key near Boyle in January 1867, while rescuing two others who had fallen through the ice on a skating trip. He is buried in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Boyle.

Gortlecka Quarry specialties.

Other Rock-loving Plants.

Click image where you see this symbol to get a larger view
A group of 6 Little Egrets were seen feeding here!