The Burren is a limestone karst area in the west of Ireland, featuring a very un-Irish landscape and a world renowned flora consisting of rare and not-so-rare Alpine, Arctic and Mediterranean plants that mingle from the coast to the mountain tops.
The poster boy of this flora is the Spring Gentian and after hearing rumours that the first representatives of this dark-blue beauty had appeared in the last days of March I packed up my camera gear and made the 90 minute trip to the Burren National Park which occupies the south east of this mesmerizing karst landscape.
The Burren National Park spreads out around the iconic Mullagh More mountain which is rather a flat-topped hill than a proper mountain, which rises to its moderate height of 180 meters in a series of limestone terraces. The limestone pavement stretches out from the foot of the mountain; weathered and shaped by millennia of exposure to water and ice. In between the pavement sit grassy patches and pockets of old growth hazel forest – a variety of the Atlantic Rainforest the west of Ireland is famous for.
Scanning the area from the top of Mullagh More you would also see one or more lakes. Interestingly, the number depends on the time of year you’re up there. In summer there is only Lough Gealain, one of the few permanent water bodies in the Burren. In winter or after periods of very heavy rainfall other lakes, so-called turloughs, appear mysteriously and cover limestone and meadows in water. These turloughs are connected to the underworld of the Burren and once these cave-systems are filled with water, they overflow and create periodic water bodies, mostly over the winter months when precipitation is at its highest in Ireland.
The high ground
My hike on this morning would bring me over the limestone pavement, past Lough Gealain to a grassy patch where I know from previous visits I would find Spring Gentian and maybe even some Early Purple Orchids. I arrived at my destination just before sunrise and set out over the smooth limestone towards the lakeshore. Water levels had dropped considerably after two weeks without rain and exposed the marl, a calcium rich mud, that makes up the bottom of the lake. I had the whole place to myself apart from some hormone-fuelled drake Mallards on the lake that disrupted the perfect silence by shouting their insults at their rivals. Not a big surprise – it is spring and mating season has begun.
I sat and waited for the sun to make its way past a layer of clouds that covered the horizon and once the light levels had risen a bit I made my way along the lakeshore, keeping an eye out for the blue and purplish-red spots of gentian and orchid among the grasses which were burnt to a light brown after the long winter.
I passed stands of faded heather – an oddity on the calcium-rich Burren soils – which thrives on peaty tussocks on top of the limestone, before I reached my destination, a large grassy area dotted with small limestone outcrops. Unfortunately the Spring Gentians hadn’t emerged yet and after carefully searching the area without even seeing a hint of any flower I moved on. This however wasn’t overly disappointing. Finding the first gentians is always a thing of luck as it is impossible to predict where they will pop up.
A few hundred meters further along the path I came to a small stand of Hazel where I had a bit more success. Here I found the typical spring trinity of early woodland flowers: Primrose, Common Dog-Violet and Wood Anemone. Some might argue that there is nothing special about these plants but after a long winter they are a heart-warming sight, not to mention that in the times we are living in I consider any wild living being, plant or animal, to be very special indeed.
The Wood Anemone is one of my personal favourites. The graceful, delicate flowers, which only open when the sun is out, rarely produce any fertile seed and instead the plant spreads through its root structure at a very, very slow pace, less than two meters in a hundred years.
Turlougls – delights of the Burren
The sun had risen above the clouds by now and was sending golden light through the still bare hazel branches. It was the perfect spring scene. The ducks had gone quiet and instead the resident woodland birds – Robin, Wren, Blue Tit and Blackbird – had started their morning singalong which only added to the picture-perfect atmosphere of the moment.
From here I retraced my steps back to the car, had a quick breakfast and then set out on one of the other signposted trails that transverse the national park. This trail runs through one of the bigger hazel woodlands and in addition to the characteristic, moss covered hazel shrubs you get occasional Ash trees, Hawthorn, Spindle and Holly. Ivy and Bramble are also common and all together these plants form an impenetrable thicket in places. This woodland surrounds one of the bigger turloughs of the national park and the shores of this turlough were my destination. In very wet winters the waters rise to the outer edges of the forest and even flood parts of the woodland and it is hard to tell when the floods will recede. After a fortnight without rain however I was confident that water levels would be low enough to at least explore the edges of the lake. Thankfully I was more than right. The turlough had almost completely dried out, leaving the grass covered in powdery mud and allowing one of Ireland’s most striking spring flowers to burst into life. The flowers of the Marsh Marigold, or Kingcup, has the most succulent yellow colouring, not the light, airy yellow of the Primrose, the Marsh Marigold appears in a solid, darker yellow that almost hurts your eye in the bright morning sunshine. This plant is one of the most ancient native wildflowers and has likely been present throughout the ice ages. Today unfortunately the Marsh Marigold is in decline, because this lover of damp and wet places is losing its habitat through drainage schemes and “improvements” along lakes and rivers.
I spent another while at the turlough shore until the noises of the usual Saturday ramblers started to echo across the park. This was my clue to retreat and make plans for another trip in search of the Spring Gentian.
To read more about the Burren get the Crossbill Guide to Ireland.
I returned to the national park a week later and this time I didn’t even need to search. The gentians and orchids where pretty much everywhere…