December can be a gloomy month, the late Autumn light is usually scarce. Last weekend though, we were treated to an afternoon of glorious dappled light, so we decided to go for a ramble, somewhere different! We chose RSPB’s Aghatirourke reserve, I couldn’t believe we had never been there, as we discovered its only a twenty minute drive away. We ascended a helter skelter road, alongside a limestone quarry, winding around the hilltops, finally reaching Gortalughany viewpoint. Wow, what an absolutely astounding view! It was icy cold but the sunshine lit the mountains and bog was bathed in dazzling light. It was stupendously beautiful. If I didn’t spot any wildlife, I didn’t care, this view was enough!
We parked the car and walked along the pathway and it wasn’t long before we spotted a pretty cool lichen, Cladonia floerkeana, otherwise known as Devil’s matchsticks. Lichens are amazing, they are composed of two organisms (fungi and algae) working symbiotically, two different kingdoms working together. It is found on moorland, heathland and bog. Lichens’ last common ancestor existed 2 billion years ago! Lichens are brilliant as they retain water and are pioneer colonisers, they actually help create soil! Amazing! The lichens become replaced by the soil, so they are kind of suicide sacrificers in a way, but what an amazing role in ecology. They are great pollution and aging indicators too.
Aghatirourke is situated within the amazing Culcaigh Mountain World Geopark and is home to some of the purest and intact blanket bog, not only the UK, but in all of Europe. Blanket bogs are just astonishing habitats, not only is it home to a multitude of insects, and plant, they have a huge part to play in the actual survival of our human world. Bogs are carbon sinks, they store enormous amounts carbon dioxide, sequestered in a natural way. The world’s peat bogs sequester (remove) more than 200 billion tons of carbon! As carbon dioxide is a major greenhouse gas and contributes vastly to climate change, bogs are incredibly important. When bogs are destroyed and drained for development, these gases are released back into the atmosphere and also, destroying the ecosystems which have been created over thousands of years. Bogs are delicate, fragile and need our protection. Bogs also prevent flooding by trapping water when it infiltrates the ground by acting like a sponge, so when it comes out the other end it is reduced to only a trickle; no flooding damage.
The wind was chilly but it was exhilarating as we entered the main reserve, which is surrounded by limestone grassland and amazing views of Culcaigh Mountain. This site is home to the breeding Golden Plover, Hen Harrier, Red Grouse and Dipper. We knew that sighting a plover or harrier was highly unlikely due to the time of year but we hoped to see some red grouse or an Irish Hare. I saw the shadow of what we think was a red grouse, a flock of meadow pipits and another flock of what we think were Fieldfare (they were quite far away). I scanned the landscape with my binoculars, the sound of the red grouse was echoing through the silence but we couldn’t pinpoint them! They are canny camouflagers!
This place is incredibly special, the bare fairy trees stood starkly out, like a secret waiting to be discovered in Spring. The sky vast and pureand the birdcall cut through the air like an orchestral opera. Ravens, lots of them, circled overhead and in the dying light, they accompanied us home back to the viewpoint. One raven stayed and kept us company, circling and hovering, willing us to come back for another visit. Without a doubt we will, I want to go back straight away! This hidden gem, off the beaten track, is a place of wild and rugged beauty.
Some people might think that bogs are a desolate wasteland or only useful as a source of fuel or compost, but it is so much more than this. They are the suns’ energy and a deep store of the past. They are magical, amazing and full of stories, mythology and secrets of our ancestors.
Thanks for reading