The natural environment of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is universally renowned for its tranquillity and beauty, and its exceptional abundance of wildlife or biodiversity.
The biodiversity of the Geopark is the result of the interaction between the changing climate, millions of years of evolution and a long history of human activity. Biodiversity adds greatly to the character and quality of the landscapes in which people live, work, play and learn. It helps shape the economic activities and social values of the area and it forms a distinct part of our heritage and culture.The Geopark is a significant refuge for many important rare species and habitats, a fact that is reflected in the amount and extent of the protected areas of Local, National, European and Global importance contained within it.
Without any human influence on the land, woodlands would dominate. Woodlands began to re-appear at the end of the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, and only species such as oak; ash; elm; birch; alder; Scot’s pine; and yew; which arrived before the rising sea levels formed the island of Ireland, are classified as native. All other tree species introduced at a later date are listed as non-native. Irish woodlands have changed and adapted over the centuries and can be broadly divided into two categories, natural broadleaved woodlands and managed coniferous woodland, both of which are abundant within the Geopark. Fine examples of broadleaved woodland include the oak woods at Correl Glen Nature Reserve adjacent to the entrance to Lough Navar Forest, and mixed ash woods in areas where limestone rock is concentrated in the west of Fermanagh and Cavan such as the Marble Arch National Nature Reserve in Florencecourt. Wet woodlands, dominated by birch, alder or willow, frequently occur along the fringes of the many lakes and rivers contained within the Geopark with particularly fine examples occurring along the shores of Lough MacNean and Lower Lough Erne. There are numerous planted coniferous forests in the Geopark; these produre quality timber crops but also offer excellent recreational walks in lovely surroundings. The most common conifer tree is the Sitka spruce, which produces high timber yields on relatively poor ground. The extensive coniferous forests in the west of County Fermanagh make up one of the largest continuous blocks of forestry in Northern Ireland and also contain large areas of open bogland and lakes as well as having marvellous views across the countryside.
Ashwoods, Marble Arch National Nature Reserve
Bogs and Heath
Peat is a soil that is made up of the partially rotted remains of dead plants, which have accumulated on top of each other in cold, waterlogged locations for thousands of years. The areas where peat accumulates are called peatlands or bogs and there are three main types on the island of Ireland – blanket bogs, raised bogs, and fens. The type of peatland habitat found in a particular area is determined by the climate, soil type and plant species occurring there and each habitat type contains a number of distinctive specialised plant and animal species. Bog moss or Sphagnum moss is the key species, without which any peatland habitat could not be sustained, as it ensures that conditions remain appropriate for the continued formation of peat. Blanket bog mainly forms in upland areas across wide expanses of land while raised bogs usually form in lowland areas where there were once lakes. Fens normally occur as swampy areas adjacent to open bodies of water. Peatland habitats are visible throughout the Geopark with Cuilcagh Mountain Park containing one of the finest examples of intact blanket bog not only in the Geopark but in western Europe.
Heathland habitats are extremely hard to identify as they are usually intertwined with, and are commonly misidentified as, peatland habitats, due to the fact that both contain many of the same plants and animals. However, heathland is usually distinguished from peatland by the abundance of heathers and small shrubs such as bilberry contained within the habitat. Within the Geopark, excellent examples of heathland habitats are visible in the Burren Forest and in most of the forests of West Fermanagh. Montane heath occurs only in upland areas above 600 metres and is very rare, found in only a handful of locations on the island of Ireland one of which is the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain. This habitat is easily identified due to the specialised plants and ground-hugging shrubs, such as club mosses and juniper, which survive in the harsh, hostile conditions.
Blanket Bog, Cuilcagh Mountain
Wetlands are a particularly widespread and important feature within the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, and this habitat includes lakes, pools, rivers and streams and the plants and animals that live in and around them. Water is an essential component of these habitats, varying considerably in terms of its nutrient content. Typically areas of open water are classified according to the levels of nutrients they contain. The majority of the water bodies within the Geopark have either moderate (mesotrophic) or high (eutrophic) levels of nutrients with each containing their own variety of plants and animals. Upper and Lower Lough Erne, Lough Melvin, Lough Macnean and Lough Oughter are the principal lakes within the Geopark although there are many other small lakes dotted across the lowlands and uplands. Reedbeds, fen peats, wet grasslands and wet woodland are found within the shallows and along the fringes of many of these larger lakes making them significant refuges for a variety of mammal, insect and bird species.
Two of Ireland’s best known rivers, the Erne and Shannon, both rise within the Geopark. A variety of game and coarse fish species thrive in these waters, attracting anglers from near and far. Of particular interest are the unique trout family of Ferox, Gillaroo and Sonaghan, found only in Lough Melvin along with Arctic char and Pollan fish species, both of which have survived since the last Ice Age. Many of the smaller lakes develop swampy fringes of vegetation, which are significant refuges for insects, notably dragonflies and damselflies.
Canoeing on Lough Oughter
There are several different types of grassland habitats in the Geopark, which provide ideal conditions for a rich variety of plants and animals. Lowland meadows are associated with low intensity farming practices enabling a wide variety of wildflowers such as yellow rattle, bulbous buttercup and meadow vetchling to flourish, forming a blaze of colour in the summer. Most areas of lowland meadow are in private ownership however, Castle Archdale Country Park is an excellent place to view this habitat type. Lowland meadows are typically located on well drained soils unlike fen meadows or wet grasslands which occur on poorly drained, waterlogged soils. Typical plant species include ragged robin and water mint and this unique habitat type can be viewed along the short walk to the Shannon Pot.
The underlying Carboniferous limestone which dominates much of the Geopark landscape gives rise to several rare, interesting and notable habitat types. These calcareous habitats make a significant contribution to the biodiversity of the Geopark and many of these areas have been awarded protection through statutory designation. One such habitat type is limestone pavement which is a relict feature of the last Ice Age when huge ice sheets moved along the landscape removing large amounts of soils and vegetation exposing the underlying rock, which was then subject to thousands of years of weathering. Limestone pavement is formed as a result of a complex series of processes and is irreplaceable. It typically occurs in a mosaic with calcareous or limestone grasslands, which, as the name suggests, are simply grasslands formed over limestone rock. The best time to visit limestone grasslands is in Spring when many of the brightly coloured plant species are in bloom. Killykeegan and Crossmurrin Nature Reserve and the lower reaches of Cuilcagh Mountian Park are excellent locations to discover these unique habitats. Marl Lakes and Turloughs (water bodies where the water levels fluctuate throughout the year and can completely even dry up in the summer time) are other examples of rare habitats found locally and which are linked to the underlying limestone rock.
The limestone hills of Fermanagh and Cavan contain a large number of caves. Some caves have long horizontal passages with active streams running through them leading to big chambers, while other have soaring, vertical shafts plummeting to great depths. The caves form in limestone although there may be bands of shale or chert visible in the cave walls along with mud, sand and boulder deposits on the cave floor. Important cave species include bats, freshwater shrimps, moths and spiders. Marble Arch Caves are the best place in the Geopark to experience this hidden underworld.
For more information about the habitats and species found in our Geopark please visit the following websites:
Cavan County Council