From Islay to Ireland – a peatland learning event for ACT staff in the CANN project

Last week the team from CANN partners Argyl Coast and Countryside Trust (ACT) crossed the waters to visit peat bog restoration sites in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. Due to Covid this was the first visit for some of the staff to any of the partner project sites and an opportunity to put real faces to names, email addresses and Zoom screens!

removing pine by hand

The first on the list of visits was a large blanket bog called Sliabh Beagh, spanning the border between north and south. The ACT team were met by Paul and Rory from Monaghan County Council, who walked their visitors up the hill, telling tales of local folklore (apparently Noah’s brother landed his own ark of animals nearby) and the group were honoured with a fleeting view of a hen harrier, the only one of the trip. Paul and Rory have been removing conifers that were drying out the bog and using peat dams, a system of ‘borrowing’ peat from nearby, to infill small sections of ditches to reduce drainage, all in efforts to return the bog to a wet, healthy habitat.

The next day the tour continued, this time teaming up with Simon from Ulster Wildlife to have a tour of their works at Peatlands Park, a country estate with an extensive trail system through a mosaic of gorgeous woodlands and raised bog habitats. There is a large network of drains throughout the site, so hydrological mapping was done using LiDAR (a type of laser scanning) to help plan where damming should take place. The team checked in on the range of peat and plastic dams, getting some very wet feet in the process (surely a good sign that the damming is working!) and compared notes on Islay’s efforts with rhododendron removal (something that has been a key deliverable on the island!). Ulster Wildlife are monitoring effects of the restoration

volunteers clearing rhodi seedlings

work using piezometers, an instrument inserted deep into the ground which measures the water table using data loggers.  Some of these are automatically taking measurements every 15 minutes! This gives an insight into how the water table changes throughout the year and after restoration; a nice wet bog for most of the year will be more resilient to the hotter, drier weather events predicted due to climate change.

The tour then took the team up to Cuilcagh mountain with Roisin, also from Ulster Wildlife. Here they have been using a variety of methods to block gullies that have been caused by water eroding the peat. Coir logs made of coconut fibres are dug into the base of the gullies, slowing water flow. Cut heather is spread over areas of exposed peat to stop it oxidizing and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. They have even been trialing a new method of gully blocking, using wool from the very sheep that graze the mountain. The wool is used to create a bale which is then used to block gullies much

coir log in place

like the coir logs.

For the final two days of our trip ACT joined forces with a range of CANN staff as well as other outside projects interested in bogs. Again, more trips out onto bogs, but many of which are managed by community groups. One such was Abbeyleix bog which was saved from further peat extraction by its locals. They now manage the area and its diverse surrounding habitats, liaising with universities to carry out research and organising work groups for everything from boardwalk maintenance to habitat creation for marsh fritillaries. It was inspiring to witness the hard work and passion that has gone into managing the area for the benefit of the environment, but also for the enjoyment of the local community, all co-ordinated by volunteers.

meeting the volunteer team at Abbeyleix

All in all, it was a highly education trip and the ACT team has have come away brimming with ideas and enthusiasm to continue their work with bogs, back on our home peat of Islay and Argyll.

Have your say for Cuilcagh and Slieve Anierin

Looking over the summits of Cuilcagh, Slieve Anierin, Bencroy and Benbrack, across Knockacullion and the Playbank, few realise their habitats are rarer than tropical rainforest! These peaks represent two cross-border Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The sites are designated for their internationally important blanket bog.

male hen harrierThis globally scarce habitat is home to iconic wildlife, such as red grouse, hen harrier and the Irish hare. Blanket bog is a vital carbon store, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the Earth’s forests combined! A healthy blanket bog is also essential for flood mitigation and maintaining good water quality. But all these benefits are lost when peatlands are damaged.

Through the CANN project, Ulster Wildlife has been writing a management plan for this area. The plan will identify threats to the SACs and what action is needed to keep these habitats in good ecological condition. To do this, we need the knowledge of landowners and site users. Your input at the latest online and in-person sessions is essential.

16th May 3-7pm Drop-in at St Patrick’s Hall Glangevlin

23rd May 4-8pm Drop-in  at  Commercial and Tourist Hotel Ballinamore

25th MAy 7-8.30pm Online session – register for free tickets at www.bit.ly/3s7jLcL

30th May 4 – 8pm Drop-in at Mayflower Hall Drumshanbo

The LIFE IP, Wild Atlantic Nature project, will also be there to provide information on their project, how it relates to the CANN management plan and how it can help local Cuilcagh–Anierin SAC farmers prepare for forthcoming changes to CAP.

People unable to attend one of the drop-ins or the online session are invited to fill in a quick online questionnaire so they can still have their say please go to: http://www.bit.ly/367Wgse , the survey will take 5 minutes to complete

Celebration of Conservation Successes at Lough Arrow

A fascinated audience of anglers, conservationists and academics met on the shores of Lough Arrow,  recently and in the sunshine between hail flurries celebrated the conservation successes on Lough Arrow, Co. Sligo and learned about future plans for the site. The event showcased the work of the newly incorporated Atlantic Technological University (formerly IT Sligo) in an innovative trial of techniques to control and prevent the further spread of the alien invasive plant Elodea Nuttallii (Nuttal’s pondweed). This weed has been having devastating effects on the unique biodiversity of stoneworts on the lake and the brown trout fishery that depends on them.

The event included a practical demonstration from Dr Joe Caffrey of INVAS Biosecurity of how the invasive weed is ideally evolved to spread within the lake and how easy it is for fragments of the plant to infect neighbouring water bodies through the equipment and boats of lake users.

Dr Joe Caffrey, INVAS with Nuttalls pondweed

Although it may be that the weed can never be eradicated due to practicalities and cost, the idea of using jute matting to suppress the weed in biosecure channels has long term potential. This means that people can safely access the deep weed-free waters to fish, swim, and boat without breaking weeds, preventing spread within or out of the Lough.

Scientists from The Atlantic Technological University were pleased to announce that the Nuttall’s weed has been entirely suppressed under the matting and, even more importantly, the charophytes or stoneworts that are such an essential part of the lifecycles of the lake are successfully growing through the jute.

An announcement was also made at the event that the Lough is due to be central within the next stage of the River Basin Management Plans, and so work and research will continue on the Lough, carrying CANN’s legacy into the future.

No Noah’s Ark for White-clawed Crayfish

The CANN project has recently halted its plans to re-locate white-clawed crayfish populations within the network of lakes at Magheraveeley-Kilrooskey. Only one of the lakes (Horseshoe Lake) holds a crayfish population above the threshold for favourable status, but even this is on a declining trajectory. The threshold is measured as catch per unit effort (CPUE) and should be above one. At Horseshoe Lake, catches have been, on average, just above one craclose up of crayfish showing face, and clawsyfish per trap depending on season and surveys at Dummy’s Lough, the only other lake with a substantial population, typically return CPUEs at well below one.

Evidence over the last five years has found that future translocation of this species is not a feasible plan and indeed that a previous translocation attempt has failed. Between 2013 and 2015, an attempt was made to move crayfish from Horseshoe lake to Knockballymore; however, surveys have not found a single crayfish in the new site. In addition, the project has found invasive zebra mussels on the lough, which indicates connectivity with other water bodies meaning that crayfish plague may also have moved in and could have played a part in this failure. Angling activity could also have transferred Crayfish view across the lake with ermergent vegetationPlague. Anecdotal evidence shows that the angling stands attract anglers from far afield. It is almost impossible to control this access or behaviours that might transfer invasive alien plants and animals.

The cluster’s potential target lakes are also exposed to pollution transfers; Knockballymore, for example, is exposed to pollution transfers from the adjacent river. The CANN project has data from pesticide analysis that indicates pollution transfer from North to South, especially during flood events.

With populations so fragile, only waters with no connectivity to other lakes or rivers and no fishing stands can support good crayfish populations or become ark sites.

A further blow to the plans has been discovering that all the potential target lakes and even the donor sites are under pressure from nutrient enrichment. The lakes appear to have accumulated nutrients over decades. Their lower and colder layers of water (hypolimnia) tend to become anoxic or even anaerobic during summer’s thermal stratification. This stratification results in nutrient mobilisation from the lake sediments, enabling large seasonal algal blooms.

In short, we would advocate efforts to mitigate nutrient, pollution and potential pathogen transfer and mitigation of the internal nutrient loading before embarking on further crayfish translocation

The Hen Harrier – Ireland’s rhino, panda or elephant

The Hen Harrier, the Sky-Dancer, is one of the most enigmatic species that inhabit the mountains and moors across Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The CANN project is working across all three jurisdictions to understand and manage some of the interconnected issues that face this and other species across peatland and moorland habitats.male hen harrier

The species faces many threats and pressures across the range in these jurisdictions leading to direct loss and displacement of hen harriers which are a vital component, indeed barometer, of a healthy upland ecosystem. The cry of the curlew and the drumming of snipe have also diminished or vanished across their former strongholds.

Five-yearly or ten-yearly surveys of the hen harrier have revealed ongoing declines and range contractions for many decades. Trends identified in national surveys forecast more decreases in the coming years.

The hen harrier in Northern Ireland, in 2016, numbered fewer than 50 pairs. Across the island of Ireland, there are fewer than 200 pairs. The reality is that the population has declined in each sequential survey over the last decades. Even within the Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated as species strongholds, the population is declining rapidly. We should be able to do better. We should be able to support and conserve this species more. We MUST be able to do better.

The Sky Dancer is declining here; and surely brings a warning to us all. Globally, the rhinoceros, the gorilla, the elephant, the tiger, the polar bear, the blue whale, and the giant panda, are all threatened and endangered species. The hen harrier is our rhino, the hen harrier is our tiger, the hen harrier is our panda, the hen harrier is our elephant. We must seek to educate people and learn to protect this species and its habitats now, within our own lifetimes, so future generations can wonder at its acrobatics as we do. We can all do better.

There is a huge range of threats to this species and its habitats. The hazards this species faces on this island include land management issues such as over-grazing and land abandonment, wildfires, habitat fragmentation, livestock trampling of nests and turf cutting. Human recreation also puts intolerable pressures on these birds: disturbance at nest or roost site from car rallying, off-road motorbikes and vehicles and dogs being walked or trained off leads. Commercial forestry with its abundant fox populations causes increased nest and fledgling predation. Even the ostensibly “green” energy solution of wind farms can lead to collisions and displacement. And to top off this list of “accidental” problems, there is, of course, illegal persecution.

In Ireland, some of the declines could be the effects of illegal killing across the Irish Sea – being felt keenly here too, perhaps? There is lesser evidence of direct killing on our own shores, but the birds move so freely between the nations that undoubtedly the trends may be linked. While known persecution incidents are few on the Emerald Isle compared to Britain they do occur for sure. Shot hen harriers have been posted to newspaper offices, satellite-tagged hen harriers have been shot and left to rot on the ground, and nestling hen harriers have been clubbed to death.

As an integral part of the CANN project, the team has been working to understand the species’ complex spatial and temporal requirements at various sites across the project area. The CANN project implements localised management for this and other species across peatland habitats. Works have taken place to identify the occurrence of hen harriers and their usage of a range of lowland raised bogs across Northern Ireland and border counties of Ireland and on upland regions of Cuilcagh Mountain, Sliabh Beagh and on the Scottish Island of Islay.

Locally we see an extensive loss of natural moorland sites, no remaining deep heather for nesting, obliterated by successive fires. Habitat loss, habitat degradation, poor quality nesting and foraging habitats ravaged over the decades. Other neglected and affected species, including the red grouse, the curlew, the golden plover, the meadow pipit, the snipe, the skylark, are also facing perilous declines.

Over recent years, the seasonal hen harrier surveys by the CANN project have discovered previously unknown hen harrier roost and nest sites, the locations of which are not fixed. We have examined the foraging range of many of the individual pairs of harriers within the project sites and shown how and where foraging ranges extend far beyond the designated site boundaries. Tracking the movement of birds has revealed that some tracked from Scotland roost in lowland raised bogs on the border counties of Ireland. We are all connected.

The CANN project has worked on the restoration of drained and damaged bogs to restore the densities of snipe and meadow pipits and skylarks feeding on the invertebrates increasingly abundant in the pools and dams created through restoration. These actions provide a better source of food and prey for the quartering, low altitude hen harrier, the ghost of the moor.

The CANN project has worked on fire planning, and building landscape and community resilience in tackling the multiple effects of fires in destroying habitat and damaging carbon sinks held preciously within the bogs. These spring fires are often exacerbated by turf cutting at an industrial scale.  There remains a way to go in the protection of these carbon-sequestering habitats and the careful, cautious use of firebreaks will contribute to the restoration of a heterogeneous mosaic of habitats. A fire-resilient landscape with its mixed heights is optimised for the red-listed red grouse with its “go-back, go-back” call; the edge habitats created by the breaks are great for nesting meadow pipits and the linear features themselves are much favoured by the hunting harriers.

The CANN project has implemented nest protection measures to give Hen Harriers the best chances of fledging young. The current ecosystem, unbalanced by generations of landscape change and afforestation, has an unsustainably high number of predators like foxes, so these need management to help hen harriers fledge more young chicks.

The CANN project has worked to rid the bogs and moors of a plague of self-seeded conifers from adjacent plantations and cutting and removal of the brightly coloured but deadly invasive rhododendron. Removing these misplaced trees optimises the moors and restores the unique openness of habitats much favoured by the hen harrier.

The CANN project has begun restoration and aims to set directions through conservation action plans for long-lived restorative actions to follow. However, there is much remaining to do. Creating connectivity between and within habitats is vital. These habitats and species cross borders: Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland – all are interlinked.  In recent years, however, there has been cause for optimism. The change in local attitudes and pressures which drove some of the past negativity is refreshing. In addition, the new biodiversity funding routes and Results-Based Agri-Environment Payment Schemes (RBAPS), increasingly operating in Ireland and beyond, are building an inherent cultural and financial value to all biodiversity, including the hen harrier.

The hen harrier has not been doing well, and remains vulnerable without ongoing, long-term support and actions. We all need to do our part. We need to celebrate it, support its habitats, and find ways to support the landowners, land managers and farmers privileged to work and live within its landscape. Agri-environmental schemes that have payments linked to the performance and productivity of hen harriers (and other species or habitats), that create a value to the increased number of young fledge, are an excellent route forward. These schemes support high nature value farming at its finest, with the potential to protect, enshrine and value both the land managers and the bird itself. Imagine a world where we all appreciate the hen harrier like that – as an integral part of the landscape. For now, we remain optimistic that the current realities can be improved.

CANN Project finalist in Europe-wide competition

A jury of 1000 European citizens is working hard to single out this year’s most innovative political projects, and The CANN (Collaborative Action for the Natura Network) project, led by Newry Mourne and Down District Council, is through to the finals! The prestigious Innovations in Politics Awards, now in its fifth year, asks politicians from all over Europe to submit their most outstanding political initiatives over a range of themes. Cathy Mason, the chairperson of NMDDC, nominated the CANN Project as an exceptional example of partners working together across borders to develop practical solutions to the urgent problems of climate change and biodiversity loss.

“Details of the huge range of work being undertaken by the CANN project in our district and others, in a swathe from Sligo to the Highlands of Scotland impressed me,” said Cathy Mason

“However, what immediately struck me was the strength of the partnership, and the way councils, charities, academic institutions and government departments are working together, showing real political leadership,” she continued.

The CANN project is a finalist reaching the last ten in the Ecology section of the awards, whittled down from over 400 entries across Europe. The winners of each of the nine categories will receive one of the coveted trophies in a special awards ceremony held in the New Year.

The CANN project aims to improve the condition of protected habitats and to support priority species found within Northern Ireland, the Border Region of Ireland and Scotland, allowing the region to meet key EU biodiversity targets and ensuring the future of these internationally important habitats and species.

Fire-fighting and Fire-prevention techniques demonstrated on Cuilcagh

On Thursday 14 October, The CANN project along with partner agencies and Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) held a wildfire awareness event for key site users and landowners to increase awareness of how wildfires can be prevented, and how NIFRS responds to wildfire incidents, with the aim of driving down wildfires in the Cuilcagh Anierin Mountain, and the rest of Northern Ireland.

In the last three years, NIFRS has attended 6,300 wildfires across Northern Ireland. Dealing with wildfires unnecessarily draws NIFRS resources away from where they are needed most, protecting our community.

In a bid to manage and respond to wildfires, NIFRS Enniskillen District has been working with The CANN Project along with the Pau Costa Foundation, PSNI and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to develop a wildfire management and response plan for Cuilcagh Anierin Mountain, County Fermanagh.

 “Not only is there a huge environmental cost in terms of loss biodiversity and increased atmospheric carbon, but wildfires unnecessarily tie up fire services’ time and resources. Therefore, the purpose of this event was to show the multi-agency response and management of wildfires before, during and after incidents, and generate awareness of the impact of wildfires on habitats, species, carbon and farming in these upland areas,” said Podge McKeon, district commander NIFRS.

The CANN project’s focus is on preventing fires through changes in land management. In a hierarchy, the best solutions are re-wetting the peatlands and working with farmers to graze animals, next, ecologists would move to management of fuel load through cutting and lastly the use of prescribed burns. In this event, the safe use of slow, shallow, cool burns were demonstrated.

“Wildfire planning creates a really useful tool to help focus habitat management in places where small changes can have a big impact. The partnership approach demonstrated in events like this is vital for the long-term health of our peatlands. Over 60 people from both sides of the border attended this event and the links made will be invaluable in managing the land to prevent fire as well as fighting such fires as do occur”. said Simon Gray, Senior technical officer with CANN partners Ulster Wildlife

Finance Minister explores value of peatland on Cuilcagh visit

Finance Minister Connor Murphy today paid a visit to the peatland restoration project on Cuilcagh Mountain in Fermanagh, exploring a new vision for Northern Ireland’s peatlands with representatives from  CANN partners Ulster Wildlife,

“With COP26 approaching and the pending decision by the NI Assembly on the Climate Bill, this visit has highlighted the role of nature-based solutions as an important part of the pathway to net-zero emissions as recommended by the Climate Change Committee,” said Minister Connor Murphy.

Making a long-term difference through natural solutions requires investment, however, there is an important inter-generational return. Restoration of our unique habitats is no exception, particularly peatlands which can provide considerable benefits to our society called “ecosystem services”. These benefits can only happen when peatlands are in good condition. Peat soils cover an estimated 18% of NI’s land area, however, 88% of our peatlands are now considered in need of restoration due to years of drainage, afforestation, wildfire, erosion and historic overgrazing.

Jim McAdam J Fulton and Connor MurphyShowing Minister Murphy the progress made in restoring areas of Cuilcagh’s degraded peat, Jennifer Fulton, CEO of Ulster Wildlife, said,

“Restoring peatland offer significant value for money preventing the loss of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and in their long-term removal and storage. They are a source of clean water and can reduce the risk of damaging and expensive flash floods downstream, not to mention the cultural and amenity value of these beautiful and biodiverse habitats.”

“Currently, peatlands in damaged condition, are emitters of greenhouse gases. Just one cubic meter of peat – the size of an armchair – holds the equivalent amount of carbon that would be released from a car in 300 return trips from Dublin to Belfast. We have over a billion cubic metres held in our peat soils, storing a massive amount of greenhouse gases, and we need to invest to make sure they aren’t released, harming our efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.”

Peatlands cover just 3% of the world’s surface but store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. However, peatlands in damaged condition are net-emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs). It is estimated that NI’s degraded peatlands are emitting 170,500 tonnes of CO2 each year, and 223,200 tonnes of GHGs (in CO2 equivalent) in total. Peatlands will be an important part of NI’s climate action plan. An ambitious peatlands restoration programme would provide significant long-term benefits both in reducing carbon emission and in providing vital ecosystem services. If works like those seen in Fermanagh are more widely applied, the emission of greenhouse gases would be stopped almost immediately, and our restored peat soils would become ‘fit for purpose’ to start capturing millions more tonnes of carbon each year. An investment in our peatlands pays dividends annually, a fact which is not lost on the Department of Finance.

Loughshore people get a taste for boggy delights

Local people enjoyed a guided culinary and foraging walk around Peatlands Park this week and had the opportunity to brew their own pine needle tea and produce their own apple juice.

The event was organised by a new environmental grouping established to celebrate and protect the important wildlife habitats between the River Blackwater and the Bann. The development of the group and its lively programme of events is part of the outreach work of the CANN project, which is delivering conservation work restoring the raised bog on the site through re-wetting and clearing of invasive rhododendron. This was one of a series of events that are all advertised on Facebook, search for https://www.facebook.com/HfN.BlackwaterBann to find out more.

People of all ages took part in the exploration, enjoying the last sunshine of autumn (along with a couple of showers), and tasting some of the riches of the season.

“Our guide, Daniel Monaghan,  a local teacher and story-teller,took us on a walk around the park and explained the different habitats of bog and woodland here at Peatlands Park. We learned about the properties of sphagnum moss and the role bogs can play in combating climate change” said Paul Higgins who lives locally.

“On the way round, we gathered pine needles and apples from the local heritage orchard and sampled our own freshly pressed apple juice and enjoyed the refreshing taste of pine needle tea” he continued.

Survey Successes: Snakes and Lady’s Tresses

Our Conservation Officer on Islay, Angharad, has been out in the sunshine (and sometimes rain!) surveying habitats on our project peatland sites. The information gathered in these surveys is used to help the team monitor the condition of the peatland habitats and create conservation action plans for each site. Peatlands are sensitive to trampling and overgrazing and invasive species such as Rhododendron ponticum, so it is important to do regular ‘health checks’ to make sure the habitats are in tip-top form.

Angharad randomly assigns multiple survey points across each site and visits each point with a big quadrat to conduct the surveys. She lays the quadrat on the ground and takes a peat depth measurement using the new peat probe. The deepest peat record so far is 6.4 m which nearly swallowed the whole peat probe and equates to 6400 years of peat deposition! Angharad also measures the vegetation height, moss cover, area of bare peat, and presence of trees or invasive plant species. The level of grazing in each quadrat is also recorded. This involves looking for evidence of munched heather and rummaging through the vegetation for deer droppings.

These surveys are also a great chance to get up close with some of the wildlife that lives on our peatlands. Hen harriers often fly by for a closer look at what’s going on, and one or two adders have been spotted (and quickly avoided!) on the walk to a new survey point.

The biggest highlight was finding a new colony of rare orchids called Irish Lady’s Tresses near a survey site. Angharad was delighted by the find,

“The exact site will remain secret to keep them safe, but all in all, I was pretty chuffed with the unexpected find, made even better by how pretty they are,” she said,

“This beautiful small wild orchid has small creamy-white flowers coiling in three spirals up the stem. Each flower is in a dense spike, and the sepals and petals are joined to form a lip of a tube!” she described.

These orchids are only known at four locations on Islay. A total of 14 flowering plants were discovered, the greatest number of any single site to date. These plants are quite rare, mainly found in northern and western Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. See this map.  Irish Lady’s tresses are a UK Biodiversity Action Plan species and are on Ireland’s Red List for Vascular plants.

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