Another Life: 1,000 golden saxifrages amid Sruffaunnamuingabatia’s turbines

It’s hard to see the saxifrage as useful in terms of offering food or medicine. But it’s part of the peatland flora that soaks up carbon and holds back floods

Marsh saxifrage: part of the flora of peatland. Illustration: Michael Viney

Marsh saxifrage: part of the flora of peatland. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The heart of north Mayo, blanketed in much-scarred peatland, has a wild, tundra-like atmosphere that the slow whirl of Ireland’s first 21 wind-turbines, built at Bellacorick in 1992, seemed to make even more lonely. A further 61, approved last month by An Bord Pleanála, will be even taller and more powerful, spaced across 50sq km of Bord na Móna cutaway bog at neighbouring Oweninny.

The turbine towers will entirely surround the watery web of Sruffaunnamuingabatia – otherwise (I am advised) Streams of the Well-Fed Marsh. Nested among them is the geological curiosity known as the Bellacorick iron flush and the home ground of one of Ireland’s and Europe’s rarest wild flowers, the bright-yellow marsh saxifrage, Saxifraga hirculus, its wheel of golden petals oddly mimicking the giant blades of the turbines to come.

The tundra-like feel of the landscape is apt, as the iron-stained, calcium-rich flush is among the last remnants of Ireland’s postglacial fens. Growing along with the saxifrages are rare northern mosses that served as foundation mattress for the growth of sphagnum, the moss that raised bogs on the limestone fens of the midlands.

The “tundra” theme picks up again in the EU’s protection of marsh saxifrage. In northern Finland, for example, the treeless, alkaline fens and bogs of Lapland are encroached upon by drainage for commercial conifer forestry that has already destroyed the habitats of the saxifrage in much of central and northern Europe. A conservation programme, drawing on the EU’s Life environmental budget of more than €2 billion, recruited farmers and foresters to fill and dam ditches already drained for Lapland forestry. (There’s an EU PDF, Life and Endangered Plants, at bit.ly/29aSfmc.)

The Finns found 465 colonies of marsh saxifrage in Lapland. Ireland has about a dozen in just three places – most in Mayo’s bog flushes, one in Sligo and another, with just a dozen plants, on the Garron Plateau, in Co Antrim (You can read more in the PDF of Irish Wildlife Manual No 88, at bit.ly/29aT0f3.)

The future of the Bellacorick fen, surrounded by drains and cutaway peat, depends on keeping it “the well-fed marsh”. Foundations for the 61 new turbines (down from the 112 in the original application by Bord na Móna and ESB International) held possible threats to the flush. Much technical assessment went into satisfying An Bord Pleanála’s inspectors that its flow of water would stay as it is.

The fen itself is owned by An Taisce and protected in a special area of conservation. Conditions set by the inspectors have put it right out of bounds, with even the vital monitoring held to the fewest footsteps. When Dr Neil Lockhart, the National Parks and Wildlife Service expert on mosses, began making his important discoveries at Bellacorick, in the 1980s, he feared the trampling wellingtons of other bryologists almost as much as drainage and forestry. (Wind turbines weren’t yet on the horizon.)

A lot of care, thought and expensive professional and scientific time have been spent on protecting a wild flower that few enough human beings will ever see in the wild. It blooms in late summer in erratic abundance, and the PhD botany student who once enjoyed the array of 1,000 golden blossoms was unusually lucky.

But, to quote an incorrigibly provocative friend, what good is the marsh saxifrage? A fifth of Europe’s flowering plants, conifers and ferns are classified as threatened, and 64 have already become extinct. Climate change adds new uncertainties of drought and deluge, not least on peatland. What is the special worth of marsh saxifrage among the countless species now at risk?

“Ecosystem services” to humans are supposed to sell support for biodiversity. The head of the European Commission’s nature and biodiversity unit – a Dr Patrick Murphy as it happens – is eloquent about them in the report on endangered plants.

It’s hard to see the saxifrage as offering people food, fuel, medicine, clothing or shelter. It’s part of the flora of peatland that soaks up carbon and holds back floods. It used to grow in many midland counties before drainage and peat harvesting.

So perhaps, in itself, Saxifraga hirculus is not much use to humans. Even its prettiness is no great justification, as resisting the loss of Earth’s current rare species just has to include the nondescript or even downright ugly. Perhaps, along with its simple beauty, sheer effort towards its conservation is a beneficial exercise of recompense in our long record of anthropocentrism.

Michael Fewer, the Waterford author of many good books on Irish landscapes, has felt the urge to write something for young children that might lift their wide eyes from virtual worlds and turn them to the wonders of living nature. With the illustrator Melissa Doran, from Leitrim, he has produced a bumper outsize hardback that roams through the flora and fauna of the seasons in simple and engaging language. Naturama (Gill Books, €23) is published in time for the holidays.

Michael Viney’s Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from irishtimes.com/irishtimesbooks

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