Dutch botanists drawn to Ireland’s landscapes of special beauty

The Hidden Lakes of Connemara offers ‘a tribute to a fascinating landscape’

When Europe’s vegetation crept back after the last ice age, Ireland was left rather limited in species. But many of our native plants now grow in landscapes of special beauty and interest and of kinds vanishingly rare in Europe.

The botanists of the Netherlands have been drawn to Ireland. In their highly developed country, the loss of almost all peatland, the soaring number of livestock and the impact of urbanisation have spawned a vigorous and popular movement for nature conservation.

Among the many Dutch scientists visiting Ireland, perhaps the best known has been Matthijs Schouten, who came to study peatland in 1978. Shocked by the inroads on the Irish bogs, he returned home and campaigned to raise money to buy and save three of them. He also helped prompt the setting-up of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.

Some years earlier, Victor Westhoff, a professor at Nijmegen University, began exploring the vegetation of western Connemara. Drawn to the research potential of its changing and threatened landscapes, he launched a team of four young botany students on a project that was to last for 35 years.


In 1975 the team, led by Jan van Groenendael, Ton Roozen, Madeleine van Mansfeld and Marijke van Mansfeld, arrived at an unoccupied cottage, initially without electricity or plumbing, at Ballyconneely on the westernmost Connemara peninsula.

The project, which still continues, has had much scientific value in the study of aquatic ecosystems

Their mission was to sample the myriad lakes west of a line from Clifden to Roundstone and to describe and monitor their plant life and water chemistry. The aim was to study the long-term impact of changes in the local environment. From 1975 to 2010, in a series of two-week stays, they repeated surveys of the plants on more than 350 small plots of lake shores and water.

The project, which still continues, has had much scientific value in the study of aquatic ecosystems. It has also produced a beautiful and most absorbing book, written for the general reader. The Hidden Lakes of Connemara (€31.50 from main bookshops in Galway and Clifden or from connemara-lakes.com) is published by the team as "a tribute to a fascinating landscape". Interleaved with their photographs, watercolours and often lyrical poems, it offers a share of their deep enjoyment of place and people.

The 18 lakes chosen for the project range from blanket bog through coastal farmland to a shoreline scalloped with gleaming white beaches. They represent the wide variation of bedrock and chemistry, from acid peatland to lime-rich shores, and of the powerful impact of the western ocean winds.

The lake plants have their celebrities, such as rafts of pipewort, bright spires of lobelia and the underwater fronds of slender naiad. But all are adapted to growing in water – often crystal clear and poor in nourishment and to a very tight budget of phosphorus, the element of their energy.

Phosphorus is scarce in nature, often leached out of rock, and plants use it in microgrammes per litre. But the spreading of artificial fertilisers supplies it in dozens of kilos per hectare, feeding plants that outcompete and expel the locally native vegetation. In conservation areas of the Netherlands, the topsoil of phosphate-soaked farm fields is actually being removed, at huge cost.

At lakes in the coastal zone, changes in land use have meant that some plots have almost completely lost their original mix of plants

Under the heading The Phosphorylation of Connemara, Dr van Groenendael traces the first signs of change in lakes and wetlands in farmland where decades of fertilisers have succeeded the former reliance on seaweed. “Reeds and razor-sharp Great Fen sedge,” he writes,”are taking over in the fens and quaking mires of the coastal lakes and extensive algal mats are developing in more nutrient-poor lakes inland . . .”

Over the 35 years of close monitoring the same 350 lake and wetland plots, his team recorded hundreds of plant and moss species. A drop of 31 plant species by 2010 was the balance between 62 that could not be found again and 31 new ones. The changes over much of the blanket bog have been very slight. But at lakes in the coastal zone, changes in land use have meant that some plots have almost completely lost their original mix of plants.

One of these is Lough Namanawaun, west of Roundstone, in an area of intensifying farming. Its condition moved Madeleine van Ramsfeld to end a poem: “Danger for this precious gem/ lies in spoils of human waste/ cows make havoc at its water edge/ Connemara’s disgrace.”

Nearly all the lakes in the survey fall within special areas of conservation designated by the National Parks & Wildlife Service. No ownership is registered for many of them and no management plans exist.

Dr van Groenendael offers an idea that might help pay to conserve the landscape’s biodiversity and beauty. Would the people who buy or build houses in Connemara not be prepared to invest in the protection of their environmental assets?