Where are the Uplands in Ireland?
In Ireland, ‘uplands’ regions are generally considered as anything over 300m above sea level, and we also include areas in the west of Ireland such as the Burren and South Connemara where the uplands descend to sea level. Other uplands areas in the west of Ireland include Nephin Beg, Croagh Patrick, and the Mweelrea Mountains the rest of the country, upland areas include the Wicklow Mountains to the east, the Galtees to the south, and the South-West uplands which include Carrauntoohil, the Macgillycuddy Reeks and the Slieve Mish mountains. To the north, the North-western uplands includes Ox Mountains, and the Antrim Mountains and the Mourne mountains in the North-East.
Types of Upland Habitats
The main types of habitats we see in Irish upland areas are blanket bog, dry and wet heaths and unimproved grassland. The different habitats form depending on the altitude, the underlying rock and drainage conditions, and how the land was previously used by people. Often mosaics form where areas of the various habitats are intermingled, creating a patchwork of habitat types that you can observe by looking at the plants present.
Lower down on the slopes in the transition from farmed land, grasslands form in areas where the peaty soil is not waterlogged. As we travel up further the slopes, the peat depth increases and conditions become more severe, and the grassland grades into dry heath or blanket bog. Heathlands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by heather and other dwarf shrubs. Areas of dry heath will be evident in spaces where there is better drainage, and wet heath occurs in areas of poorer drainage. Blanket bog forms where there is standing water or the water table is especially high. Conifer plantations often occur in upland areas, taking advantage of Sitka Spruce’s ability to grow quickly even in acidic, waterlogged peaty soils. However, today unmodified peaty soils are no longer recommended for afforestation.
Areas of the uplands dominated by grasses that haven’t been fertilised, ploughed and reseeded, or otherwise modified by people for agriculture or pasture, are called unimproved grasslands. They mainly occur in the lower slopes of the upland regions, where the peaty soil is fairly thin, and the ground is quite free-draining. Most commonly found around the upper limits of farmed land, it often grades into dry heath in the more well-drained areas, or to blanket bog in waterlogged places.
In grassland areas, look out for grasses like fescues, sweet vernal grass, mat grass, and wavy hair grass, as well as narrow-leaved plants such as heath rush and green ribbed sedge. Other plants you’re likely to see, include heath bedstraw, tormentil, lousewort, as well as a few smaller shrubs like bilberry, bell heather and ling heather as you move towards more heathland areas. You’ll also spot areas populated with bracken and the occasional tree or shrub such as hawthorn and gorse. Birds of prey such as the buzzard, kestrel, peregrine falcon, hen harrier and merlin may be spotted over grassland areas hunting for small birds and rabbits. Keep an eye out for other birds such as the golden plover and meadow pipit, as well as butterflies like the green hairstreak and marsh fritillary, and damselflies such as the large red damselfly and blue-tailed damselfly who use grasslands for breeding. You may also spot rabbits, Irish hares, goats, various species of deer, or even the tiny pygmy shrew.
Dry heaths occur in the well-drained areas of the uplands. The underlying soil is shallow, acidic, and often nutrient-poor due to leaching, and where there is underlying peat, it will be less than 15cm deep. Dry heath can occur at altitudes from sea level all the way up to 400m above sea level.
Dry heath is dominated by shrubs such as bell heather, ling heather, gorse, and bilberry, as well as herbaceous plants like tormentil. You will also see grasses such as wavy hair grass, mat grass, and fescues, although these will be less plentiful than in the grassland habitat.
Birds such as the red grouse, skylark and stonechat would be commonly found in dry heath habitats, as well as golden plover. Merlin and hen harrier can often be seen hunting over dry heath habitats. Butterflies like the green hairstreak may occasionally be spotted.
Where conditions are conducive – for example, in relatively flat areas that have poor drainage – peat will accumulate in a thicker layer. As the peat gets deeper, the soil tends to become more waterlogged, supporting different plants and forming wet heath or blanket bog habitats instead.
Wet Heath covers the lower slopes of hills and mountains in places with an accumulation of peat, typically between 15cm and 50cm in depth.
You will see a different type of vegetation here compared to the dry heath areas. There is less cover of shrubs. Cross-leaved heath, with its needle-like leaves, is present. Other typical heathland plants such as ling heather and bell heather can be found. However, unlike dry heath areas, this habitat also has wetland plants such as molinia grass, sphagnum moss, heath rush, green ribbed sedge, heath spotted-orchid, lousewort, hare’s-tail cottongrass, tormentil and the carnivorous round-leaved sundew. In the west of Ireland, bog myrtle can frequently be found in wet heath habitats.
Snipe, red grouse, skylarks and golden plover can be found in wet heathland, and meadow pipet nest within the vegetation. Raptors such as the merlin, kestrel and hen harrier may be seen scouring the land for prey.
The wetland environment of wet heath draws a number of notable invertebrates, including the bog hoverfly, the common hawker and the keeled skimmer dragonflies, as well as other heathland species such as the emperor moth and marsh fritillary butterfly. Pygmy shrew are again present, hiding under the vegetation, and feral goats may be seen, especially in uplands areas throughout the north and in Wicklow.
Blanket bogs started to form in Ireland between 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, especially in the deforested upland areas. Blanket bogs quite literally blanket an area, including slopes – they are large expanses of open habitat with typically only low-growing plants and mosses, and no tall plants or trees. You’ve probably heard that in the past, a squirrel could travel from one end of Ireland to the other without ever touching the ground. Up until around 6,000 years ago, much of Ireland (over 80%) would have been covered in forest. However, the arrival of Neolithic farming practices to our shores meant that forests began to be cleared for agricultural land. Combined with a cooler, wetter climate than we currently experience, the exposed soil leached nutrients and clay minerals, and acidic blanket bogs began to form in areas where waterlogged conditions and lack of drainage restricted decay of plant matter. Over time the dead plant material from the low-growing plants like sphagnum moss accumulated to form bogs and layers of peat. The depth of the peat varies, but can be anywhere up to 3m deep, having built up over the last 7000 years or so.
Upland blanket bogs occur in areas higher than 150m above sea level, and are rich wetland habitats found in hills and mountains where they spread out and cover flat or gently sloping ground. They support a range of mosses and acid-loving plants, as well as providing an essential wetland habitat for a number of birds and invertebrates. Typical vegetation has sphagnum mosses, common cotton grass and black bog rush. Other common plants include ling heather, cross-leaved heath, bilberry, round-leaved sundew and bog asphodel.
Depending on the season, you can expect to see dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, stoneflies, water boatman, whorl snails, Irish hare, pygmy shrew, red fox, deer, frogs, and ground-nesting birds such as red grouse, meadow pipit, skylark, curlew, common snipe, and golden plover. Birds of prey such as kestrel, merlin and hen harrier will summer in the uplands, building nests and taking advantage of the open landscape for hunting.
There are many lakes and pools throughout the Irish uplands, forming in depressions in the rock from the passage of glaciers after the last Ice Age. Lough Cummeenoughter in Co. Kerry is Ireland’s highest lake, at an elevation of 707m above sea level.
Lakes in the upland regions are important freshwater habitats for invertebrates such as water beetle, caddisfly larvae and other aquatic insects. Some are home to quite rare species such as the downy emerald dragonfly found near upland lakes in the west and south-west of Ireland. Fish species that may be found in lakes include brown trout and Arctic char.
Lakes formed in areas surrounded by blanket bog and wet heath can be acidic environments with surprisingly few different plant species – however, the species that are present can often be quite rare, or restricted to the particular conditions found near upland lake habitats. Plants such as Bulbous Rush, Bottle Sedge and Bogbean are commonly seen near upland lakes.
Much of Ireland has been deforested over the last 6000 years but in the uplands, it is now common to see conifer plantations planted on land deemed poor for grazing or other agricultural use. Conifers, especially sitka spruce, were often planted on ecologically important habitats such as blanket bog and wet heath, because of their ability to grow, even thrive, in the nutrient-poor, acidic, waterlogged environment. However today, unmodified peaty soils are no longer recommended for afforestation.
Coniferous forests form closed canopies as they mature, unfortunately preventing other plant species from existing in the dark environment created on the forest floor. They can often be viewed as ecological “dead zones”, although a number of birds of prey and mammals will take advantage of the dry surroundings and protection of the closed forest. The red fox will often dig its den in mature coniferous forests, and a number of birds of prey such as hen harrier and merlin may nest. Crossbill, pine marten and red squirrel may be spotted in the tree canopy.
Priorities in Upland Habitat Management
In upland bogs and heaths, you may come across areas of exposed peat, where the vegetation cover has been removed and degraded over time by overgrazing or burning. Erosion by the wind and rain causes hags to develop in the landscape, where the peat has been washed or blown away.
While Blanket Bog is generally an excellent carbon store as the vegetation locks in carbon extracted from the atmosphere, unfortunately degraded or exposed peat actually becomes a carbon emitter, as the carbon is oxidised and released back into the atmosphere. Bog restoration is an important piece of work being undertaken by agencies like the National Parks & Wildlife Service, as well as charities such as the Irish Peatland Conservation Council and other voluntary organisations across the country. When restoring bogs, dams are built in the channels formed by rainwater, to slow the runoff of water and peat down the mountain. Heather brash is scattered across the bare landscape, to reseed the peat, and also to offer it some protection from wind erosion while plants slowly re-establish.
Wild Atlantic Nature LIFE IP, a 9-year EU-funded LIFE Integrated Project, is the largest initiative that works with farmers, local communities and land owners to add value to the wide range of services provided from our Special Area of Conservation (SAC) network of blanket bogs and associated areas in the West of Ireland.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service funded the development of the Irish Uplands Forum Upland Biodiversity webpages through the Peatlands Community Engagement Scheme 2023.