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23 August 2014
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Wetlands - Peatlands


At Peatlands Park near Dungannon you will find a rich bog habitat that is a wildlife goldmine for plants, insects, birds and mammals.

Northern Ireland's cool, wet climate has resulted in a very special landscape over the last 10,000 years.

Peatlands - a rich bog habitat.

In places where all the conditions are just right - there is bogland and within it there's one special ingredient - peat.

Getting stuck in

Peat turfAt Peatlands Park you are actively encouraged to get your hands on the peat - by having a go at digging it up.

Peat is still cut and used as a fuel - the locals call it turf - and it possesses an evocative smell of days gone-by.

Examined closely you can see exactly what peat is made of - all the dead plant matter that has been squashed together over thousands of years.

All the bits of tree and branch that have grown and died then accumulated to form the peat.

But bogs like Peatlands are something of a history trail - because as well as finding plant material, evidence of human activity can also be found - including track ways, boats and even perfectly preserved human remains.

Premier nature reserve

Staghorn fungusPeatlands Park is one of Northern Ireland's premier nature reserves.

It is effectively a raised bog - in places it is almost 30 feet deep - but there is also woodland, lakes and mile upon mile of boardwalks and footpaths.

If you want to take it easy you can explore the landscape by train - which historically would have been used to take away the extracted peat.

But this is no museum - because the peatlands are full of living plants that can be seen today including one or two beauties that you just have to search out.

Fed only by rainfall, the peatlands support a group of highly specialised plants - real toughies that are able to hang on in one of the UK's harshest environments

So how do plants survive in this habitat in which different conditions support diverse communities of plants?

Survival of the fittest

Pitcher plantPeatlands is an acidic environment and plants have to adapt to survive.

There is little oxygen in the water - and not much nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, so plants have devised cunning ways of coping.

The heather forms an association with fungi so it can extract what it needs - while other plants have turned carnivorous to survive.

The Sundews are one of the commonest and best known plants of raised bogs.

These carnivores catch their insect prey and then release enzymes which can digest the flesh.

Also look out for Pitcher Plants - which are not native to Ireland but have found their way onto the reserve.

They consume prey that has fallen into the pitcher of water below - and the nutrients from the body feed the plant - a six legged fertilizer!

Autumn colours

Jay c/o RSPB Images and BlakeThe autumn is a great time to see the Peatlands' bogs because the colours are amazing.

Annagarrif Wood is at the heart of the reserve - it is undulating woodland that has grown on drumlins which are relics of the Ice Age.

It is a boggy area that has never been farmed - and a result it has become something of a wildlife haven.

It is great for birds - especially Jays - and a top spot for seeing the Irish Hare, another endangered species that flourishes here.

Ant heaven

Wood AntYou can track down another woodland creature that has colonised this landscape - the Wood Ant - whose nest can reach the size of a double bed.

But in fact these are not Irish ants - they are Scottish Wood Ants that are thought to have been introduced here in the 1840s possibly as a food source for game birds.

This is the only place in the whole of Ireland where you can find this creature.

It is unusual to find them in deciduous woodland because ants are generally a creature of the Caledonian pine forest.

We tend to think that ants are creatures of the ground - but if you look up - you will see they tend to do most of their foraging in trees - you can often say long lines of workers stretching up the birch trees.

You can see the workers all year round - apart from the midwinter months - but warm sunny days are best.

At Peatlands there are 40 ant mounds - but forget all the bad press that ants get about being destroyers of all that lie in their path.

The Wood Ants are reasonably tolerant, allowing guests, parasites and scavengers to live amongst their colony including aphids that they farm and worms that they allow to live in their tunnels to keep them mould free!

Larger mammals and birds

HeronThere are also some bigger creatures that can be found on the reserve - Badgers, Jays and Long-eared Owl.

You could easily spend more than a day exploring the reserve.

Back on the bogland don't miss the last hour of daylight and watch the dragonflies before they rest up for the night.

Also look out for Herons on the small lake next to the visitor centre.

Photo credits

All photographs are copyright and courtesy of Andy Hay, Sue Tranter, Nigel Blake and RSPB Images.



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