What is a heath, fen, turlough or machair habitat?
Heath is characterised by low-growing shrubs and heathers and a lack of trees. Unlike peatlands, which have a thick layer of (often wet) peat soil, heaths have thin, nutrient poor soils and are generally drier. They support a unique array of plants and animals, including insects (e.g. marsh fritillary), mammals (e.g. Irish hare) and birds (e.g. curlew and skylark), amongst many others.
Fens are wetland ecosystems characterised by water-logged peat soil. Fens typically develop in areas that are surrounded by uplands and are fed by nutrient-rich groundwater. They support a vast array of plants and animals and play a key role in filtering and cleaning water. Since 1979, 77% of Irish fen habitat has been lost to land reclamation, drainage and fertilisation.
A turlough is a seasonal lake or wetland that fills with water during the winter and dries out again during the summer. This variability creates a dynamic and changing environment that supports a diverse range of plants and animals. Turloughs are typically found in ‘karst’ landscapes, where a permeable layer of limestone allows water to flow underground. In addition to providing for biodiversity, turloughs play an important role in regulating water flow and quality in the surrounding landscape.
Machair is a Gaelic word that refers to low-lying, fertile coastal plains. This complex habitat supports an incredible array of wildlife, including birds, wildflowers and invertebrates. It is also one of rarest habitats in Europe – occurring only on the west coastlines of Ireland and Scotland.
Actions on the farm
- Lightly graze to maintain heath: Heath is a human made habitat, created and maintained by the grazing of domestic livestock. If left to its own devices, it will revert to scrubland and (eventually) to woodland. While grazing is key to maintaining heath, leaving some scrub and trees to naturally regenerate on your heath can also be beneficial to wildlife!
- Manage grazing pressure: While some grazing is necessary to maintain heath, high grazing pressure can damage the soil and vegetation. Reducing grazing pressure can help to restore and protect the fragile soil underlying heath eco-systems. This in turn will support the unique array of plants, insects and other species that call heath home.
- Reduce inputs and compaction: The overuse of fertilisers (including slurries) and pesticides, as well as compaction by heavy farm machinery, can damage the fragile soil of heaths. Where possible, try to reduce these practices to maintain the health of your heath!
- Keep your fragile soil covered: Erosion can occur when heath is overgrazed or poached, leaving the soil exposed to heavy downpours. Save your soil by ensuring it remains covered by vegetation throughout the year.
- Consider the impact of recreational activities: Sharing the landscape with recreational users can be a great way to educate the public about the wonder and beauty of nature. However, activities such as quad-biking, mountain-biking, horse-riding or even heavy footfall over time can be damaging to your soil and can disturb wildlife. Every holding is different: how can you best manage the impact of recreational users in a way that works for everyone?
- Get to know your fen: Take some time to observe the plants and animals that call your fen home.
- Become a water management pro: Too much or too little water in your fen can damage the eco-system. Slowing the flow of run-off from other areas of the farm (e.g. by planting buffer strips or hedgerows and by maintaining healthy soils) can help to keep the water level in your fen more constant during times of drought or flood.
- Protect water quality: Think about how water moves around the farm landscape before it enters the fen. Are there opportunities to improve the water quality or reduce the potential for it to be polluted as it travels towards your fen?
- Retain don’t drain! Fens are of great value to our native biodiversity and can also be a wonderful place to observe and enjoy some peaceful time in nature on your farm. Where possible, resist the urge to drain your fen!
- Get to know your turlough! Spend some time exploring this ever-changing habitat throughout the seasons and get to know some of the plants and animals that live (or holiday!) in and around your turlough.
- Retain don’t drain! Draining a turlough changes the water flow in your local community, potentially increasing the risk of drought or flood on your land or your neighbour’s land.
- Protect water quality: Pollution by excess nutrients is one of the major threats to turloughs in Ireland. Where possible, avoid the spread of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers (including slurries) close to your turlough. Think about how water moves around the farm landscape before it enters the turlough. Are there opportunities to improve the water quality or reduce the potential for it to be polluted as it travels towards your turlough?
- Adopt light touch machair management! Machair thrives under light management and low intensity, traditional farming methods.
- Graze seasonally: Machair can benefit from grazing in winter but it’s important to fence out livestock during the flowering season (May to August) to allow fragile plants to flower, be pollinated and set seed.
- Keep your fragile sandy soil covered: Erosion can occur when machair is overgrazed or poached, leaving the soil exposed. Save your soil by ensuring it remains covered by vegetation throughout the year.
- Reduce inputs and compaction: The overuse of fertilisers (including slurries) and pesticides, as well as compaction by heavy farm machinery, can damage the fragile sandy soil of machair ecosystems. Where possible, try to reduce these practices to maintain the health of your machair!
- Fence out predators: Due to the way we manage farmland in Ireland, the number of predators (e.g. foxes, hooded crows, larger gulls) has greatly increased in recent years. These species prey on the eggs and young of endangered wading birds in machair habitat. It can be useful to speak to your local NPWS ranger about options for predator control on your machair.