Ireland

Photo Essay: The Beauty of Ireland

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The Beauty of Ireland
GannetsGannetsOvercrowding at Little Skellig -- an island in Ireland's southwest corner -- have led gannets to move along the southern coast to Great Saltee Island, County Wexford. Gannets, one of the biggest and heaviest seabirds in the North Atlantic, mate for life. Pairs may be together for up to 20 years and return to the same nest each breeding season. Their nests are just a mound of rotten vegetation, lined afresh each year with new seaweed, grasses, and feathers.
The Curragh's Champion StudsThe Curragh's Champion StudsMost of Ireland's grass goes to her sheep and cattle -- but in County Kildare another animal dominates this green backdrop -- the horse. The ancient grasslands of the Curragh are renowned for their high quality grazing. The underlying limestone's good for bone formation and the grass is especially sweet. In the 12th century, monks of the Knights of Malta bred war-horses in the Curragh. Today it's home to a multi-million dollar bloodstock industry. Some of the finest horses in the world are bred, trained, and raced on the Curragh.
Green, Green GrassGreen, Green GrassThe Gulf Stream brings warm winters to Ireland and the prevailing winds off the Atlantic carry with them rain. It means grass can grow almost all year round -- creating the lush sweeping pastures of the Emerald Isle. Today they make up 93 percent of all farmland. No other country in Europe has quite as much grass as Ireland.
BadgersBadgersAmong Ireland's common and widespread mammals is the badger. Extremely sociable, badgers live in small groups led by a single male, and spend their days rooting mainly for earthworms and the occasional insect. Badgers once lived throughout the forests that covered much of Ireland. Nowadays, with most of these woodlands gone, badgers are forced to dig their underground homes on the edge of farmland, in the earth banks of hedgerows and trees.
The BurrenThe BurrenUpland areas normally make good grazing in the summer, but in the Burren livestock are driven up on to the high limestone tops in early winter. The limestone rock absorbs the heat of the summer sun and, like a giant storage heater, releases it in winter, boosting the ground temperature. This, coupled with the winter rainfall that provides water in an otherwise arid landscape, guarantees grazing when elsewhere there is little to eat.
Monastery of ClonmacnoiseMonastery of ClonmacnoiseFounded in 548, the Clonmacnoise monastery was a bastion of Irish religion, literature, and art at a time when much of Europe languished in the Dark Ages. For almost 1,500 years it has looked out across the changing Callows landscape -- the flood-plains of the River Shannon. In the spring the floods recede to reveal the fresh, damp meadowlands.
The DipperThe DipperDippers, drawn in by the insects they fed on, are at home among the boulders of shallow, fast-flowing streams. Dippers, just one of Ireland's subspecies of birds, gradually adapted to its Irish habitat and now appears different from its European relatives. The Irish subspecies of dippers can be identified from its European counterparts by its chestnut belly.
Seal SanctuarySeal SanctuaryThe popular belief is that there are 365 islands in County Mayo's Clew Bay -- one for each day of the year. The islands are sheltered from the more extreme conditions of the North Atlantic and their rocky shorelines are a sanctuary for seals.
Harvesting SeaweedHarvesting SeaweedClimate and the sea combined to help shape Ireland's fortunes. The Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current, has brought richness to her western shores. Here, the lush growth of seaweed has been harvested for centuries. Around Connemara it's still cut in the traditional way using hooks and sickles. In the past, seaweed was used to fertilize poor coastal soils, to prepare the ground for planting potatoes, but now most goes into the cosmetics industry.
Feeding TimeFeeding TimeOnly a few specialized plants can survive in bogs and as they die they top up the peat. Eventually the peat layer becomes so thick that it cuts off the supply of minerals in the soil below -- so new plants on the surface have to feed themselves in other ways. Some, like the sundew, have become carnivorous -- trapping and digesting passing insects with their sticky leaves. The potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorous in the insects' bodies sustain the plants and help them grow.
Roundstone Bog, ConnemaraRoundstone Bog, ConnemaraIn Ireland, the raised bogs of the midlands and the blanket bogs of the west are comprised of different plants. Raised bogs consist of the remains of sphagnum moss, while blanket bogs are made up of dead grasses and sedges. Both types began to form 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Raised bogs formed in shallow lakes while blanket bogs grew out of ancient woodlands or on pastures cleared by Neolithic farmers 5,000 years ago. Roundstone bog is a unique low-lying blanket bog and lake complex, rich in plants, and is internationally known for its collection of heather species.
Wild BoglandWild BoglandBogs are a major part of Ireland's landscape -- covering one-sixth its land area. Bogs are made largely of peat or turf -- the partly rotted remains of plants. The rotting process is never completed because the bogs are saturated with water for much or all of the year.