The Flora of County Fermanagh

The authors of an exhaustive new study of the county's plant life hope to draw tourists to the area inspired by botanists old and new

Among the earliest records of flora in Fermanagh are notes made in 1804 by Robert Scott, a Professor of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, and a native of the county.

From 1850 onwards, when Enniskillen became connected to the railway network, other botanists arrived to explore the varied plant species, many of them rare, which survive in Fermanagh’s beautiful, relatively unspoilt countryside.

Writing about a field trip in 1945, the eminent Northern Irish botanist R Desmond Meikle, who was based at Kew Gardens, describes how he and his companions, Norman Carrothers and Jack Moon enjoyed all aspects of their visit to Fermanagh. They travelled by train from Belfast to Enniskillen, where they lodged at the Royal Hotel:

'We worked hard, departing after breakfast and sometimes not returning to our hotel until after dark. For lunch, we favoured a brand of Eccles Cake, baked in Liverpool, but widely available in local shops, supplemented by dried dates, chocolate or biscuits, adequate sustenance, we found, for a day in the open air.' In the evening, the trio would dry and press the rare flowers and ferns they had found.

At the end of their stay, the kindly hotel proprietress presented the bill, ‘a very modest reckoning’, on a silver salver, where it was accompanied by a full bottle of whiskey and the requisite number of glasses.

Meikle’s engaging diary is reproduced in a chapter about botanical recording in The Flora of County Fermanagh, the latest in a series of prestigious natural history publications from National Museums Northern Ireland.

An impressive tome, co-authored by Dr Ralph S Forbes and Robert H Northridge, this definitive guide to the county’s flora runs to 864 pages. Lavishly illustrated with 350 photographs and 650 full colour maps, it weighs in at 4.8 kilos and retails at a modest £25.

It was funded by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), and the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), and supported by the Centre for Environmental Data and recording (CEDAR), whose Advanced Revelation computer programme, 'Recorder', allowed the authors to create a database in which they could analyse, log and map their own plant findings for the period 1975 – 2010.

Forbes, a former lecturer in botany and ecology at Queen’s University, was appointed County Recorder for Fermanagh in 1974 by the Botanical Society of the British Isles. 'Compared to other counties in the north,' says Forbes, 'including Down where I live, Fermanagh offers the most impressive habitat for flora, including great swards of orchids.'

Aside from Neotinea maculata, a Mediterranean orchid, and Spiranthes romanzoffiana (Irish Lady’s-tresses), an American species, one can find Greater Butterfly-orchids, Heath-spotted Orchids, Early Marsh-orchids, Bee Orchids and many other species.

In 1976, Forbes teamed up with Robert Northridge, a maths teacher at Portora Royal School, who, because he was resident in Fermanagh, undertook much of the field work for their joint project.

Accompanied by his wife Hannah, a biology teacher and natural science graduate, and guided by the records which already existed, the Northridges scoured the Fermanagh hills and valleys, its townlands, nature reserves, National Trust properties, boglands and even waste ground, all the while recording their findings.

'You search around until you find a plant because you know it should be there,' says Northridge. He remembers the particular excitement of coming upon the Killarney Fern, Trichomanes speciosum, in the Lough Navar area, where it had been logged in 1900 by another Portora teacher, W N Tetley.
The fern once grew in profusion, as its name suggests, in County Kerry, but now it is very rare and is protected by law.

Robert Northridge acknowledges his wife’s instinct for finding plants. On a scarp in Lough Navar forest, Hannah discovered Polystichum lonchitis (Holly fern), which had not been previously recorded in Northern Ireland. She appreciates her husband's ability to make lists and his memory for Latin names, an important academic requirement.

'A plant like Cardamine pratense can have several English names such as Mayflower, Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower. Benweed and Ragwort are both names for Senecio jacobaea, but the Latin name is fixed and is universally accepted,' explains Hannah.

An accomplished writer on natural history, whose weekly articles in the Impartial Reporter were eagerly anticipated, Hannah Northridge’s notable contribution to The Flora of County Fermanagh is the Habitat Gallery, a handy guide to the plant life in popular tourist sites such as the Crom estate.

'Under the lime trees Viola odorata (Sweet Violet) still occurs, Adiantum capillus-veneris (Maiden-hair Fern) grows on the old boathouse protected by the overhang of the wall. Leucojum aestivum (Summer Snowflake) is naturalized at many places along the water’s edge.'

At Castle Caldwell, she describes the beach wood carpeted with bluebells, and at Castle Archdale the herb-rich park. The Roogagh hay meadow near Garrison is a rare example of an unfertilised pasture that supports rare plants, and around Lough Melvin are popularions of the rare Globeflower, Trollius europaeus.

Inula helenium (Elecampane), a medicinal herb, has grown on Devenish Island since the time of the monastery while Corraharra Lough, a naturally eutrophic lake, supports a rich variety of aquatic floating and emergent plants.

Forbes retired early from his post at Queen's University and devoted ten years to writing the greater part of the text for the book, including a complete plant listing of flowering plant and fern species with distribution maps of all but the most common and the very rarest types. The book also contains exhaustively researched academic references cited in the species accounts and a full gazetteer of sites visited.

Among the 1,200 plant taxa (species, subspecies, microspecies and vascular plant varieties) recorded and written about in the book, many are legally protected. Some 201 have been found in Fermanagh just once, and a further 93 only twice. Two of them, Neotinea maculata, (Dense-flowered Orchid) and Polystichum lonchitis (Holly fern) are new to Northern Ireland.

Being passionate botanists, the authors are predictably keen to conserve the flora. They are critical of those wind farms which have been erected on blanket bog sites. 'They upset the hydrology and drainage system of the bog and the peat becomes oxidised. This breakdown cannot be reversed and thus the bog is destroyed for ever,' confirms Hannah.

Although there has been no large scale industrial development in Fermanagh, agricultural land drainage and afforestation in the uplands have made significant changes to the habitat.

Other dangers include farm pollutants such as sheep dip chemicals, cattle and pig slurry, and fertilisers that deplete oxygen supplies in the lakes leading to a build up of algae. Rivers like the Colebrooke River were once rich habitats for Water crowfoot species, including great floating rafts of white flowered Ranunculus peltatus (Pond Water-crowfoot), but this has now been lost.

Then, in 1996, up from the Shannon waterway on the hull of a boat came the prolific Zebra Mussel, a native of the Caspian and Black Seas. Numbers of this foreign mussel exploded to massive proportions. They consumed the algae in the larger lakes and many aquatic species were immediately threatened by overgrowth of alien plants such as Elodea canadensis (Canadian Waterweed).

At present only short periods of extreme temperatures are recorded in Fermanagh, where the climate is actually drier than in the Lake District.

Yet in November 2009 the flood levels were exceptionally high, giving credence to the local maxim that for half the year Lough Erne is in Fermanagh and for the other six months Fermanagh is in Lough Erne. A dramatic aerial photograph by John McVitty of Upper Lough Erne, its islands partly submerged, is one of those reproduced in the book.

In a county where tourism is second only to farming as a source of revenue, the hope is that this book will draw more visitors to Fermanagh, and, inspired by all those intrepid botanists who in one way or another contributed to this attractive and comprehensive guide, they too will begin to botanise and add to our knowledge of Fermanagh's plants.

The Flora of County Fermanagh is out now, published by National Museums Northern Ireland.