Take a walk through the pastureland, along hedgerows
and through the whins. Look across Loch Bran bog
to the south before coming upon the remnants of an
ancient rath site. From here there are fantastic views
of Sliabh Mis (Slemish) mountain to the east and Carn
Tóchair (Carntogher) mountain to the west.
You are now moving through grassland which is typical of the local agricultural landscape, akin to the pasture dominated landscape we see throughout much of Ireland. While this area is not as rich in plant and animal species as the rest of the reserve, mature hedgerows offer important habitat for many plants, insects, birds and mammals. Hedgerows are perhaps the most important wildlife habitat in Ireland today and act as a haven for much of the woodland floor plants that would have existed within the ancient woodland. However, poor management and removal is threatening many once common species that have grown to depend on them. Over 100 species of insect feed on Hawthorn. It’s white flowers are important for pollinating insects, its berries feed many of our mammals while flocks of local and migratory birds depend upon it throughout much of the winter.
As you leave the fields you will enter an area of acid grassland and wet flush. This is a very species rich habitat containing species such as Meadow Thistle, an indicator of old longstanding acid meadows. With flowering plants such as Orchids, Lesser Spearwort, Lady’s Smock and Scabious, to mention but a few, this area supports a wide variety of pollinating insects.
You are looking south across Loch Bran, named after one of the huge mythical hounds who belonged to the Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. Fionn’s nephews, Bran and his brother Sceolán were transformed into ‘conriocht’, the shape of a dog, before they were born. A local legend tells how Loch Bran gets its name from a mythological event when Fionn and Bran were hunting a stag. In the ancient folklore, deer are often magical creatures associated with the ‘lucht sí’ or fairy folk and this story may be a remnant of a more extensive tale within this tradition. As the story goes, the stag strangely disappeared into the ground, but the hound refused to give up and began to dig down after it. The resultant huge pit filled with water and drowned the dog and the deer remained under ground The loch became ‘Loch Bran’ and the nearby ridge became ‘Driom nDamh’ – meaning the Ridge of the Stag. The hill directly to the north on which you stand is said to be the spoil heap from the creation of the loch and is known as ‘Mullach Bran’, Bran’s Summit.
Today Loch Bran has grown over with mosses, rushes and sedges and is a great example of a transitional mire, surrounded by low-lying bog land. The vegetation is dominated by Sphagnum or bog moss. The build up of moss in waterlogged conditions over many centuries creates peat. Bog moss acts like a sponge and soaks up as much as 20 times its own weight in water so helping to keep the bog surface wet. The bogs of Ireland are hugely important in storing water from heavy rainfall, which is then more slowly released. The cumulative effect of drainage of many of our Irish bogs has undoubtedly contributed to major flood events in our farmland and towns in recent times.
Sphagnum, which is known as Súsán in Gaelic, has many traditional uses. It has antiseptic properties and was used as a wound dressing during the First and the Second World Wars.
Standing on the hill we look south across Loch Bran bog and behind us lie large areas of whin shrubs. Whin bushes are both a benefit and potential problem on the reserve and they are managed to prevent them encroaching across other important habitats.
Whin bushes are leguminous, which means that they capture nitrogen from the air and use it as their own natural fertiliser. This helps whin thrive and outcompete almost any other plant on poorer, drier soils. The net effect of whin growth is that it can quickly spread and enrich the soil and this can damage nutrient-poor ecosystems such as the bog land around Loch Bran. Whin however is also a very important plant for many species. Its bright yellow blossoms providing essential pollen and nectar to several species of bee and other insects, especially early in the year, when little else is available. Whin is ideal for a range of nesting heathland, downland and farmland birds, including the, Stonechat Linnet and Yellowhammer. The dense structure also provides important refuge for these birds in harsh weather.
The amount of whin on the reserve is controlled to maximise the wildlife benefit from this important species, while not allowing it to encroach on to other sensitive habitats.
You are now alongside the site of an ancient Rath known as ‘An Ráth Ard’. Half of the Rath has been removed by the creation of the field in which you are standing and the other half remains to the west. Superstition would say the Raths should be left alone for fear of displeasing the otherworld, so who knows what misfortune fell upon the people who damaged this one.
On a clear day there are wonderful views from this area. To the east across the lower wood there is the unmistakable shape of ‘Sliabh Mis’ or Slemish, the mountain on which Saint Patrick is said to have been kept as a slave tending pigs. Further north and east the large wind turbines are on the Antrim Hills around Loughgiel. In the far south east you can see ‘Sliabh Crúibe’, Slieve Croob in Co Down.
The large mountain in the south is “Sliabh gCallann” or “Slieve Gallion” which is close to Cookstown and of course the mountain dominating the western view is Carn Tóchair (Carntogher).
Suitable walking footware is recommended