Follow the path from the kissing gate towards the Grillagh River, through the species-rich habitat that
includes devil’s bit scabious and lady’s smock. Discover the stone bridge and spot the nesting dippers, before returning past the recovered cutover bog.
You are just leaving the western car park at O’Loughlin’s Farm. These lands have been used for low-intensity agriculture for many years. Cattle and some sheep were grazed outside all year round and artificial fertilizer was rarely used on the farm. At one time most local farms were managed using this ‘low input’ approach. The O’Loughlin farm is now a rare example of species-rich habitats containing many plants and animals that are now scarce in the wider landscape.
Just beside the car park, there is an old lone hawthorn tree. The Gaelic name for this tree is ‘Sceach Gheal’ meaning white bush which comes from its profuse blossom during May.
Single Hawthorn trees feature widely within this upland landscape. Native Gaelic myth and legend has many references to the tree and its connection to the otherworld. Historically farmers have avoided damaging these trees in the belief that disaster would befall those who dared to dig up or cut down a ‘fairy thorn’.
You are now situated on the banks of the Grillagh river. ‘Griollach’ means a wet and mucky area and is the name of a local townland through which the river flows. The Grillagh river is used by Atlantic Salmon, which enter freshwater some 35 miles north through the mouth of the River Bann at Coleraine and make their way upstream in order to spawn.
The Salmon is a very important and revered animal in Gaelic culture known by the name ‘Bradán’. The story of ‘An Bradán Feasa’, or The Salmon of Knowledge, tells of how Gaelic warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill received the gift of knowledge from this ancient fish. Fionn himself has a close association with many local stories and place names both within the reserve and on the local Carn Tóchair mountain.
You are now beside a stone bridge in an area called ‘Ruachan’. ‘Rua’ means red in Gaelic and its use here is likely to be in reference to the rust coloured land which is stained by naturally occurring ochre. This can be seen clearly leeching into the local ditches and streams, from which it was easily extracted for use. Ochre was one of the simplest and earliest used dyes and in view of the place name it is likely that people would have taken it from this area. Imagine a warrior, his hair and face dyed in ochre entering battle. Perhaps Fionn mac Cumhaill himself stopped here to adorn himself with war paint before one of his epic struggles.
The bridge is regularly used by Dippers for nesting. Dippers are a medium-sized black bird with a white bib. The Dipper is more closely related to Blackbirds than other waterfowl, not what you might expect to see submerging itself in a stream. It thrives in fast flowing rivers where it dives to the bottom in order to feed on a range of aquatic invertebrates, which it catches by turning over stones and searching the river bed.
Along the side of the path is an impressive mature hedge which is dominated by Holly. The ancient Brehon Laws which protected trees classed Holly one of the most important trees of the forest. Unlike many plants, which produce male and female flowers, Holly trees are either male or female, with the crimson red berries only growing on the female trees.
Directly south of the path is an area of cutaway bog. Peat or turf was a hugely important fuel in most parts of rural Ireland as for many centuries little wood was available due to the destruction of the woodlands during the 17th century following the Elizabethan conquest.
This piece of cutover bog has been long left to recover. Bogland plants have re-colonised the area. Bog Cotton, with its white fluffy cotton seed heads and grassy leaves are seen from late May each year. Later in the season the Bog Asphodel with its yellow star shaped flowers with six pointed petals are seen growing in the wetter areas of the bog. If you are very careful you will see the murderous ‘Drúchtín Móna’ or Common Sundew, a beautiful little plant that catches tiny flies in its sticking glandular tentacles. The trapped flies are now doomed as the plant slowly digests them to augment its nutrient intake from meagre, wet peaty soils.
As we cross this pathway we are almost on a transition between two habitats. To the west we have the cutover bog dominated by plants that thrive in acidic nutrient poor conditions. To the east and up the hill we are looking at an acid marsh which is dominated by rushes, sedges and grasses. Two flowers that grow in profusion on this flush are Lady’s Smock and Devil’s Bit Scabious. Lady’s Smock has delicate lilac coloured flowers which adorn the area from May and it is the most important food plant for the caterpillars of the Orange Tip Butterfly, while its flowers are important for many butterfly and insect species.
The Devil’s Bit Scabious is hugely important in late summer and early autumn period as its blue/purple globulous flowers are very rich in nectar. The plant is also important food plant for the delicate Marsh Fritillary Caterpillar and the exclusive food plant of many other beetle and sawfly species. In the past Scabious was an important medicinal herb traditionally used as a cure for skin conditions such as scabies and scrofula. The globulus blue/purple flowers of Scabious also offer a late summer nectar and pollen feast for many of our insects.
Suitable walking footware is recommended