By Mairtín Ó Catháin

Are all invasive species bad news? “A very good question” answered Rosina Joyce, from Galway County Council, at a recent biodiversity conference held in Connemara, Co. Galway.

“It is not black and white,” she explained. Agricultural scientist Joseph Mannion, who heads up an agri-environmental scheme in Connemara, remembered a lecturer in his college giving a working definition of an invasive species – “the wrong plant in the wrong place”.

Maybe there could not be a more apt place for this discussion. Diamond Hill pointed towards the sky to the north; an impatient Atlantic wind bent the softer plants and challenged the more obstinate, as it blew across towards the ever unyielding Twelve Bens.

Above and beyond it all, an early summer sun bestowed its light in splendid equality on mountains, lakes and valleys.

Biodiversity in Connemara

In Connemara National Park in Letterfrack, a deeply interested and avidly engaged audience was taking part in a conference entitled ‘Biodiversity in Connemara’.

Those who travelled to the conference along the N59 road through the heart of Connemara would have viewed the rhododendrons in bloom; a crimson glow lighting up the landscape. But there are other views.

A Connemara farmer excelling in brevity put his stamp on the proceedings by saying: “Oh, one of them is nice.”

When the rhododendron takes root, it spreads fast. It loves the rugged soil of Connemara. It covers the ground and restricts the grazing area and it challenges other vegetation.

On top of all of that, it is an invasive plant. It has been here for a long time but it is not ‘one of our own’.   

Invasive species

Stemming the spread of the rhododendron is a key element of an agri-environmental scheme run under the aegis of Forum Connemara, a state-funded organisation aimed at strengthening the region’s socio-economic baseline.

Joseph Mannion, a Connemara native with a farming background and scientific education, has the ideal credentials to lead this agri-environmental scheme. He sees both sides of the rhododendron picture. “It is rampaging in certain areas”, Joseph said, “control is necessary”.

Over 200 mountain farmers have linked into the north Connemara locally-led agri-environment scheme.

Controlling rhododendrons and other invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed and Gunnera is one part of the plan; farming as nature would have it, is another, insofar as that is not as backbreaking as it once was in Connemara.

It all links into the Connemara Biodiversity Networking event organised by Forum Connemara in cooperation with Connemara National Park, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), and Galway County Council.

The knotweed, wild rhubarb, and gunnera don’t have a leg to stand on.  At least the rhododendron backs up its case for survival when its colours illuminate the early summer.

The other well-known ‘invaders’, while they are regarded highly in some countries, can pose serious problems when they take hold.

Visually, they only give us a greensward and take their place amidst the rushes, bracken, and the native ‘saidhleánach’, or oisir, that is scattered wildly in Connemara.

Species’ spread

Is there any chance that we have sent ‘invasive species’ to other countries ourselves? “The thistle has somehow got to New Zealand” Joseph Mannion confirmed.  Plants and people tend to move around a lot in the 21st century.

The sun floated far west over the Atlantic ocean but there was more to talk about in the national park. Perhaps Connemara could learn a lot from the Aran Islands.

An enterprising effort has been made to update old farming methods on the islands without compromising on heritage or agriculture. It’s called ‘Caomhnú Arann’ – preserving the Aran Islands.

A mix of well-organised grazing and a lick of weedkiller, where it has to be used. A compromise between nature and modern methods.  

Then a walk in the national park in Letterfrack to see the rare breeds of cows. Some say the Galloways are the perfect breed in Connemara – I have a few myself. They are easy on feeding, they are hardy and they take the west of Ireland climate in their stride. And aren’t they from Scotland? It is not all black and white.

The rhododendrons decorate the N59 roadside on the way home. The ‘saidhleánach’ – oisir – sprout up everywhere, all plain green and native. A couple of Galloways graze on the first green shoots of 2022 on the Connemara hills.  It’s not all bare and barren, nor indeed black and white.