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Burnham Woods and lagoon

Posted on March 1, 2012 by Margaret

Burnham woods and lagoon, located within the grounds of Coláiste Íde, is quite striking in its uniqueness. The site is one of the only areas of mature woodland located on the Dingle peninsula and the diversity of species therein is also quite unusual. The lagoon formation occurred as a result of the alteration of the natural inlet via the construction (and later partial demolition) of a causeway bridge by Lord Ventry in the early nineteenth century to provide quicker access from one side of the inlet to the other.

The lagoon and woodland were once a major local amenity, providing recreational boating and walking facilities for the local residents, however, this has declined somewhat in recent times, although it is still quite a popular site especially for bird watching, walking, collecting plants on the shoreline and for the densely populated mussel beds on the nearby shorefront.

The region surrounding and including the lagoon was proposed as a Natural Heritage Area (pNHA) in 1995 but no longer seems to be afforded any status at all, although it is a well known site for waders and migratory birds, many of which are protected species. There are a number of archaeological monuments in the area including an old flax mill, a ringfort, ogham stones, and an old defensive watchtower. The area was at one time the home of Lord Ventry and his family, but is now an Irish speaking boarding school for girls.

The woodland was planted as part of a management scheme to utilise and reclaim the marshy lowland area surrounding the manor. A number of unusual exotic plant species can be found growing on the lawns surrounding Burnham House including:

  • Dicksonia antarctica tree fern, native to Australia and Tasmania.

  • Blechnum chilense, native to Chile.

  • Crinondendron hookerianum, Chilean lantern tree.

  • Euphorbia mellifera, honey spurge, native to Madeira & the Canary Islands.

  • Luma apiculata, Chilean myrtle, native to the Andes mountains between Chile & Argentina.

  • Selaginella kraussiana, African clubmoss, native to the Canary Islands, Azores and parts of mainland Africa.

  • Numerous species of bamboo are also present on site.

The lagoon at Burnham, whilst not a natural feature, adds to the uniqueness and biodiversity of the site. The disturbance caused by the causeway bridge to the natural ecosystem of the inlet, led to the accretion over time of muddy sediments, which later became mud flats. Salt marsh vegetation pioneered the edges of the mudflats and over time the unique ecosystem that is visible today came into being.

The salt marsh separates the woodland from the lagoon and also from the mudflats that occur at the most sheltered part of the inlet. The relative size of the salt marsh is non-extensive in comparison with other salt marsh sites that occur within the county but its condition is relatively good, when it is not covered in debris or over-trampled by either people or machinery and vehicles. The salt marsh at Burnham is associated with the Upper Salt marsh habitat Atlantic Salt meadows, a habitat type that is listed on the EU Habitats Directive Annex I list of protected habitat.

The mudflats, located at the most sheltered part of the inlet, farthest from the reaches of the tide contain very little vegetation with the exception of some green algae bloom and some small patches of common cord grass. Mudflats are known habitats for migratory birds and waders to feed. Crabs, molluscs, flat fish and numerous invertebrates make mudflats their home and the diversity of species found within such a habitat is usually very rich. This particular mudflats habitat is subject to both freshwater and saltwater influences, with the presence of a small stream running through it. This adds to the uniqueness and species diversity found within this site.

The presence of two rare species of fly, from the family Hybotidae, has been recorded within the salt marsh site in the past. Stilpon graminum occurs here within its only known site in Ireland and the site is also one of only three known stations for Stilpon lunata. A third rare species of fly, Rhamphomyia simplex, is also recorded from the site.

Harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) a species listed on Annex II and V of the Habitats Directive and protected under the Wildlife Act 1976 & 2000, have also been observed on site using the causeway bridge for resting and basking.

Numerous protected species of birds use the site for both breeding and wintering purposes.

The site at Burnham is composed of a complex ecosystem of habitats and species. A number of these habitats are important on an international and national level, but all are important on a local level, including the woodland which, of itself, is not of high conservation value in terms of vegetation. This striking ecosystem deserves to be recognized for its uniqueness and the species and habitat diversity contained therein.

Margaret Heavey, B.Sc, M.Sc.

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