Mr John Gormley TD Minister for the Environment, Heritage & Local Government launched an exhibition in ENFO on Limestone Landscapes.
The exhibition - Our Limestone Landscapes - is a cross-border initiative, developed by the Environment and Heritage Service of Northern Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Minister's Department.
Limestone pavements are geological features formed during the last ice age, during which the ice sheets removed much of the overlying material to expose the bare rock. Rainwater falling onto the rocks or percolating through the soil enlarged the faults and cracks in the rock to produce a landscape of fissures and blocks, known as grykes and clints. The result is a unique and spectacular landscape.
Ireland, with over 36,000 ha, has the most significant area of ice-sculpted limestone pavement in the EU. The vast majority of this occurs in the Burren region of Counties Clare and Galway, although smaller areas occur elsewhere - as far apart as Fermanagh, Donegal and the Killarney National Park.
These Limestone Pavement habitats contain a wealth of biodiversity. This is particularly true of the Burren, which is famous for the variety of plant and animal life - including a mixture of arctic-alpine species growing together with warmth-loving plants from more southerly latitudes.
The grykes provide a woodland-like habitat for plants and animals requiring moisture and shelter - e.g. hart's tongue fern - while the thin soils over the clints support limestone grassland species, such as ladies bed-straw, blue-moor grass, gentians and mountain avens.
"Limestone pavements are under threat" - said Minister Gormley. "In many places, farming is still the main force shaping the landscape of limestone pavements and, indeed, it is essential to maintain the variety of habitats and their associated biodiversity.
"However, where farming declines, the pavement gradually becomes covered in scrub and woodland. This has already happened - for instance, around Lough Mask - and, while scrub and woodland have their place, too much may threaten the existence of the other habitats" - added the Minister.
"It is recognised as a serious problem in the Burren and I am pleased to say that the NPWS of my Department is examining this issue as part of the EU-funded BurrenLIFE Project, which aims to develop a new template for sustainable farming for conservation" - continued Minister Gormley.
"The direct destruction of limestone pavement is another serious cause for concern. This is occurring as a result of both development - for instance, housing - and the removal of surface rocks for landscaping and the garden trade. This latter activity appears to have increased in recent years in Ireland as a result of protection measures in England."
Limestone pavement is a priority habitat under the EU Habitats Directive. The Department of Environment, Heritage & Local Government has recognised its importance by designating over 31,000 ha of land as Special Areas of Conservation, which include the Burren National Park and the Nature Reserve at Keelhilla - while Northern Ireland has also designated 200 ha (over 90%) of its limestone pavement as Special Areas of Conservation.
"In order to protect this very important habitat, I may consider heretofore undesignated areas for their suitability for designation as Natural Heritage Areas under our Wildlife (Amendment) Act" - concluded Minister Gormley.