Great year for rare finds

Dr Cliff Henry with the rare rough meadowsweet gall discovered at the Giants Causeway in September 2016
Dr Cliff Henry with the rare rough meadowsweet gall discovered at the Giants Causeway in September 2016

Reflecting on 2016, conservation expert Dr Cliff Henry says it has been an exceptional year for rare species at the Giant’s Causeway UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This spring and summer saw a bumper crop of orchids in fields around the Causeway; in September the 2nd ever recorded meadowsweet gall was discovered at farmland adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway (Aird Farm) owned by the National Trust.

A family of lizards at the Giants Causeway  can you spot all five?

A family of lizards at the Giants Causeway  can you spot all five?

Dr Henry first discovered the extremely rare gall midge at White Park Bay in 2015. This year’s discovery at the Giant’s Causeway means Dr Henry holds the only two confirmed records of the gall in the whole of the UK and Ireland.

Dr Henry explained the importance of these discoveries: ‘If we don’t know what’s there, we don’t know how best to look after the areas we manage.

‘We know the habitats around the Giant’s Causeway and White Park Bay have very rare and interesting species of plants, animals and fungi. The more we learn about what we have here, the better we can look after them.’

‘The farmland around the Causeway and White Park Bay, where we are finding these rare species, are Areas of Special Scientific Interest which means they must be managed sensitively. Fertiliser application is not allowed, the level of grazing is strictly controlled and herbicide is only permitted in exceptional circumstances. All that means it is very difficult to control extremely prolific weeds such as ragwort, which was much worse this year than usual and a lot of our time was spent manually cutting and pulling out tens of thousands of them by hand.’

The greater butterfly orchid at the Giants Causeway.

The greater butterfly orchid at the Giants Causeway.

Other highlights this year included the first recorded discovery of Vestal Moths at White Park Bay by our volunteer Rev. Patrick Barton.

Dr Henry added: “Two of our most interesting discoveries this year were made by our butterfly counting volunteers, with Patrick discovering the migrant Vestal Moth at White Park Bay for the first time.  I think this is the most northerly record in Ireland. Another volunteer, Pete Mellor, found a very rare Greater Butterfly Orchid in the field about 50 metres from the Visitor Centre.

“This beautiful orchid can be found throughout Europe and Morocco but only three have ever been spotted at the Causeway before, the last one in 2009. We had an absolutely fantastic display of Northern Marsh Orchids and Spotted Orchids in a hay field at the Causeway this year. This was formerly an intensively farmed field but it has been managed sensitively for over 15 years and we are now seeing terrific blooms of orchids every spring, peaking in May and June.

“I also recorded good numbers of common lizards at the Giant’s Causeway this summer. I would usually see them in ones or twos, but I saw a large family of lizards together this year for the first time.”

Other information gathered by Dr Henry and his team of rangers and volunteers include bumblebee and butterfly survey transects: “Most butterfly species appear to have taken a dip across the UK this year. We’ve certainly seen fewer here as well. Through the summer months we collect data for a national butterfly survey once a week. This summer for the first time we also contributed to a national bumblebee monitoring project across Ireland.

“Our butterfly information goes to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and worryingly, from early results it looks as though nearly every single species has declined. More encouragingly, we had a new location on the North Coast recorded for the rare pigmy sorrel moth this year. Previously it had only ever been recorded at the Giant’s Causeway.

“All our findings feed into a huge database with the Centre for Environmental Data Recording (CEDaR) from which we can see increases, decreases and patterns which we can use to steer management, not only across the site, but also for the whole country.’

“One of our greatest challenges is finding the time to look for these unusual species; quite often it’s just while we’re doing something else that we happen upon them. We need to know what we have and also what is in decline so that we can help protect the biodiversity of the North Coast, where we seem to have some particularly rare and interesting species.”