Glenveagh National Park
Glenveagh National Park lies in the heart of the Derryveagh Mountains in the north-west of Co. Donegal. It is a remote and hauntingly beautiful wilderness of rugged mountains and pristine lakes. The Park, over 14,000 acres in extent consists of three areas. The largest of these is the former Glenveagh Estate, including most of the Derryveagh Mountains. To the west are the quartzite hills around Crocknafarragh and to the south, the peatlands of Lough Barra bog, Meenachullion and Crockastoller.
Glenveagh is the haunt of many rare and interesting plants and animals and is famous for it’s fine herd of red deer. The Park contains the peaks of the two highest mountains in Co. Donegal, Errigal (752m) and Slieve Snaght (683m). The steep sided valley of Glenveagh holds the 5.5km-long Lough Veagh.
Much of the land which comprises modern Glenveagh National Park was originally consolidated into a single holding in the 19th Century by John George Adair, a wealthy land speculator from Co. Laois. The holding was managed as a private deer forest until 1975, when it was sold to the state and placed in the care of the Commissioner of Public Works to become a national Park.
A fine Victorian castle surrounded by beautiful gardens is picturesquely located on the eastern shore of the lake and provides the focal point for visitors to the Park. The last private owner Henry P. McIlhenny donated the castle, including much of its contents in 1983. The Park and gardens were officially opened to the public in 1984 and the Castle in 1986.
The habitats of Glenveagh are as varied as the plants and animals that inhabit them.
The rocky precipices have always remained free of peat and many of the hilltops have been laid bare by peat erosion and weathering. As a result the summits and crags resemble parts of the Arctic and lower Alps., being sparsely vegetated with shrubs, mosses and liverworts. The plants include some ‘arctic-alpines’, which were amongst the first species to colonise Glenveagh after the Ice Age. Examples include alpine club-moss, bearberry, silvery moss and dwarf willow. Arctic-alpines are adapted to a short cool summer. Many lie prostrate or hug the ground to avoid damage and many need several growing seasons before they can flower or bear fruit
The hilltops support a meagre and specialised wildlife. Look for the hare, which may jump from under your feet. This hardy mammal can survive on a diet of mountain grasses and sedges, though it also occurs on lower ground. It is a race of arctic mountain hare, but unlike the race found in Scotland, its coat seldom turns white in winter.
No bird captures the character of the hilltops more evocatively than the golden plover. Its sweet, melancholy call as it watches from a stone or peat hummock follows the hill walker. As a breeding bird, this beautiful plover is now quite rare in Ireland, where it is confined to the north and west.
One of the main predators on the hilltops is the peregrine falcon, which ranges widely in search of food, particularly wood pigeons. Peregrines nest on the cliffs choosing their nesting ledges with an eye to their inaccessibility and favouring south-facing cliffs for warmth and light. Every suitable cliff is occupied annually by a pair, though it is difficult to pinpoint their eyries on the cliff faces.
Ravens, which also nest on the cliffs, are the scavengers of the mountains. They nest as early as February, a time of year when hard weather and scarcity of grazing claims the lives of many deer and carrion is at its most plentiful. The raven’s loud croaking call is unmistakable and a visit to Glenveagh should be rewarded with a sighting.
Upland blanket bog, which today covers the greater part of Glenveagh, was preceded by forests of Scots pine and birch., giving way to oak, hazel and alder on the lower slopes. Today it is difficult to believe that tree cover extended to the upper slopes, but the evidence of unearthed tree stumps in the bog prove that it did. Remains of the ancient pines can be seen protruding from weathered peat on many hills in the Park.
The blanket bog to be found in Glenveagh is of the western or Atlantic type, which is found only in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In Glenveagh, the underlying bedrock is fissured with geological joints and fractures, which appears as clefts and gullies. Peat cover is uneven and of varying dampness and bedrock is widely exposed. The result is a mosaic of vegetation types.
The drier patches are favoured by ling heather, bell heather, crowberry and blaeberry. The latter shrub, which has edible blue berries, is also known as bilberry or frochan. Crowberry is an enigmatic species in Glenveagh, it rarely occurs below 450m but is found at sea level only 20km away.
The damper patches of bog support wet grassland containing fescue, deer grass, rushes and purple moor grass or molinia. Purple moor grass is avoided by deer who seek out the sweeter grasses and sedges. This favours the growth of molinia , which is particularly abundant in Glenveagh.
Other plants have become specially adapted to life in the nutrient poor bog. These include the sundew and butterwort, which trap insects on their sticky leaves. The remains of the insect are digested by the plant extracting much-needed nutrients.
The lower slops of the bog takes on a different character as it reaches the lower ground of the sheltered valley floor. Bog cotton, whose snow-white cotton tufts are often identified with Irish bogs, makes a bold statement on the wetter patches. Bog asphodel is probably the most visible flower as having flowered its stems turn a dark saffron colour which catches the eye; it was once exploited for a yellow dye.
The largest animal in the park is to be found grazing on the grasses and sedges of the bog… the red deer. Though enclosed by the deer fence the Glenveagh herd of Red Deer remain completely wild and as with most wild animals can be difficult to approach. The best time for watching Red Deer is during the mating season or ‘rut’ which takes place each year between mid-September and mid-November.
The sheer abundance of meadow pipits in Glenveagh is noteworthy. Most depart for the winter, although no one knows whether they move to low lying ground in Ireland or migrate to Spain and Portugal. This in turn provides a food source for many of our keen eyed birds of prey including the peregrine and kestrel. These birds also feed on the other small animals to be found in the bog including, mice, shrews and lizards.
The park contains about 100 hectares of natural and semi natural woodland. The largest stretch is Mullangore Wood on the south eastern shore of Lough Veagh, although several remnants are to be found on the steep slopes of Glenveagh where the terrain is too precipitous for blanket bog growth. The woods are amongst the few native stands of timber left in Co. Donegal.
The woods are dominated by oak and birch, with lesser amounts of rowan, holly, hazel, yew and aspen. Woods of this kind are called western Oakwoods and occur principally in the uplands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The denser areas of woodland are rich in plants adapted to moist shady conditions. Mosses and ferns form lush green carpets on boulders and trees, and delicate filmy ferns sprout from the banks of moss. Golden leafed saxifrage and liverworts cover the wetter rocks and woodrush, wood sorrel and wood anemone abound on the woodland floor. Red deer find woodland plants particularly palatable and the woods are heavily grazed except where fences keep them out.
The woods are at their busiest in summer , when rising sap and fresh foliage provide plenty food for animals and insects. A variety of migrant birds, including the spotted flycatcher and chiffchaff arrive from Africa in mid May, in time to exploit the summer abundance of insect life.
Among these is the wood warbler, a rare bird in Ireland but annual visitor to Glenveagh. Arriving in mid-may the male claims his territory and advertises to females by singing vigorously. The best way to locate one is to listen for its unique descending trill likened to the spinning of a coin on a plate.
Conifers planted in parts of the main glen harbour some typical pinewood birds including crossbill, siskin. goldcrest and coaltit.
Badgers and foxes are important predators in the woods, though both are more commonly seen on the open heath. Their prey includes a little seen denizen of the woods, the long tailed field mouse. However both being opportunistic will take a wider variety of foods ranging from worms in the spring to blackberries in the autumn.
Lakes in the park range from the small lochans to the long deep waters of Lough Veagh, the main body of water in the park. The areas from which the lakes collect their water all lie entirely within the park boundary, making it possible to prevent their pollution.
The waters are clean and well oxygenated and are particularly suitable for salmonoid fish and eels. Most of the park’s lakes hold brown trout and eel. Lough Veagh has modest runs of salmon and sea trout as well as stocks of arctic charr. Like the salmon the charr is seagoing in arctic and sub-arctic regions, but in western Europe it is confined to freshwater lakes where it has remained since the ice age.
The ‘land-locked’ charr require cold and unpolluted water and, with such a commodity now scarce in Western Europe, it has become seriously endangered. Charr populations isolated in different lakes over the past 10, 000 years have evolved slight differences. Recent findings suggest that Glenveagh charr are significantly smaller than those in nearby Dunlewy Lake.
Waterfowl are of major interest in Glenveigh and highlight the northern or Scottish connection. Visitors include the red-throated diver, which is increasing in numbers in Scotland and spreading southwards. Lough Veagh has long been the haunt of the red throated diver and it nests in small numbers in the Park’s vicinity, its only Irish breeding centre. The divers feed in nearby coastal waters, and divers calling as they fly in from the sea to their nesting areas are an evocative feature of summer mornings in Glenveagh.
The Golden Eagle was once a common site over the mountains and coastal plains of Ireland but became extinct in 1912, due largely to the effects of human persecution. This makes Ireland the only country where Golden Eagles have become extinct in recent times.
As early as 1989, members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Glenveagh National Park began to study the feasibility of reintroducing golden Eagles to Ireland. They examined the availability of suitable live prey and carrion for Golden Eagles in Co. Donegal and in 1995 the Irish Raptor Study Group joined that effort.
The project has been co-ordinated by The Irish Raptor Study Group and the Curlew Trust though the management is left to a steering group which also contains members from NPWS, The Heritage Council, Irish Farmers Association and the North West Tourism Authority.
After careful planning the actual reintroduction of Golden Eagle Chicks to Ireland began in 2001 with the successful delivery of 6 birds collected under licence from nests in Scotland. In 2005 some 42 birds have now been released from Glenveagh with reported sightings from as far away as the Gap of Dungloe, Co. Kerry! Golden Eagles do not breed until they are at least five or six years of age and it is hoped that six to eight pairs may be breeding in Donegal by 2010.
The best time of year to see Golden Eagles in the park is during the short winter days when there is a good possibility of seeing recently released birds. Though clearly visible to the naked eye, scanning the skyline with the aid of binoculars offers the best chance of spotting a soaring eagle. All released birds sport coloured wing tags to allow for individual identification and park staff would be very pleased to hear of any eagle sightings.