Wetlands

Wetlands Ireland

Why protect small freshwater wetlands?

Most of us don’t even notice small wetlands, we are almost not conscious that they are there. For some people wetland is wasteland and sometimes people will drain the water out of wetlands, or fill them in with soil or waste materials in order to get a little more dry-land.

The picture above is the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the species found in Ireland. The picture is courtesy of www.conserveireland.ie

The picture above is the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the species found in Ireland. The picture is courtesy of www.conserveireland.ie

But our small freshwater wetlands are full of life and brimming with incredible ecology. A typical small wetland will have dozens, or maybe hundreds, of species of plants and animals quietly existing in the water or around its fringes, and most of us won’t pay them even a second thought.

At www.wetlands.ie, we will try to bring you a little interesting information about the ecology of small wetlands, so that maybe, one-day you will stop and look a little closer at the magical web of life that can be found in any undisturbed wetland.
And there are thousands of them. You can find them in every county, all over the island of Ireland. See our page “Locations

Small wetlands are like little reservoirs of life. The plants and animals in the wetlands reproduce from year to year and sometimes they migrate from one wetland to the next. If one wetland is damaged by drought, by pollution or by drainage, plants and animals from the nearest wetland will come along and start the cycle of life all over again, restoring the damaged wetland to full health. Sometimes the wetlands produce life that migrates into the rivers and lakes and helps to balance the ecology in those water-bodies, as they try to cope with the pressures of pollution, droughts, floods and overuse.

wetland plantsBecause small wetlands are scattered throughout the countryside, they can act like pearls in a necklace, or like islands in an archipelago, with plants and animals hopping form one wetland to the next and in that way the ecological balance of the entire countryside is refreshed and replenished as the plants and animals move about.

And that is really important in maintaining a healthy environment across the island.

So, that’s why it’s important to protect even the smaller wetlands.

Wetlands ‘right-now’ – what’s happening?

Although International Wetlands Day happens on 2nd February each year, this is the time of year when wetlands, in the northern hemisphere, are almost dormant. If you go to visit a wetland on 2st February, you won’t see much happening.

Jan2014-01Many of the plants and animals that normally live in the wetland are going through their winter dormancy now.

In February you will see the bare stems of the reeds and lots of dead vegetation. Under the surface however lots of things are already happening. Many of the animals that live in the mud on the floor of the wetlands are already preparing for spring. The larvae of the dragon flies are already actively feeding on other small animals in the detritus at the bottom of the pond. These larvae are fierce predators and this video link shows you how they behave on the bottom of the wetlands at this time of year if they can find prey – dragonfly larva feeding on the bottom of a wetland (see below)

When the risk of severe frost has passed, some of the plants will begin to emerge…..

Jan2014-02….and when the weather warms up a bit and the average daily temperature stays above 6 degrees or so, the first obvious signs of life will appear.

In fact, it is at the wetlands that you can first see the stirrings of the new spring. The green shoots will appear on the reeds first of all.  Then other smaller plants like the bog bean and the mayflower will begin to push up their foliage.

Then you know for sure that the winter is over!

 

Zooplankton

Under the surface of the water in the small freshwater wetlands there is an unbelievable diversity of life. There are hundreds and sometimes thousands of different species of animals and plants to be found there. Among the types of animals there, you can find insects, molluscs, worms, crustaceans, beetles and even fish – like sticklebacks, and tiny floating animals called zooplankton.  Some of these animals like to live in the water column, some like to crawl about on the stems of the plants growing out of the bottom of the wetland and some others like to live their lives in the muddy substrate on the floor of the wetland.

Daphnia PulexThere are many weird animals living in the wetlands, especially where there is standing water for most parts of the year. The common water flea, Daphnia pulex is a prolific inhabitant of our wetlands and lakes and its population explodes in May and June as they take advantage of warmer temperatures and the easier availability of food such as plankton and bits of organic matter floating in the water. However, and unfortunately for the poor old Daphnia, when their numbers increase sharply, other higher animals that like to eat daphnia (like carnivorous larvae, small fish, newts and small frogs) also increase in number and they keep the numbers of Daphnia in check.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

The Red Darter, common in the Irish wetlands in July & August

The Red Darter, common in the Irish wetlands in July & August

Because we’re now in late Spring and early summer, we want to bring you some seasonal information about the Dragonflies and Damselflies. The very cold spring is likely to have delayed the emergence of the dragonflies and damselflies somewhat in 2013. Many of the, thirty or so, species that we expect to see in Ireland come up on the wing in July and August, so there is still time for you to get out there and see some during this summer season.

If you want to see pictures of the different types of dragonflies that are found in Ireland, as well as information on which months they are on the wing, take a look at this link.

The common reed (Phragmites australis)

common reedis very common in the small freshwater wetlands in Ireland. In mid-summer the reeds form tall, dense ‘stands’ of vegetation which provide very effective cover for birds and other wildlife. Sometimes the reeds can grow up to 19 feet high (more than three times the height of an average person). This year (2013) the emergence of the new shoot on the common reeds is very late because of the cold spring. If you are interested in taking a look at the common reeds, you should be able to observe them ‘in-leaf’ from now up until next November. After the leaves die, the tall stems remain standing and they survive to produce new leaves next year. At first sight you might think that the reeds are not all that interesting. However, from a heritage perspective reeds which grew in the freshwater wetlands, and indeed in the brackish wetlands near the coast provided early settlers on this island with a very crucial raw material – thatch for the early houses, without which people could not have sheltered from the cold and the rain. Without ready access to this amazing building material, early settlers would have had a difficult problem finding an alternative material to roof their huts with.

reed roofThe picture on the right shows how the common reed was used to roof the huts and houses built by the early settlers in Ireland. This particular house is part of the interpretative display at the Irish National Heritage Park (Wexford, Ireland). You can also see large stands of the common reed growing there, on the edges of the Slaney River. A beautiful wetland walkway is maintained at the Heritage Park, and if you are in the locality it’s well worth a look. (Check out the website: www.inhp.com). During May & June the wetland walk is full of beautiful wild flowers and an hour or two there would do your heart-good!

Taken during the first week of May 2013, and shows the first green shoots of new leaves on the reeds at the Raven in Wexford.

Taken during the first week of May 2013, and shows the first green shoots of new leaves on the reeds at the Raven in Wexford.

The small wetland looks during the winter when the reeds are dormant.

The small wetland looks during the winter when the reeds are dormant.

The small wetlands attract and provide homes and breeding grounds for many birds. Many of the birds in the wetlands are not commonly found near our homes or in the town, so it’s a real pleasure to sit quietly neat the wetland and watch the birds, just for fun!

Ostracods

Under the surface of the water in the small freshwater wetlands there is an unbelievable diversity of life. There are hundreds and sometimes thousands of different species of animals and plants to be found there. Among the types of animals there, you can find insects, molluscs, worms, crustaceans, beetles and even fish – like sticklebacks, and tiny floating animals called zooplankton. Some of these animals like to live in the water column, some like to crawl about on the stems of the plants growing out of the bottom of the wetland and some others like to live their lives in the muddy substrate on the floor of the wetland.

ostracodsThere are about 8,000 species of ostracods living on earth today. There is evidence in the fossil record that ostracods were prolific on earth almost 600 million years ago and they are still thriving today. About 20 species can be found in our freshwater wetlands. Ostracods are weirder than fiction (picture opposite) and the species found in Ireland range in size from about 0.1 mm to about 5 mm in length. As crustaceans, they rely on a bi-valve shell of hard material to protect their delicate inner organs. They can slam the shells shut to protect themselves, if threatened. If you would like to read more about these strange animals, check out the link.

Little Grebes

littleGrebesSome of the birds that live in and near the wetland are water-specialists. Some of the water birds you can see are simply passing-through on their migratory passage from one part of the globe to another. Others come there to breed, while some live there all year round.

Little Grebes (see photo) can be found on almost any small wetland in Ireland where they winter and breed. It is such a pleasure to sit and watch this dumpy little bird swimming about on the water or in & out between the reeds and to hear their wit-wit call as they busily move about.

The Marsh Marigold

marshMarigoldThe Marsh Marigold is a very recognisable flower of the small freshwater wetland in Ireland. This flower will come into bloom in April and May and usually heralds the end of winter and the beginning of the proliferation of life in the wetland in the summer period. The flower had strong connotation in old-Irish culture, when it was regarded as having the power to ward off evil influences. The flower was collected on May Eve and placed around the door of the house or even placed on the roof to repel evil spirits at the dawn of summer.