Nature’s gems in old quarry

IT WAS a beautiful summer day and my task was to take a group of 8 to 12 year olds on a nature walk as part of the Lough Ree Environmental Summer Festival.

This festival is based in Lanesborough, Co Longford and the walk was to take place in a wooded amenity area called Commons North on the outskirts of the town. It was originally a complex of quarries producing limestone which was shipped out by barge from a quay on the lake. The quarrying stopped around 1960 and the place became derelict and over-grown. Recently the county council has cleaned it up and put in access paths.

I only had time for a quick recce before the walk but what I saw took my breath away. After a short stroll through young woodland on the lake shore I reached something called the Second Quarry — a wide amphitheatre of low cliffs from which the limestone had been quarried and a level floor with as fine a selection of summer wildflowers as I’ve seen anywhere outside the Burren. There were early purple orchids, eyebright, lady’s bedstraw, purple vetch, ox-eye daisies, and mounds of wild marjoram filling the air with an oregano scent — marjoram and oregano are basically two names for the same plant, though the matter is complicated by cultivated varieties.

Botanists call these plants “dry calcareous grassland” but I also found a couple of places where natural springs made the quarry floor damper and these were filled with meadowsweet and a glorious stand of yellow loosestrife. And, of course, such a rich habitat was alive with insects. There were butterflies and day-flying moths, bumblebees and grasshoppers and ant mounds, some of which had been attacked the previous night by a badger.

When I arrived back later with thechildren it was the grasshoppers that caught their interest. I think many of them had never seen a grasshopper before. They’re not as common as they used to be. They set about catching them. With their sharp eyes and quick reflexes they were good at this and, to their credit, they were careful not to harm the insects. One little girl even ‘tamed’ one which sat happily on her sleeve for about 10 minutes.

There are only five species of grasshopper found in Ireland, along with a few related bush crickets and ground hoppers and some of them are restricted to specialised habitats like peat bogs. This should make them easy to identify even though there is a lot of colour variation within each species. In fact I believe grasshoppers can change colour to suit their environment. After 10 minutes the grasshopper sitting on the dark yellow sleeve of the girl’s jumper seemed to change from dark green to yellow-brown. Anyway, we caught, and released, two of the five species in the quarry that morning — the common green grasshopper and the field grasshopper.


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