Torn by the ravages of rockeries

ON the eastern side off Lough Mask, in Co Mayo, the waves slap against a shoreline of bare limestone and conspire with the rain…

ON the eastern side off Lough Mask, in Co Mayo, the waves slap against a shoreline of bare limestone and conspire with the rain to sculpt strange, pitted shapes and textures in the rock pavement, like those we imagine on the moon.

Out on a Sunday meander in the car and remembering from long ago a particularly striking rockscape of this sort, we took a by road to find it - one of the many sinuous boreens that twist around the inlets of the lake.

Never go back. Where the pavement had been was an empty space hewed out by bulldozer to make a car park and boat slip for trout anglers just two triangular slabs of textured rock remained, hoisted on edge as markers to remind the fisherman where to head for at the end of the day.

We made do with a ramble (by permission) across the limestone pastures of a farm, enjoying the beauty and varied form of the juniper bushes, some almost recumbent, some arching in elegant sprays, and shrubby cushions of the garden shrub cotoneaster, sown in the droppings of birds (in the Burren, cotoneaster has grown on the summit above Black Head for at least half a century). This was not the season for flowers, but the skeletons of lime loving car line thistles stood up as silver gilt sunbursts among the winter cow pats.


The limestone pavements of Lough Mask are overshadowed by the Burren's reputation but, equally, are habitats of a special, precious sort, polished under the ice sheets and then fissured and sculpted by erosion and solution over thousands of years.

Unfortunately, the weathered texture of the stone gives it an aesthetic appeal for which rockery gardeners - those of Britain, in particular - are prepared to pay good prices. The UK's Limestone Pavement Order has largely stemmed the quarrying of Britain's own stretches of pavement, such as those in Yorkshire, but garden centres there continue to offer the decorative slabs for sale.

Last autumn, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust traced the origin of stone on sale in their region to Cong, Co Mayo. The Irish Wildlife Trust, checking further, found themselves just in time to object to a planning application seeking, permission to "shallow quarry limestone at Dringeen Oughter, north west of Cong and near the shore of Lough Mask.

The prime objector was the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has included the pavement - already somewhat damaged - in a Natural Heritage Area. The application was refused by Mayo County Council, then appealed, with the Wildlife Service and the Irish Wildlife Trust still objecting. An Bord Pleanala will give its final decision next month.

"Nobody told me," says the landowner, in effect - a phrase which could serve as a general refrain for the protracted, highly fraught process of bringing the Natural Heritage Areas into law. And because nobody told him, he says, he invested time and money on developing his market and buying cutting machinery. The issue of compensation for loss of development rights is one the State has been dodging for decades.

Great stretches of open limestone in the valleys of the Burren have already been cleared or "reclaimed" for fields of grass, and lorryloads of rock have been sold off for rockeries. Gordon D'Arcy, in his Natural History Of The Burren, describes how "the efficiency of modern machinery, combined with imported topsoil, can transform a rock field into pasture within weeks." What is lost may not have been prime limestone pavement, but it was habitat for the irreplaceable Burren flora - the gentians, orchid, mountain avens and so on.

No Environmental Impact Assessment is needed for the reclamation of less than 100 hectares, or the quarrying of less than five hectares - and that, as the Wildlife Trust points out, can be a lot of limestone pavement.

No EIA, either, for the kind of bog stripping that has pushed the Irish Peatland Conservation Council to dun its supporters for an urgent £50 a head. It needs the money for its fight to stop private garden peat companies quarrying the last few Midland raised bogs of conservation quality.

The IPCC has been monitoring illegal peat extraction at bogs earmarked for conservation in Longford, Westmeath and Tipperary, and claims that 20 others have been "vandalised" by the companies in the past two years. Faced with Government inertia, it needs to recruit European muscle under the Habitats Directive. "Exposing crimes against habitats," it says, "is costly and labour intensive.

Gardeners seem the least likely people to conspire in stripping these last wild habitats, but each square metre of a surface of a raised bog or limestone pavement, each with its attendant plants and animals, is the product of irreproducible natural forces, an ecological work of art. One square metre of rock or peat moss goes nowhere in making a garden - yet its loss extinguishes that piece of habitat forever.

To small farm families, looking out on the lonely, if beautiful, landscapes of "marginal" land, the ways and aims of conservation agencies must sometimes seem strange, indeed. Environmental Farming: A Guide To The Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) may not satisfy their minds entirely but it does spell out, in very practical, specific detail, what's involved in joining the scheme and following its management plans, and what the benefits are to farmer and environment. Paul Bell, the author, comes from a farming background and works with Philip Farrelly, the agricultural consultants: he's a man who knows his ECUs.

FARMING the REPS way in the High Burren area gets special mention: no reseeding, rock removal, road building or infilling without prior approval of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. And it's REPS that should save us from one of my private bad dreams: that the Burren's fabulous limestone walls, each piece ready weathered and whiskery with lichens, will be sold off by the hundred to garden centres in England and replace with concrete posts and barbed wire.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author