The Irish Times recently reported that there are thousands of the rare golden saxifrages growing in Oweninny Bog Nature Reserve. Since the fen is protected by An Taisce, here is a quick overview of what these spectacular little flowers living in the fen are, and why they are important.

The yellow marsh saxifrage, known scientifically as Saxifraga Hirculus, is one of Ireland and Europe's rarest wildflowers. According to a monitoring study on the species, there are nearly a dozen colonies of saxifrage located predominately in Mayo and Sligo, although there is one location in Co Antrim. In total, its range throughout Europe has been reduced dramatically due to loss of habitat through avenues like degradation, fragmentation, afforestation, and drainage [Note 1].

The saxifrage is a flowering shoot, which can extend anywhere from 4-35cm up with up to 7 flowers, although anywhere from 1-3 is more common. The petals are a bright yellow and orange colour, and the leaves alternate and are oblong in shape with long stalks on the lowest leaves. Although it can be easily recognized for its distinct colour when flowering, during other times in the life cycle of the plant it can be overlooked, and thus field training is required for undertaking surveys out of the flowering season [Note2]. During flowering season, the density of the rosettes varies, ranging from areas where flowers can be seen carpeting the bog floor to areas where their bloom is more sporadic.

The plant has a circumpolar distribution in the northern hemisphere, however, the distribution has been growing smaller and smaller over the years. Currently, the saxifrage is extinct in Austria, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. Previously in Ireland, it was widespread throughout the country with blooms in counties including Tipperary, Westmeath, Offaly, Laois, and Meath, however these colonies have since disappeared. Today its location is limited to Mayo, Sligo, and Antrim [Note3].

Saxifrages are restricted to mineral flushes in blanket bog habitat. The ground water in these bogs form small streams which are sources of electrolytes as well as minerals for the plants. These mineral flushes allow plants not normally found in an ombrotrophic bog to flourish. Along with requiring the flush to exist, the plant also needs the landscape mosaic. Oweninny Bog also known as Bellacorick Fen, protected by An Taisce, is one such blanket bog with mineral flushes that provides a suitable habitat for saxifrages [Note4].

The saxifrage have been threatened over the years. This is due to an amalgamation of things, with large contributors being draining and peat harvesting. Water quality also plays a big role in the health of saxifrages. At its current situation, saxifrages are threatened throughout their range [Note5].

So, what makes it necessary that we protect these flowers?

Aside from being protected under Annex II and Annex IV of the EC Directive (EU Habitats Directive) as well as being protected nationally under the 1999 Flora Protection Order, these plants play a role in bog conservation [Note6]. Although they may not do something specifically 'for' humans, like act as food or fuel, the plants help soak up carbon along with other flora in the peatland and help hold back floods. These actions not only help preserve the bog, but the climate as a whole, and therefore us as humans as well.

The fact is many plant communities, similar to the community of the saxifrage, act as carbon sinks, which helps offset carbon emissions. However, it is hypothesized that over the course of the next few decades the effects of climate change will have a serious effect on these plants. This means many terrestrial sinks may become sources, for example the bogs[Note7].

According to a monitoring study in the Republic of Ireland, an assessment should be required every 5 years to help keep track of the plant's progress, as well as to help prevent any threats to the plant. At the moment, so long as no damaging activity takes place, the saxifrages have a favourable outlook on future populations [Note8]. It is hoped that monitoring the rare saxifrage will in turn aid in the preservation of flushes. When monitoring the plants, the study suggests three things should be checked:

  • Population

  • Habitat for the species

  • Future prospects [Note9]

Overall, these flowers are incredible plants that are native to boglands across the country. They play an important role in the overall health and well-being of the bog they inhabit. It is our job to help them continue to benefit our climate by protecting them from the threats present in their habitats today.


Note 1: Muldoon, C.S., Waldren, S. & Lynn, D. (2015) “Monitoring recommendations for Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus L.) in the Republic of Ireland.” Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 88. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland

Note 2: “Monitoring recommendations for Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus L.) in the Republic of Ireland.”

Note 3: “Monitoring recommendations for Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus L.) in the Republic of Ireland.”

Note 4: Viney, Michael. "Another Life: 1,000 Golden Saxifrages amid Sruffaunnamuingabatia’s Turbines."The Irish Times. The Irish Times, 2 July 2016. Web. 06 July 2016.

Note 5: “Understanding Water for Wildlife.” Environmental Agency. Almondsbury, Bristol UK. Print.

Note 6: Silva, João Pedro. Justin Toland, Wendy Jones, Jon Eldridge, Edward Thorpe, Maylis Campbell, Eamon O’Hara. “LIFE and Endangered Plants: Conserving Europe's Threatened Flora.” European Commission. Luxemborg, Belgium. Print.

Note 7: “LIFE and Endangered Plants: Conserving Europe's Threatened Flora.”

Note 8: NPWS (2013) The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland. Species Assessment Volume 3. Version 1.0. Unpublished Report, National Parks and Wildlife Services. Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, Dublin Ireland.

Note 9: “Monitoring recommendations for Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus L.) in the Republic of Ireland.”