The Bricklieve mountains are located north of Boyle, and within easy distance of where we live in the west of Ireland. They encompass Kesh mountain with its caves and the Carrowkeel complex where many passage graves and tombs are to be found. The archaeology of these structures may be better understood than the distribution of the present day orchids that grow there — but both are fascinating! The limestone, so evident in these rocky terraced uplands of the Bricklieve Mountains, is at the heart of both cairn building and orchid colonisation. i.e it provides building resources and it nourishes lime loving plants like many orchids. The orchids which occur here include the Small White Orchid (Pseudorchis albida). This is a small delicate orchid that can flourish on these south facing limestone slopes between 250m and 300m. There are other orchids here, not rare but local, like the Greater Butterfly Orchid, the Frog Orchid, and the ubiquitous Common and Heath Spotted orchids. We focus on the Small White orchid — very small and delicate — and the Greater Butterfly Orchid which can occur in large numbers but can also be easily wiped out by improving land or heavy grazers (horses) travelling over a wide area. The Small Whites are smaller but can be impressive over 2 to 3 weeks from late May to early July. This year (2021) the numbers recorded have been the best since 2015 when we first saw them at this location. See MAP below…

Bricklieve Mountains:

North of Boyle and South of Sligo:

A Site for two special orchids, one rare; the other locally abundant.

Small White Orchid

This is the rare one but this year it has appeared in good numbers. It inhabits the sloping fields on one of the southern spurs of Bricklieve and flowers in June.

Greater Butterfly Orchid

Used to be 3 large colonies of this dramatic plant in this area; now there are two. Thankfully those remaining sites are free from wandering horses and are farmed for Nature allowing this beautiful orchid to survive  better here than most parts of Ireland!

June 30, 2021

A close up of the greenish-white flowers of the Small White orchid,  showing outer sepals, inner petals, and stubby spur which holds the sweet nectar. The lower petal or lip, is divided in three, with the central lobe being the largest.
Two tall specimens of Small White Orchid in full bloom on the steep slopes of this rough mountain ground. They are often found in twos and threes, close together.
Location of Small White orchids in the Bricklieve Mountains. Click on this image to enlarge the map and show an  expanded view of this area and the GPS records of the orchids recorded recently (138).
<-----Three-lobed Lip
Stubby Spur------>

Small White site:

The Small White Orchids found on the limestone hills north of the Plains of Boyle are probably there because the uplifted limestone area provides shelter and nutrition that suits this species. Traditionally these areas were lightly grazed — then heavily grazed — now, thankfully, measures are being put in place to preserve some of these areas for Nature. It is a rarity, a vulnerable species, and needs sanctuary. We tread very carefully when in these upland areas of rough ground where they are found. They are one of the the lesser orchids that occur in Ireland but nonetheless they represent a marginal landscape that so easily could be commercialised and inappropriately forested leaving Ireland with a monotonous landscape of single species forestry of disastrous consequence to the existing diverse and unique landscape of this part of Ireland. Though they are called ‘Small Whites’, the flowers are often a greenish white colour, hard to see among all the other green vegetation and sometimes not so small like the specimen shown (LEFT) of about 18cm. Many others are in hampered niches and struggle to grow to 10cm and then flower. The other specialist flora of these hilly heather areas include the Greater Butterfly Orchid, Cross-leaved Heath, Gorse, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Devilsbit Scabious, Milkwort, Saxifrages and other associated plants.  Further west in the Ox Mountains the very rare diminutive Bog Orchid has persisted over many years but again in one isolated place despite efforts to extend their known range. Another once common plant now becoming marginalised and isolated. This Bricklieves location is part of an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and grazing is absent, or strictly controlled. This protects our biodiversity and protects and sustains family farms in marginal landscapes. The soil is also unimproved (not fertilised) and this reduces grass growth and allows the Orchids to flower and reproduce naturally as they have done for years. It is what these orchids need. Other locations we have seen have had previously good numbers eliminated, or reduced, by heavy manuring and grass growth that swamps the Small Whites within a year or two! The orchids found at this Bricklieve site were growing at heights of c. 200m to 300m. We had thought that the the west/south west facing slopes appeared to offer the best aspect and conditions for the Small Whites, as we had searched, and found none on the eastern slopes of this hilly area on June 11th, our first visit, or in previous years. However on a second visit on the 23rd June, 25 more Small Whites were found on the eastern slopes of the hills …  along with plenty of Greater Butterfly orchids! A report on Greater Butterfly orchids is also included here as soon as we survey their numbers.
ABOVE: Typical habitat for the Small White Orchid in the Bricklieves; high ground, poor soil, rocky, and with rough little tracks like terraces or ridges in the slopes. This shows how hard it is to see the Small White orchid among all the greenery!
BELOW: Two Images of the flower head. The first plant is still developing, with fresh unopened buds at tip. The right hand specimen is more mature with most of its flowers well open. The dark brown specks inside the flowers indicate that it has been visited and fertilised — by Moths. On the day these images were taken (June 11th)  there were a number of very small young plants yet to flower. But the species has a short season!
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Some Small White Orchid flowers appear a greenish white, others may appear paler (see BELOW). But in form and colour and appearance, generally, they show little variation, unlike the Marsh or Spotted orchids! The images on this webpage look rather uniformly greenish — only the occasional bright yellow of a buttercup or white rose to relieve the green! The two images (BELOW) show the developing buds at the top of the flower-head with the lower flowers are fully open. The individual flowers can have quite white sepals shortly after opening or when viewed in bright light; that is when these interesting plants are most obvious and striking. This species may be difficult to spot at first and it becomes a game of finding the suitable environment. i.e. looking for sites free from chewed grass, recent dung, and recent deep mud-holes where cattle have travelled recently. Once a suitable habitat is found then the orchids will soon be found in these special places — not recently grazed, unimproved, and with south facing slopes at an altitude of c. 200-300m (so we have found?). But, once you have found one, even though they can be very small, you ‘get your eye in’ and it becomes easier to find the rest… 
ABOVE: A fine individual plant growing on the steep slope of this Bricklieve site. The vegetation here includes Heather, Gorse and Hawthorn bushes, Buttercup, Milkwort and Lousewort.  
Terracettes and Livestock can help Small White Orchids to find their ideal niche. The problem is that cattle are getting heavier and hills are getting wetter. Traditionally terracettes were caused by hillside heating and wetting leading to soil slippage through expansion and contraction of clay particles. Animals (particularly Sheep) will adapt these runs as a way of easily moving across a sloping hillside. The Small White Orchid loves these natural terraces. The photos (ABOVE and ABOVE LEFT) show healthy well vegetated terraces that are stable and retaining soil. This is a good habitat. Light animals may do no harm but large modern cattle breeds introduced into these hillsides will erode the landscape irreparably. The site ABOVE has a great variety and lushness in natural herbs. The tracks are hard to see but the Small Whites are often to be found on either side of these tiny pathways where the natural vegetation is allowed to survive. A monoculture of grass will eliminate the orchids and also the rich array of vegetation shown (ABOVE). Hence fertilisation or constant heavy grazing has to be avoided in areas of Conservation; this can be sustained by financial support to Farmers to maintain parts of their land for Nature. It’s in all our interest. The landscape (LEFT above) shows more natural terracettes in a grassland situation where a grassy hilltop can provide both light grazing and sheltered slopes for the orchids to thrive in. They seem equally happy growing on grassy slopes or in among short heather with a wide natural array of herbs. It is brilliant to have these indicators present to warn us if anything is going wrong with the habitat and that is why it is important to survey the numbers of rare species present both by Agencies and by keen voluntary botanists.

Small White country:

The  anatomy of an Orchid: It is not a problem to identify this species at any stage of its development — which is a relief! But it is interesting to look at features which are different from other species. The image (LEFT) has been prepared to show off the tidy little Spurs this orchid has. They are unusually short and stubby where other orchids have very long thin spurs needed to attract fertilisers. WHY? We don’t know. But it would be nice to find out. Possibly these plants are small and grow and flower quickly so they may not have space for a longer spur! We believe that it is fertilised by small night flying moths? Do these have short tongues! “The species is pollinated by crepuscular pyralid and pterophorid moths, most likely attracted by the sweet scent.” Many thanks to the Journal of Ecology for this information and a great overall review of this Orchid in Britain and Ireland Free Access Biological Flora of the British Isles: Pseudorchis albida Jana Jersáková, Tamara Malinová, Kateřina Jeřábková, Stefan Dötterl
Enlarge this Image…

Other Sites:

There are several other sites for the Small White Orchid on the southern slopes of the Bricklieve Mountains. The photo (LEFT) shows the site featured ABOVE in the distance above the wall and behind the browner terraced bluff in the middle distance. That bluff has been searched regularly but appears to be less grassy and more overgrown and (perhaps) grazed at certain times. This image was taken while exploring another site to the left of the camera. This is a steeper site but shows much evidence of a formerly significant site for the Small Whites. This hillock was grazed (at the time) by a small number of cattle and this has lead to close cropping of the turf and the disruption of banks where the orchid formerly lived. Two specimens are shown below ()LEFT), one from a formerly successful bank where many damaged plants were seen, and one surviving Small White Orchid now in seed.
Small White Orchid (Pseudorchis albida) June 2021
Greater Butterfly Orchid Platanthera chloranta June/July2021 and 2019 One of the most interesting features about this species in Ireland is… how rare it is? Many keen botanists seek it out and travel to observe it. Partly because this is a striking plant when seen it its full glory and maybe more significantly because it is disappearing — and we know exactly how this is happening!

A disappearing Beauty:

When this plant is observed in its full strength, all flowers open and few damaged, it is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s finest orchids. But that window is very short as flies and moths love this plant and spotting and discolouration of the flowers starts almost as soon as they are open. Also, a big specimen will have fresh buds at the top at the same time as the basal florets are starting to wither. Formerly a widespread plant of the limestone heartlands of Ireland it is now retreating to various ‘burrens’ around the country, other limestone pseudo-karst, and shattered friable bricklieve type limestone as in these pictures. A TIP: If you want to find this species look to upland areas with exposed limestone, such as the Cavan Burren, traditional lightly grazed mountain fields and paddocks, and avoid any land where heavy grazing has taken place. They will be gone — never to return again. A Conservation study: Being one of those frustrated orchid lovers we have craved familiarity with this species and our move to Roscommon facilitated this. There are three significant Greater Butterfly sites in north Roscommon/South Sligo: 1. Doon between the N4 and Lough Key. Here a dedicated landowner (and friend) has put much effort into protecting a large colony of this species. This is done by leaving the land undisturbed, no fertilising or ploughing, and cutting once a year when the orchids are gone. This has been working for many years. 2. High above Lough Arrow and inland all around the disappearing fingers of limestone that mark the southern edge of the Bricklieve Mountains, Greater Butterfly Orchids are to be found. One particular field contains many of these; it is the same field as the Small White Orchids are found so a double treat for any plant lovers. The GBOs emerge as the  Small White Orchids are declining but this has been a great year for both. This field is managed like the one above and also yielding spectacular results — over 120 specimens to date. 3. Sadly, in between is a similar plot that hosted large numbers of the Greater Butterfly until this year (2021) when a hearty herd of large horses started to enjoy the rich limestone grass on the many hillside walled fields. Unfortunately these walls were not high enough! Two orchids remain whereas in past years the colony numbered 100 plus… but data is missing on this. These 3 sites formerly provided a swathe of habitats for this unique species from the lake to the foothills of Kesh Mountain.

The lowland colony (Doon)

These pictures are from the lower but still sloping land to the east of the N4. It is a grassy damp field well bordered on two sides with trees and large open areas where the orchids occur. Associated plants here would include quaking grass, lousewort, yellow rattle, spotted orchids, buttercups, heath bedstraw, rushes where GBOs are absent. Behind this meadow the rushy lands starts to climb steadily to the west and is not fruitful for these orchids. A wet meadow to the north has only recorded individual Greater Butterfly Orchids over the years. It seems that the ‘ideal conditions’ at this site are an upper field with poor soils (rushes etc.) with a run off and settlement of rain to a flattish field where the limestone substrate (and outcrop) can provide the base conditions this species requires. The adjoining flat field to the north is also probably too flat and too wet for this orchid though both these ‘poorer’ fields do support good numbers of Spotted Orchids and a rich other flora.

The upland Greater Butterfly Orchids…

This orchid would need very high grass to make us miss them! Grass up on these windy hills is not very high. Hence our discovery of this colony on an exploration trip many years ago. Same day and same place as we came across both orchids —the Small White Orchid almost in seed and the Greater Butterfly Orchids in full bloom. We had seen a few of these before in the Cavan Burren but never expected to see them in such large numbers, on the shady side of this hill, the rounded southern tip and, in lesser numbers, across the crown of the hill.

Sheltered low-lying  Conditions…

Image BELOW is from Doon adjacent to L. Key, much lower down. The Doon plants are in among lush tall grass and other vegetation, the flowers being well protected as they emerge. In fact in 2021 the Orchids were almost swamped by the lush growth in the Doon Conservation Site. After 2 counts 114 specimens were recorded (July 7th).
Cool undisturbed upland habitat: This is the type of conditions prevailing in the upland (Bricklieve) site. It can be wet and windy and cold at 300m. but it can also be undisturbed and protected. The grass shown here is as high as it gets and in many areas it is even low enough for the Small White Orchids to top it!
ABOVE and CENTRE The hilltop at the Bricklieve Orchid site taken on a windy misty day. It is nearly always windy here as there is a large open plain to the west and south of these hills. This wind will contribute much to the dispersal of seeds of this plant and the lower level of growth here will enable seeds that lodge here to stay and germinate and form underground fungal associates that nurture the developing plant. These are long lasting plants and each has its niche…
BELOW and RIGHT The image on the right shows a line of 3 Greater Butterfly Orchids. It’s an interface between Small White and Greater Butterfly territories!  The latter rarely occur below this while the Small White Orchid  thrives in the valleys and the steeper hills shown BELOW.
Surveying in progress. The Greater Butterfly Orchid in the Bottom Left corner of this image is about the lower limits they like. To the right of these 3 orchids lies the hilltop just like the other hilltop beyond the Gorse bushes. The near hill had many GBOs while the far hill yielded few! Why… they were both similar but the near hill marked the edge of the Bricklieves and a marked decline to the south.
BELOW: : Small White Orchids can appear uniformly green or they may show flashes of white. It depends on the plant and the weather.
PART 2: Greater Butterfly Orchid The ‘other species’ occurring in this wonderful habitat!
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Final Orchid Numbers and Habitat Map (2021) of south Bricklieves: (ABOVE and RIGHT) The dipping and surrendering of these hills to the plain marks this marginal habitat where these limestone hill loving Orchids find their niche. Even this pocket map shows the subtle difference; the red dots are Small Whites and the Green dots are the Greater Butterfly Orchids. They seem to avoid overlapping one another or, perhaps have slightly differing needs?
Small White Orchids: Red PIN: 138 Greater Butterfly Orchids: Green FLAG: 92 CLICK ON AERIAL VIEW TO ENLARGE!