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Ireland was separated from the European mainland in the period following the last Ice Age. As a result the island has a smaller range of flora and fauna than is found elsewhere in Europe.Much of the country was once covered with primeval forest. Although the original forests have been cleared over most of the country, remnants of the old natural forest in the Killarney area indicate that oak interspersed with holly and birch predominated, with ash, hazel and yew forests occurring in limestone areas.
These forests were very rich in lichens, mosses, liverworts and ferns. In recent decades the re-afforestation programme has favoured Sitka spruce, Scots, contorta and other pines, larches, Norway spruce and Douglas fir.Raised peat bogs, varying in size from a couple of hectares to a few square kilometres, occur in the Central Plain in areas of impeded drainage while mountain bogs are common in western areas with heavy rainfall. The flora of the bogs consists of a large variety of bog-moss species together with heather and sedges. Two especially interesting botanical areas are Glengariff and Killarney (Cork/Kerry) which are very rich in bryophytes and lichen species of extreme oceanic and even tropical distribution. The Burren in Co. Clare is a region of bare carboniferous limestone, containing arctic-alpine species surviving from the last glaciation and Mediterranean species at the northern end of their range.
Rivers and lakes contain a wide variety of fish life. Salmon, trout, char, pollan and eel all occur naturally and other varieties, such as pike, roach and rainbow trout, have been introduced from outside. The only amphibians are a single species each of frog, toad and newt. There are no snakes and the only reptile is the common lizard.
Of some 380 species of wild birds recorded in Ireland, 135 breed in the country. There is considerable migration of birds to Ireland in spring and autumn, while winter migration brings a number of species from Greenland and Iceland. Three-quarters of the world population of the Greenland whitefronted goose winter in Ireland. The significance of this has been marked by the establishment of an internationally important wildlife reserve in Co. Wexford. There is also considerable passage migration from the south by birds which nest further north.
Game shooting is strictly controlled and, in addition, there is a national network of refuges where all game shooting is prohibited. Some wild game bird stocks - mainly pheasant and mallard duck - are augmented through State-assisted restocking programmes. Inland waters support colonies of swans, geese, waders, duck, tern and gulls.
Mammals are similar to those found throughout the temperate regions of Europe. Of the 31 species which occur, the Irish stoat and the Irish hare are the most interesting examples of native development. Other animals include the fox,badger, rabbit, otter, squirrel and hedgehog.The National Parks and Wildlife Service of The Office of Public Works is responsible for conservation in the Republic of Ireland. Most species of wild fauna and several species of wild flora are protected. Conservation of wildlife habitats is achieved through the creation of nature reserves of which there are 75, together with 5 refuges for fauna.
In recent years State forests have been opened to the public. There are now 12 large forest parks and over 400 smaller amenities. Public access is generally limited to pedestrians and these centres offer excellent opportunities for observing wildlife in its natural surroundings.The National Parks and Wildlife Service is also responsible for the development and management of national parks and nature reserves.To date, five national parks have been established. All five meet international standards for national parks, conserving as they do outstanding parts of the natural heritage. They are located at Killarney, Co. Kerry; Glenveagh, Co. Donegal; Connemara, Co. Galway; The Burren, Co. Clare; and the Wicklow Mountains, Co. Wicklow.