Amazing places to stop on the way from Dublin to Enniskillen – Bun Lough, Belturbet, Co. Cavan.

Heading North on the N3 past Navan, Kells, Virginia, the roundabout before Cavan, one can set off along the new road that bypasses Butler’s Bridge. After a few more miles the long stripe of good road runs out. One is faced with a windy stretch that brings you on into Belturbet. This next stripe of country has an amazing little swampy wood in it – on the left near a place called Bun Lough. If you are passing through, this swamp wood is a worthy destination for a few hours on the way back home to County Fermanagh. As the good road ends, the windy stretch tracks past the place that the people of Cavan learn to swim, and then goes on past a Church on the right. You cannot miss the Zetor tractor compound on the left at the corner of the road to the west for Milltown. Bun Lough is a bit further on, just where the road straightens up across a causeway through marshy ground to the east of Bun Lough. There is a tiny car park that services the fishing stands on the south side of Bun Lough. This is the place I think is amazing. After the vicious bends one left and then one right, one passes The Omega, a charmingly named nursing home on the left just before Belturbet. If you go past The Omega, you have gone too far.

By now a frequent visitor to Kilduff, one Saturday morning in March 2005, I had the misfortune of leaving my car lights on while reading a newspaper in the Bun Lough carpark, and the battery went flat. Nothing to be done, I continued my explorations of the Kilduff swamp, until it was time to get help. A very kind farmer willing to help was found in a jeep on the byroad from Milltown. The jump start did not work, and he gave me a tow to the garage across the bridge in Belturbet. When a mechanic was found, a blast on the battery charger and Margaret’s crew in the garage set me straight. Kilduff is the townland name on the map at the amazing patch of swamp wood just to the south east of Bun Lough. Kilduff or Coill Dubh can be translated as Black Wood. The tiny carpark at Bun Lough floods in the winter, so one can only stop there on the way past a bit later on in the year. The first patch of wood holds a wee bit of litter, not so bad considering Cavan County Council’s warning sign in the carpark.

Moving on into the first swamp wood, the ground underfoot is amazing – after the flood the leaves are left like dried out spent tea leaves, dark brown and crispy. Any shed sticks on the floor have lost the lichens due to immersion. In places where the leaves drift off in the floods, the ground is bare, and in the basins you get deposits of tea leaf swill building up. Over some barbed wire, the next field has a few birch trees at the southern edge, and crossing the drain here (only if you have wellingtons on) one can get an impression of what the heart of a real Cavan swamp wood is like. The trees here include willow, alder and ash with a bit of hawthorn. Every trunk has a grey swathe of leafy lichens. With lots of collapsed trees, getting through the thickets is a challenge. This is a fascinating area with a mixture of trees and disturbingly soft bottomed pools in which ones footing ought to be tested rather gingerly.

The special feature of Kilduff is that one can see a ‘lichen-line’ phenomenon, a level on the trees below which there are no leafy lichens alive. The ‘lichen-line’ is caused by flooding and prolonged immersion. After a few days underwater, lichens on the tree trunks and submerged boughs are killed. Once dead then start to rot, and in a few months after the floods one can see the ‘lichen-line’ in swamp woods clearly. Due to the buoyancy of spreading boughs in floods means that in dry condition the ‘lichen-line’ is just a wee bit lower on the branches at bush extremities. Every winter the ‘lichen-line’ forms at whatever level the floods reached for a few days. In the late summer, little small young lichens grow in the bare patch of tree trunk bark below last years ‘lichen-line’. A very high flood might only occur once in a decade, so such a flood would obliterate all the previous lichen lines. It can take a bit of time looking about at tree trunks and boughs in the swamp wood to work out the levels.

Looking at the lichens and fungi in Kilduff one can pick out the green cup fungus that stains dry rotted sticks Chlorosplenium aeruginasens. This is better known as Tunbridgeware of Oak, where the green stained wood is used for marketry inlay for ornamental jewelry boxes. One can also pick out the tiny one milimeter green grey ear like scales of the lichen Normandina pulchella on brown liverwort covered boughs of willow. There is a bracket fungus on decaying willow trunks known as Daedaleopsis confragosa, with a white or ruddy skin and a strange mazegill network of slots underneath. The swamp wood here though is really a place for the leafy lichens. There is a lot of Parmotrema reticulatum, a swamp specialist that has a reddish tinge to the crimped crispy lobe edges. Close up the upper surface has a reticulum of cracks, but this might vary according to the climate or time of year. This is something that we really do not know yet. Moving on through the swamp wood one can pick a way between the pools. Meadowsweet Filipendula ulmaria is beginning to pop up. There are a few reeds of reed canary grass in places. A collapsed birch tree was rotten with the birch polypore Piptoporus betulinus. If you want to follow that these plants look like, just type in the latin names on google images search on the web.

On progressing through I reached the central drain against the townland of Bun. A fallen willow straddles this broad tea water filled ditch. Stepping precariously along the trunk, not wishing to get wet, gripping some fine flexible sallies for stability, a final exhilarating leap, and I was in another townland. Swamp woods are special places that people in Cavan or Fermanagh, who care for clean clothes, forbid family members to go a walk. These swamps are rich in trees, perennial herbs, and the bushy and leafy growths of lichens, mosses and tree decay fungi, and a fine array of insects in the summer. As a part of the real Cavan out there, the uncertainty of orienteering through tangles of thickets; the unpredictable give of the mud and cracking of sticks underfoot, and the protracted risk of heart-quickening trips bringing one headlong closer towards a bath of mud – all make going for a walk in the swamp wood at Kilduff the perfect antidote for a day in, reading the Impartial Reporter.

Howard Fox

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