Flora of Northern Ireland

Vascular Plant Habitats in Northern Ireland

Habitat is Latin for "it lives [in]" and was used in pre-nineteenth century botanical books which were written in Latin to introduce the places or kinds of situation where a particular species grows. The word was also used on museum herbarium labels in the same way. Nowadays the word has become adopted as an English noun to denote the sort of vegetation or environmental circumstances in which a species occurs. The term biotope has a similar meaning.

This site uses an informal approach to classifying the major plant habitats which occur in Northern Ireland.

The coast

Northern Ireland's coastal habitats include some of the richest in terms of plant biodiversity.

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Open water

This category includes all still freshwater bodies as well as rivers.

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Cliffs and rock exposures

There is a distinct group of plants, including several ferns, which can only grow on exposures of bare rock. The type of rock will affect the species assemblage, in particular whether the rock is acidic or base-rich (in an ecological, not geological, sense). Limestone has a richer flora than acidic rocks like granite, with basalt being somewhat intermediate. Some species are nearly limited to limestone and are called calciphiles or calcicoles; others avoid limestone and are termed calcifuges. Many other species are unaffected by the rock type. Altitude, shade, exposure, aspect, humidity and availability of water are also important factors in determining which species can grow at a particular site.

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Grassland and heath

Grasslands are semi-natural habitats, i.e. they are maintained by particular farming practices such as grazing and mowing.

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Wetland habitats in which the ground is very wet, often flooded, are referred to by the general term mire. Within this is a great variety of different types of habitat, each with its own characteristic vegetation. The definition and usage of the names of these habitat or vegetation types vary from author to author and book to book, but the rather broad definitions used here are fairly well accepted. Transitional or intermediate habitats are common.

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Woodland and scrub

Woods are areas dominated naturally by tree species. Strictly speaking they are distinct from plantations, in which the trees have been deliberately planted, but the ground and shrub floras of both can be very similar, and both are included in this section. The section Native or introduced looks at the important distinction between trees which arrived in Ireland naturally after the end of the last ice age, and those which have been subsequently brought in from outside Ireland by man.

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Artificial Habitats

The distinction between natural habitats and artificial habitats is a useful one, but the defining line is blurrred.

Under our heading of Artificial Habitats are listed those which are entirely created by human activity, whether accidentally, for instance as a by-product of some industrial activity, or deliberately, and which do not fit comfortably into any of the other categories.

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Cultivated Ground

Cultivated, or tilled, land includes arable farming (as distinct from animal livestock farming) and horticulture (gardening). Arable farming involves the planting and harvesting of a crop, usually within one year, and typical crops include cereals such as wheat, barley and oats, rape; potatoes, turnips, swedes, beet etc; and formerly flax (for linen production). Associated with the crop are unwanted plants called weeds.

Horticulture involves the production of ornamental plants, or small-scale production of rather specialised food plants in the kitchen garden. A large number of weed species can occur in the garden environment.