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Murlough is cared for as Ireland's first nature reserve since 1967, the fragile 6000 year old sand dune system offers some lovely walks. Due to the reserves wild nature you can discover birds, flowers, butterflies and more, all overlooked by the rounded peaks of the Mourne Mountains to the south.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Regeneration of Burn Site Vegetation

In the Ring Reserve at Murlough NNR there were 4 illegal fires that occurred at the start of summer. The burn sites were then surveyed in order to monitor effects of the fires and the regeneration of the vegetation on the 4 sites.

In order to monitor density and height of different regenerated plant species, a number of fixed quadrats were placed on each of the burn sites. Fixed point photography was another method used to monitor regeneration of plant growth. See below example of fixed point photography at Site A:

Site A: 13th August 2013

Site A: 23rd September 2013

Although plant density and height were monitored the regeneration of vegetation may have been affected by the severity of the burn which was noted before monitoring took place.

A map was then created using a GPS mapping system which marked the location and size of each of the burn sites in the Ring Reserve. The fixed point photography points were also marked on the maps.

The main plant species monitored included bracken, marram grass, carex, rose bay willow herb and burnet rose. These plant species seemed to regenerate rapidly over the summer months with growth slowing at the start of October. The regeneration growth of bracken, burnet rose, marram grass and carex however were affected by the grazing of rabbits.

The data collected in relation to height and density of different plant species will then be visually represented on graphs making the data easily compared and interpreted. The regeneration of burn site vegetation study may come in useful in relation to the long term strategy of Murlough NNR.

This survey has allowed me and other volunteers to get involved and gain experience in vegetation surveying with the help of experienced botanist Professor Matt Dring. This survey is also being used for my university project that I have to complete during my placement year.  

By Rebekah Stevenson

Volunteer Profile

Hello, my name is Rebekah Stevenson and I am studying BSc Hons Countryside and Environmental Management at Harper Adams University. I currently am on my placement year and have been a volunteer assistant ranger at Murlough NNR for nearly 5 months.

Since being at Murlough I have gained experience in strimming, brushcutting, habitat management, general site management, fencing, boardwalk repairs, tool maintenance and a variety of surveys including butterfly transects, vegetation surveys, seals and bird counts. I have also been involved in ‘Wild Child’ a summer scheme which allowed me to work with the general public and passed my Safe Tractor Driving Course.

This placement has allowed me to gain confidence in my own abilities and gain valuable practical experience in a variety of tasks. Working at Murlough is hard work but the team is supportive and the work is rewarding. 

In the future I would like to be involved in countryside education or become a countryside officer for a large conservation organisation or government department. Although, I would love to volunteer for conservation projects abroad at some point as well.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013


This weekend was the annual Pumpkinfest at Castle Ward. The festival had many activities and stalls, and the Murlough staff were invited down to help with the pumpkin carving and the scarecrow treasure trial.   

The scarecrow trail was a huge success, with our volunteers taking turns to man the start and finish. The children got their maps at the start, then had a great time with their parents following the map around the grounds looking for the scarecrows, and answering questions on them. Though a few did get lost, eventually everyone did find their way down to the courtyard were another of our volunteers was waiting for them with a little prize.

The pumpkin carving was a huge undertaking at the festival. Each participant chose their pumpkin at the start, then took them to have the top cut off before scooping out the insides themselves. Each child or adult then drew up their own design on the pumpkin, before taking it to be cut out by one of the volunteer pumpkin carvers. If we were not professional pumpkin carvers before, we were 2800 pumpkins later, and with cuts and blisters to prove it!   

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Marsh Fritillary Web Counts

At this time of the year, if you look really closely, you may be able to spot our Marsh Fritillary butterfly webs. The Marsh Fritillary is a protected species, and is a priority species on the UK BAP(Biodiversity Action Plan). It is extinct in many countries, and in decline in others, with the UK being the last strong hold of them.

The Marsh Fritillary lay their lava under the leaves of their food plant devils bit scabious from May-June. They hatch from June onwards, and live in communal groups in webs. These webs become more obvious towards the end of August. In Autumn they will make stronger webs closer to the ground where they will hibernate, then will disperse in the spring. 

As the more obvious webs are around at this time of year we use these webs to measure the breeding success of our Marsh Fritillary. This is important as they are a protected species. Each year we conduct a count on the main patches of devils bit scabious. For the last few years we have also done surveys on the scrub in these areas so we can assess what management is needed to help increase their numbers. This means estimating at each of our mapped out plots how much of each of the scrub species (gorse, bramble, burnet rose, ragwort and others), as well as an overall scrub cover of the area, and bracken estimated separately. This can tell us what sort of composition of scrub the Marsh Fritillary favours.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Summer of Surveys

The summer is a time full of biological surveys for us. These are important for us so we can monitor what is happening to the biodiversity of the reserve and seasonal patterns over time.

Butterflies Transect:  The butterfly survey takes place once a week (weather permitting), and is done around the east side of the reserve. Volunteers and wardens walk along a set transect which is divided into 15 sections, identifying and counting the butterflies they see within ~2.5m either side of us, and ~5m ahead of us. At first identification of the butterflies seems to be the challenging part, and new volunteers are always in awe that anyone can tell the species apart when they're on the wing, and often  disappearing into the distance. It seems though, that it is remembering the route and sections of the transect that proves the greatest challenge, and many a volunteer has gotten lost and disorientated on the walk. Do not fear though, we have retrieved all lost volunteers. 
The data from these counts is passed over to UKBMS, who use this data to monitor the butterflies in Northern Ireland and across England, Wales and Scotland, and produce a report on their findings each year.

Bird Count: The bird count usually happens once a month, and is taken from 3 sites, Dundrum Inner Bay, the Murlough beach and the farm fields ajacent to the reserve.  Identification can be difficult to begin with, especially the waiders which all look rather similar. However in time we've all learnt a good number of species, and Murlough has trained many volunteers into becoming budding twitchers. 
All of the data we collected is put into a data sheet on the WeBS wetland bird survey webpage, along with data collected for us by Murlough's original warden Jo Whatmough at 3 other sites. This helps us to gain a better understanding of the patterns in bird species through the seasons, and how these patterns may be changing over the years. 

Seal Counts:  Seal counts are done once a month, twice durring breeding season, to monitor their numbers. Starting from the Ballykinlar beach, we count the number of seals all along the coast as far as Craigalea. There are 2 types of seals, the grey and the common, and the differences are rather subtle, especially given the distance we are from them. Spotting them amongst the rocks also needs a bit of practice, and many a rock has been watched carefully thinking it may move. We also take notes on any possible disturbances to the seals from people, such as shell collectors, or vehicles on the beach.
These figures, along with maps to show were the seals were seen is emailed to the NIEA, who recieve similar data from a number of people around Northern Ireland.

Sheep Counts: Though counting sheep may not sound like the most necesary task, monitoring their numbers on the Mourne mountain is important. Their numbers are counted and markings noted, so we can see which sheep are straying onto National Trust land, and so we can monitor the effects their grazing is having on the mountain habitat. For this survey identification skills are not of great importance (we know a sheep when we see one....hopefully), getting up the mountain can be a task in itself. Again, no volunteer has yet been lost or left behind.

Monday, 5 August 2013

End Of An Era

The last couple of weeks we have seen quite a change up for volunteers. After 9 and 5 months of working here, Rose and Claire have headed back to Bristol to continue their studies. They were brilliant workers, and for me they were amazing people to live with. Rose will be missed for her creative flare which brightened the place up, and her hypnotic poying skills. Her hard work (huge understatement) putting together the beetle collection for Murlough, and her devotion to our wood pile where hugely appreciated. We couldn't have gotten through those cold days without her. Claire will be missed for her adorable little laugh at the end of every sentence (regardless of her mood), as well as her excelent team leader qualities, and helping to keep our office running. Not forgetting her impecable cleanliness, obsessive attention to PPE, and lossing things every other day (we are still finding your things Claire). They are going to be very missed around here.

We did of course have a small leaving do for them, as pictured below. On a different note, two of our other volunteers, Kerri and Rebekah have now moved into the volunteer accomadation, and we are also joined by a new volunteer from England, Zoe, and so a new era begins. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Bread Fest at Castle Ward

Murlough and Castle Ward National Trust Properties are joined. Often when Castle Ward have events the Murlough team may be asked to give them a hand setting up, preparing the site and help where needed during the event. 

The bread fest event was 3 days long, on the Saturday the event was kick off with Bread Fest, Sunday was the Van Morrison concert and Monday had the Bike show. Some of us at Murlough went down on the Friday to help set up for the weekend and prepare the seating arrangements for a Wedding also taking place on the Saturday.

We were all given different duties; some where litter picking, some where setting up chairs and some were helping out in the demonstration marquees. Thankfully it was a sunny weekend and we all had a great time helping out.

Full Moon...a true story of mystery, suspense and horror at Murlough

Full Moon
A true story of mystery and suspense at Murlough...
It is the deep dark dead of night, the lugubrious midnight hour.  The sky is a blurring oil slick of Prussian blue and indigo. Two volunteers (henceforth described in the first person for obscure reasons) sit perched on a wooden picnic bench, smoking menthol filters and gazing up at veiled wisps of cloud cloaking, uncloaking a heavy tallow moon.  Mournful howls echo through the woods at North Point in a slow sad liturgy of beautiful, endless longing. They could be wolves, given it’s a full moon, but on reflection the Beast of Murlough is supposed to be a big cat, not a canine, and no dog ever sounded so heartbroken, or distinctly maritime. 
I wonder if its owls, but She says seals.  Owls hooting cannot tug at the core of one’s very being like this (though maybe they do in Siberia?) We listen, seriously, discussing whether it is the sound of seals calling out for a mate, or calling out after a long-lost mate, or even engaged in mournful congress, and if so whether they are enjoying it or not?  I ponder this and come to the conclusion that if such things happened, David Attenborough would have told us about it by now.  Such things only remind me that I am leaving Murlough in a week, and really, really do not want to.
Suddenly, my companion starts, draws breath and goes rigid; she has seen something in the bushes.  “Rose, look...” she whispers.
Over in the small copse by the dark, imposing Christian house, two red eyes twinkle, flash, sway and blink back at us.  They are too large to be the cat, too high up for a fox, or badger.  They move with a determined intelligence.  They are not human.  A dreadful and glorious sense of horror tugs insistently at my guts; the air has become very still, very lucid; we could be characters in that film, the one they say is based on a true story...   We laugh nervously, then, uttering excited expletives in hushed voices, we scurry indoors.  From inside, lights off, pressed against the window, we continue to watch our watcher.
The eyes do not turn from us; they blink back, unhurried, unconcerned, feigning disinterest.  I am not fooled; they are pretending to hunt, scanning us from the periphery of vision, biding their time. The luminescence shifts from red to green and back again, flickering slightly like marsh-light; a will’o’the wisp, drawing us out of our brick and stone safety into the wilds.  I picture us, two intrepid, yet woefully naive, young women being lured out, across the reserve, under the mountain by some cantankerous or lusty spirit.  Does Slieve Donard have a faery hall beneath its lush green carpet?  Undoubtedly.                                  
After what seems like ages we come to an agreement, we will go out and meet this moon-eyed stalker, this crepuscular-creature that refuses to emerge from the thicket.  We don our boots and pad out across the stableyard, decelerating our pace with each metre from the warm doorway.  At the rusty wrought iron gate my companion pauses at the invisible line she cannot cross, waiting to see if I’ll go first.  She is strikingly beautiful in this moment of thrilling trepidation, her hair is soft-spun gold in the moonlight, so I take a mental picture in case one or both of us is consumed, or possessed by something supernatural in the near future.  Inching forward we approach the bushes, ready to scream, ready to run, keeping our eyes fixed on the unmoving, unearthly shining orbs...
                                                                                ...and find...
                                                                                                       ..a crisp packet in the tree.

                       True story.
For more adrenalin-fuelled adventures and daring real-life mystery come to Murlough NNR, where we are littered with intrigue!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Big Clean-up Operation

After a couple of sunny weeks, Murlough NNR and the County Down council beach alongside it were looking a little worse for ware. Due to our litterbug culture, the clean-up operation was going to be big. That was despite the staff and volunteers at Murlough having worked tirelessly every day at litter picking both the reserve and council beach, and regularly changing the large bins we had installed for the few good weeks of summer.  It is especially important to keep the beach clean, so that we can ensure the council can keep their blue flag status.

We had a number of staff and volunteers from Castle Ward, and a group on a working holiday join us for the morning.  30 people all in all.  After a quick photo shoot for the Mourne Observer, we were away on our litter picking adventure.

It is quite incredible what people are willing to leave on the beach! As well as the usual crisp packets and drinks bottles, there are beach towles, beach mats, and even clothing and shoes...... The Murlough volunteers have over the last week gained an entire collection of beach buckets, spades and inflatables. Who needs to get paid with these kind of perks to the job!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Litter-Picking Paradise

Litter-Picking Paradise
It is hot.  “What do volunteers do when the weather is so unrelentingly clement” you might ask?

 “Ah ha! I shall tell you” (without a shred of cynicism or ridiculously fanciful description... )
We have been out enhancing visitor experience through the subtle and artful re-imagining of their physical surroundings.  This is more than the mere removal of unwanted detritus (from man and dog alike) but is an exciting work in progress, evolving as the ebb and flow of visitors washes over the reserve.  The trick is to blend, to meld almost, with the hot flustery crowds, weaving amongst them like discrete eels, casting our magic; our perpetual disappearing act.
 A Chewit paper drops...whoosh!..we catch it on the wing.  A wet-wipe flutters brown and smeared from the marram grass...gasp!...we spirit it away.  Barbequed chicken glistens oily and sluggish in the sand...expelliarmus!..we whip it out from under the innocent noses of the sunbathers and sightseers.  As they lie back, contented, demure and sober, we dart about making the dunes and sands look as untouched by human hand as if they were a newly discovered paradise; an Eden of the modern age.  There are no hidden improvised toilets in paradise, no small blackened burn-sites and singed sticky sausages, no clue to suspected nappy-origami contests under gorse bushes ...no, it’s all pristine.  Thus do we work, around the clock, around the gloriously tanned limbs of supine spectators, to remove every trace of humanity’s decadence and reliance on plastics.
On a more serious note, we attempt, and in most cases succeed, in hiding the tragic fact that most of our rabbits here are smokers and alcoholics (the evidence is there).  From the ‘tuts’ and ‘tsks’ you can tell that the  some of the more mature visitors are shocked at this state of affairs, for certainly a human would never leave the evidence of their substance use so blatantly lying around.  I personally find it strange that few youngsters seem to notice or care about this; are they not saddened, nay moved, by the flagrant littering caused by our furry friends, or has TV and video-games hardened them to such things?  Take a late night dander along the snaking paths of the reserve and the extent of the addiction is laid bare; for wherever there are cans of lager, fag ends and bottles of WkD, there are rabbit droppings. 
This is even more shocking when you consider how many young impressionable rabbits there are at this time of year.  Tsk.
Back to the details of the task.  We use state of the art tools for this job: telescopic hand-operated grabbing-extensions, equipped with a jaunty plastic handy-hook (to catch in Satsuma-netting and flayed tissue paper) and a daring futuristic alloy shaft to catch the sunlight.  We place our finds into voluminous mixed-matter flexi-sacks, crafted from spaceage unbreakable nanosheets (able to withstand BBQ wire, broken glass and disposable forks) and seal these with knots that only a Jedi could understand.  These ‘refuse sacks’ (if you will) are placed in the hover-trailer and the mechanised pilot is ordered to convey them back to the reclamation zone. 
To be part of such a slick and seamless study in the de-soiling of the sand and scrub is an honour, and I do not speak of it lightly.  It is a compulsive activity once begun, and many a volunteer has wandered off merrily litter-picking, never to be seen again (ok, that’s not really true).  Much as the lopping of bramble tendrils can utterly consume one in a peculiar blend of frustration and joy, litter-picking can dissolve the hours and days like a beautiful and memorable bath -bomb in the bathtub of life.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Busy Day at the Beach

With the sunshine, comes the swarmes of people! The weekend past (8/9th June) was a record weekend for us at Murlough. This kept our VEA staff incredibly busy, as hundreds of people flocked to the beach to enjoy the first (and possibly last being Northern Ireland) of the summer sunshine.  

As volunteers, we offered to help the VEA's (Visitor Experience Assistants) with the busy period, by doing litter picks throughout the weekend to keep on top of things, ensuring Murlough remained at its best. We were also keeping an eye out for any fires on the reserve (BBQ's gone awry), and even helped a couple of lost children. 

The  pictures above show just how busy the beach was, and the bottom demonstrates just how happy and cheesy we can be at our work (and how big our wardens thumbs are). 

The beach clean-up continued into Monday and Tuesday, and we would like to say a big thank you to Andy, the volunteers from Castle Ward, and Ella the dog, who kindly came down on these days to help.  Your work was a big help, and much appreciated!

Friday, 31 May 2013

Warning; contains strong views.  May not suit those with Globophobia (fear of balloons)
...Ah, there is naught so romantic as strolling the beach and seeing those sad, shrivelled little sacs lying prostrate in the claggy sand, their flaccid folds reminiscent of the deflated remains of some bygone childhood summer.  The leached rubbery hues of half-sucked sweets or exotic prophylactics, confusing and bewildering to amorous jellyfish. 

A battered wash-up of glitzy Disney characters; favourite Princesses or talking animals, their cartoon eyes softened and saddened by long months at sea.  The pink metallic sheen shagreened by the slow pulse of the ocean, and grinding of silica.   Curled and knotted intimately with fronds of decaying seaweed; they cling with stringy ribbons like exhausted tapeworms in satin bodystockings.

I speak of balloons, yes, those hearty, happy inflatable friends,  beloved of children's parties and special occassions everywhere. 
To me they are many things: the swarms of ascending red globes that I genuinely believed (age 4) could stop Trident; the squeaky-skinned terror of raucous parties where one sadistic child had the irresistable compulsion to compress every available balloon until they exploded; seedy city nights seeing giggling clubbers huffing in and out to get their inflatable high as if they possessed an absurd third lung. 

Nobody can escape them, balloons are an expected part of our accepted communal rituals; a fusion of silliness and solid physics, a lesson in measuring distances and letting go.

Every time we go out litterpicking on the beach we find remains, count how many we collect, hypothesise that this is evidence of the secret parties Poseidon throws from time to time.  We rant and reminisce in equal measure.  Leonie (who beach cleans on weekends, out of love for the place) collates the messages she finds, unearthing the plucky little plastic tags, so weathered by the elements they can barely be read.  Sometimes it is only half a message

                  £10 reward...
                                                        in loving memory of......

                                                                                                           please return to...

Remaining angry becomes complicated after that.

Of all the litter that is tossed, trodden or washed-in by the tide there is something poignant about balloons, seeing them emasculated amidst the bits of crab and trawler detritus.  Each one potentially a loving or joyous moment; each one also potentially a dead seal, seabird or turtle.  What is the answer?  Where do we direct our frustration?   Who wants to be told to stop having fun?

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Boardwalking and Cuckoo calls

Another task we do is maintaining the boardwalks that keep the visitors trundling happily across the reserve without damaging the vegetation.
The boardwalks are treated Douglas fir timbers and last pretty well, but need a yearly trim to keep the grass from creeping over them.  Here is a picture of Leonie, Claire and I attacking the pesky grass and sand with ferocious yet precise spadework.  Yet again, the muscles you can get from ambidextrous spade-wrangling are second to none.  Come and wield one!

This was about 3 weeks ago, and we heard our first cuckoo of the year, so that was an unexpected bonus.

Talking to the Heron's

Grey Heron (by Rosemary)
One of our springtime surveys is the counting of heron nests in the main avenue leading into the reserve.  We have a resepctable siege of herons who are often seen standing in the adjacent field, amongst the cattle, talking intently about something or other (or so we like to think).  Sometimes they are joined by plucky Little Egrets too.  Anyway, as soon as the winter chill subsides they start work on a selection of impressive nests in the nearby trees.  In turn we go out counting them.

The idea is to see how many nests there are, which are active with chicks and which have been abandoned since last year.  It's not easy, the tree foliage is dense, the nests are denser, and may only be visible from odd angles.  There is a lot of craning of the neck involved, and staring upwards for hours at a time through binoculars.  Great for learning steady binocular-holding technique.  After a day of this we all went a bit crazy, I experimented with mimicking heron calls.  They seemed to answer back?  Passing visitors looked confused and aghast, but this is the inevitable outcome of doing conservation biology is it not?

Claire gazes upward in reverence, observing the romantic movements of frisky herons.

The herons make a distinctive cry as they swoop in carrying twigs and branches, and make a low purring throaty call when their partner comes in to land (from what I observed).  Chicks apparently make a chick-like noise.  I've not heard this yet as last time I went out they were all still eggs.  The late spring and inclement weather over Easter killed off the first batch we think.

Then...just as we settled into a Zen moment of observational alertness...Psycho crow dived in!  A hooded crow started chasing the herons and attacking their nests.  He/she was a persistant little beggar and really dived onto them relentlessly.  It took a few to defend the nests, and even after that the crow just loitered about shuiftily and launched more sideways attacks at regular intervals.

We are told that a similarly psycho-crow dismembered a live pigeon  on the beach a few days earlier.  A volunteer had to rescue the poor thing and put it out of it's misery.  It's Hitchcock all over again...

Apologies in advance, I know some folk out there do this competitively and attend events where professional hedge-layers lay professional hedges at warp-speed, to them this may look less than perfect in comparison.  But to everyone else, take a look at our lovely neat artful laying technique!

We were given a thorough safety talk first, since this particular hedge was right by the roadside and there were multiple hazards such as dropping a tree onto a moving car, dropping a tree onto a distracted volunteer, accidentally flinging an axe at someone or letting a billhook slip from the grip and ricochet off somewhere perilous.  Soon we were working in safe, sane pairs (see her above and me below), whilst singing improvised hedge-laying songs* and testing the hypothesis that yelling allows you to hit harder with the billhook (see below)

The hedge we were laying is adjacent to the car park at Widow's Row, and we wanted to make it look neat and keep the rabbits out (ha, they are already in!)

Mostly we were laying young saplings, though a few larger trees that stood amongst the saplings got included.  First we trimmed off sticking-out branches to head-height, then planned what would get included in the hedge and what would remain as a standard where it was , providing a handy perching point for winged things.

The idea of hedge laying is to cut through the majority of the tree-trunk leaving a strip of living tissue, containing the cambium (the living bit just under the bark which transports the water up from the roots and the sugars down from the leaves) and gently lower this so the tree lies almost horizontal, against the next one.  From these supine limbs the next year's growth will spurt upward and form an effective barrier.  Then after a while the whole process can be repeated and you get a zig-zag effect, a living wall of twisted green, brimming with contented invertebrates and small beasties.

Also, the debris we remove can be placed in a trailer and used as a nest by the migratory Claire.

*I did write a song about hedge-laying, in the traditional heavily innuendo-laden folk style and is available to volunteers and curious parties on request.

Olympic Strimming*

After the hearty work of the winter, spring comes (hopefully) and the grass begins to shoot up.  At this point we dust down our strimmers, clean all their twirly bits and scrap them as clean and shiny as new, then it's off to strim the meadow...

It's akin to carrying out a never-ending haircut on a paticularly shaggy and large (green) head, except we are in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and it requires powerful tools.  This consists of sturdy long-sleeves and trousers, gloves, steel toecaps, face sheild, ear-protectors and, if like Claire and I, you are always worrying about strimming through dog poo, a plastic thingy that protects our mouths from flying...stuff

This is me (Rosemary) sporting the latest look in PPE and the 'concave-path technique' out on the coastal path at Bloody Bridge.
I was advised to wear waterproofs by someone, and have done so since, although its ridiculously sweaty in all that gear.  Sure the layer of sprayed-on shredded foliage stays on the outside, but on the inside it's like a very rural sauna.  It was quite a hot day, and I took hours to fully evaporate after that session (apologies to passing visitors who saw me with my waterproofs trousers round my ankles, it was necessary and thoroughly decent.) 

When we strim we try to leave important flora well alone; it takes practice to learn how to go round the Bluebells and still get to all the grass, likewise how to flick the undesirable stuff away and not up into your face.  We get taught all about maintenance and upkeep of the strimmers, as well as safe use of them, before we are let loose on the reserve.  For anyone who didn't understand a 2-stroke engine before, you will, oh yes you will... additionally you will experience vibro-hand...

* Strimming is not an Olympic sport yet, but it should be.  Some of the staff and volunteers here have it down to an art form.  Do you have an extreme-strimming story?  Tell us about it!

The Minotaur of Murlough

A small and friendly minotaur has been discovered on the reserve!  It was wandering happily across our path a fortnight ago, and so we picked it up to admire it and marvel at it's fuzzy bits and impressive horns.  After a professional photo session I returned it to its labyrinth (to North Point, from whence it came).

It is a male Minotaur Beetle Typhaeus typhoeus and is locally rare.

These critters are unmistakable and bimble about eating rabbit droppings and dung.  They live on sandy dune-heaths such as Murlough and dig deep tunnels worthy of a real Minotaur, which they defend with their impressive prongs.  Look out for them in spring.

Imagine the conservation status we'd have if we had a real Minotaur?  I bet they'd be at the very least UKBAP.  I invite anyone who wants to make a pretend ARKive site with mythical beasts on it to post a link here. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Scrub Burning

Over the winter we get to keep ourselves warm sawing, lopping, chopping and burning scrub.  This is fantastic exercise, everyone gets impressive muscles from dragging branches and lobbing logs left right and centre.  It's cathartic and invigorating, and moodily beautiful.

We are not wantonly destroying the nature reserve, this is the removal of invasive and non-native scrub that threatens to crowd out the more delicate dune-heath species.  The aim to is to get the heather and marram grass back to places which have gotten swamped in bramble, bracken, sea buckthorn and gorse.  There are also a plethora of small herbacious species that we want to encourage, and given that this reserve is 12% of the UK's dune heath,  its a big deal!

Of course we do leave some patches of gorse for the wildlife as it is an important part of the landscape, and we do not cut after the 1st of March, as this is the start of bird nesting season.  As an amateur coleopterist (beetle lover) I would like to recommend the gorse for its Rove beetles, many a small intrepid beastie have I found after we've cut a load of gorse down.
Burning Gorse

Getting the fire to go after a week of windy wet weather can be tricky, you'll certainly learn how to build and maintain a good fire here.  You'll also end up smelling of wood-smoke, which is a good thing. 

There are moments, struggling up a slope with a pitchfork of gorse clippings, into a hearty winter gale, the thick acrid grey gorse smoke billowing in your eyes that it all feels a bit apocalyptic.  The right kind of music on the MP3 player enhances this (I will try to leave a selection of good post-apocalyptic industrial dark electro whatnot on the shared computer drive here for future volunteers to use).

Sea Buckthorn

Incredibly spiky!  Whilst at Murlough you will get spiked by a selection of flora, which is all part of the fun and makes you more at one with nature.  Sea buckthorn is a classic, sporting the elegant long spike that gets you from any angle (and if you are cutting the butt-height clusters then you get spiked exactly there). 

It is both friend and foe to us here, it helps stabilise the dunes from erosion as well as sneakliy attempting to carpet over the reserve, so we remove it judiciously.  Recently we have also used the debris to thatch eroded areas of dune and prevent wind, wave and people running up and down the dunes accelerating the erosion.

The berries are good and can be picked in autumn; you can make jam (and probably some improvised viscous alcoholic beverage too) which is high in vitamin C and supposedly very medicinal.

European Gorse

Gorse...it's impressive stuff, very hardy and irrepressable, flowering all year with those heady coconut scented flowers and capable of regrowing after any amount of cutting or spraying. 

In the winter I'm ashamed to admit there's nothing more satisfying than cutting it and burning it! It feels good to hand-saw a really big one, lift it above your head and march it to the fire where you fling it manfully (yet carefully) on to watch it erupt into flame.  It makes me feel like a giant striding about lifting mighty trees.  When it's cold and the work is pleasantly repetitive it's easy to lapse into fantasy as you can tell.

Gorse burns easily so once we get going we have to maintain a steady stream of burnable material, its good bonding activity for the group, and much deep meaningful conversation is had.  Then we rake up and burn all the debris, to reduce the overall soil fertility as that helps encourage the regrowth of specialist dune species. 

Weekly Work

Site checks are completed once a week, usually on Monday morning.  We visit 11 sites: the main carpark/boardwalk area, North Point, the Core area, the Ring reserve, Keel Point woodland, Castle woods, Widow's Row cottages and carpark, Dundrum coastal path, Bloody Bridge Valley, Mourne coastal path, Donard and Mournes.

The main tasks on these checks are to pick up any litter along the paths (and there can be a fair bit, come and be amazed at how un-biodegradable wet-wipes are) to keep the reserves and walkways tidy, and to empty the litter and dog bins (be even more amazed at the water-resistance design flaw in standard dog bins).  Another important task on these checks is to cut back any overgrown plants obstructing the paths, and to take a note of any jobs that need doing, such as repairs to steps, fences, etc, or to put in new drainage ditches where paths are getting muddy. 

Dundrum Coastal Path
Castle Woods


As residential volunteers it is our responsibility to maintain the log burner for the house and offices.  This wonderous device allows us to save heaps of CO2 each year and avoid using any oil at all for our heating.  To keep the beast fed we have to have a goodly supply of dry wood stored out the back in our sheds, and we spend a lot of time chopping it up into reasonable size chunks to fit the burner. 

Making kindling is a rite of passage here, you may start off tentatively, but soon you'll be bouncing up out of bed eager to get your hands on the wee axe and make piles of uniform-length sticks.  Soon you'll be haeding out to the woodshed before breakfast, midday, last thing at night...you'll be missing Neighbours to chop wood, that's how compulsive it can get!  You will be taught how to use the burner on arrival, and how to clean out all it's devious little filters and hidden pockets.  This is a very ashy experience, but very necessary.

 Log Stores
Log burner and dry wood store

Another vigorous and muscle-building activity is chopping wood (I love this!)  We can do this by hand (with axe, obviously, we're not quite black-belt yet) or with the mechanical splitter below. It's important to dry the wood so that what we burn is <20% moisture.  The wood itself comes from small trees we have felled around the reserve that were encroaching on the native scrub, so often this is Silver birch or pines.  Where we can we leave dead wood lying to provide habitats for bugs and beetles (support your local Rhinocerous beetle).  Additionally, we recycle all our paper and cardboard to help light the wood burner, so you can eat your Lidl chocolate and then burn the incriminating evidence.

Wood Chopper

Volunteer accommodation

Volunteer Accomodation

When I arrived in the volunteer accommodation I was very impressed with the size of the rooms. There is space for 3 volunteers, each with their own room. A communal bathroom, kitchen and lounge are also provided.  This is all in the same building as the office and workshop, so you can literally roll out of bed into work (in a professional manner, at 8.30am sharp).

The house provides bedding, washing machine, TV with Freeview, general kitchen appliances and equipment. Intenet is provided (although its not wifi), you can use the national trust computers or your own laptop.

You can be picked up from either of the Belfast airports (City or International) within working hours by the National Trust.
You may wonder what you need to bring after that list?  Well, lots of socks, thick and long especially.  Leggings or thin under-trousers for the winter, sturdy working clothes that you don't mind getting ashy, charcoaly, muddy or  covered in brambly clippings.  A towel; always have your towel.  A hot-water bottle if you get super-chilly.  Books (the sum total of fiction left in the house is 3 atrocious chick-lit things and Wild Swans, which is powerfully good.) If you can, bring your favourite films and music to share.  Also don't forget a rubber duck for the boss, as he really appreciates them and has a growing collection!

If you want to keep packing simple, worry not, most essential things are provided.  You'll get steel-toe-capped boots, basic waterproofs, wellies and gloves. There is loads of stuff up in the office you can read, all about monitoring biodiversity and determining the taxonomic importance of grasshoppers or the dreadful things flies can do to livestock (choice examples).  Read about moths, butterflies, even better use your time here to brush up on your ID skills.  Beetles are the best in my considered opinion, and if you want to learn about them I have left plenty of files on ID on the shared drive.