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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.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Introduction to Murlough

Hi! I'm Lizzie Parsons and I’m coming at volunteer ranging from a completely different perspective from most people: a more arty, creative aspect. I have just graduated from UEA with a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing, and before that I was on an art foundation course. A module in environmental philosophy is the closest I have got to learning about conservation and wilderness in a formal education setting.

Monday 5th September

The first day on the reserve was relaxed, being driven around the reserve, and doing some litter picking here and there. After we had finished, me and my boyfriend Jacob, of similar creative background, also volunteering here, went down to the 'secret beach', which is just through the woods behind our accommodation, and is less frequented than the main beach.

'In the way the sand sups at the beach
and sucks at the feet
there is something to be savoured.' 

I wrote, feeling poetic. We made wet sand sculptures on the beach, Jacob’s a hollow turret, delicate, and lines of wet sand. Mine were just turd-like piles, meant to resemble spires!  A beautiful evening: hazy distance and rippled sand. We picked sea buckthorn berries, which are orange,  and taste like Physalis fruit.
Tuesday 6th September
We were painting creosote on the fence by the coastal path today. Sunny views of rocky shores from the cliff. Blackberries, of course, and swallows. A trip down to the rocks - adrenaline rock climbing and double backs.
Wednesday 7th September
Today we litter picked, a lot. 
I found a spider with a big orange body in the more growing, green section of the dunes. Jacob found a bird, dead, and took pictures, and Patrick told us it was a juvenile Guillemot. A man came up to us and told us there was an injured bird flapping - probably a seagull, possibly something else. Damien told him to leave it, as there is very little you can do to help them. We got a phone call about it from other visitors later on and went out with a box and a towel to see if it could be saved. Unfortunately it was dead when we got there, probably blown onto rocks in bad weather.
Jacob and I saw a beautifully still hovering bird of prey, fairly small, probably a kestrel. We think we saw a stonechat, and I think I saw a wheatear: it has a white rump.
I learnt that the government gives farmers money to have hedgerows and buffer zones next to fields in which wildlife can flourish.
That bracken, buckthorn and gorse are all ‘invasive species’.
That there is a flower called Devil’s Bit Scabious growing here on the dunes where the invasive species have not taken over, a blue pom-pom which is the home of a butterfly – Marsh Fritillary.
That ragwort is bitter to horses so they steer clear until it is cut down or sprayed, whence it becomes sweet tasting so they eat it and it is toxic.
That the rangers still have to clear it anyway because it is a classified ‘noxious weed’.
And I saw a flock of herons sat in a cattle field.

That evening I went for a walk in the creepy dark down to the beach, alone. I heard lots of gunfire. Poachers! I thought. ‘Fireworks?’ suggested Jacob. Actually, I found out the next day that it was the nearby army camp firing range.

Thursday 8th September

It started off 'mucky as hell'. I was cowering in doorways trying to devise plans to make my life more enjoyable, which got as far as becoming a professional gigging folk vocalist.
Eventually we got down to some chopping and splitting of logs which was a little more fun. Jacob went off with Pete to fell a tree. Moving big old wet logs was a challenge and I managed about two before leaving them to muscly Graham. I meanwhile learnt new stacking techniques, such as the criss-cross Jenga style tower, which creates maximum ventilation around the logs for drying purposes, but the logs have to be similar heights or they can topple over! We used the hydraulic splitter attached to the tractor which has some awesome power and can split through just about any log. We got a little bit bored of the process however and started laughing at ladybirds mating while trapped in a cobweb.
When the others got back, the ‘moth man’, Andy was in the garden, and he showed us the prettiest of moths, with gold metallic spots on brown and yellow patched wings.
Pete came and had a chat, and told me about the history of the estate: it was a place where they kept rabbits in warrens from Norman times until the wars. Then it was a practice area for D-Day landings. Everything was trashed, but apparently that helped regeneration of wild flowers and so on.
The afternoon saw us out with Pete who was sawing branches from a sycamore tree. We were chucking branches and logs around, wood-shavings on the floor like rabbit hutch bedding. We talked about volunteer projects, tree surveys, path building courses, how to get a job in conservation, and staff computer accounts. We drove around the back dunes, and onto the beach to retrieve a bag of rubbish we had left there. The tide, or the waves here, (depending which ranger you speak to - there's nothing about it on the internet!) have a specific name: Toon Ruray, and it describes the sound they make. This is also the name of a pub in Dundrum, the local village. Driving across the beach was fun, leaning out right next to where the waves lapped at the beach.

Friday 9th September

We were trained on how to use a strimmer - a bit intimidating, and I wondered if this is really my sort of thing. Jacob seemed to get the mechanics of it a lot better. I raked up the grass clippings after him: this impoverishes the soil, encouraging wildflowers to grow instead of lush grass. Jamie and I took pictures of an invasive plant, Salmonberry, for Paddy, and pictures of the Lords and Ladies and ferns where it wasn't growing. After lunch we went out for a walk in the dripping woods and rain, and collected the cameras that Mark had put out. Paddy talked about projects with me – something about whether hazel should be coppiced or not, and the sort of lichens that grow on it, and about what would happen if all the sycamores were taken out of the woodland. Paddy also showed us the ‘midden’, an archaeological find of a layer of charcoal and sea shells – they think it is an old fire site from centuries ago.
We came in to see what the camera’s had caught: some shots of foxes and badgers, and that was about it. After that we knocked off early for the weekend.

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