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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.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Hello everybody :)
Are you intrested in whats going on this week?!
Here are some impressions:

On Monday, we spend all our time to refill our firewood stock to be prepared for cold winterdays. 

The collage on the right shows our empty stock on the left, the process of chopping and stackeling logs in the middle and the refilled stock at the end of the day on the right.

On Thuesday and Wednesday (06th and 07 of December) we attend a GPS course in Castle Ward. At the beginning, we learned something about the theory of GPS (global positioning system). After an introduction in the right use of GPS device (photo on the left), we have got the opportunity to practice the handling by complete different exercises (photos on the right).
Maybe it looks like Daria and I are looking on our mobile phones in the photo above - but in fact we were very concentrated on our GPS devices. We have learnt to find positions given by coordinates and to mark the position of objects and trails and calculate areas by using GPS. The photo below shows the whole Murlough-crew during a field exercice. At the end of the course, we have learned to transfer our collected datas in Google earth and to create easy maps. Furthermore, we remembered, that GPS data are not perfect and you have to consider their limits and faults when you work with them. In any case, the course was a good experience and is maybe the start of work more with GPS and mapping in Murlough.

Hi :)
To Tell you what's going on in Murlough, we will show you some pictures - sometimes they explain more than the words ;)

The old boardwalk, while the constructions and the repaired boardwalk.
The boardwalk before, while and after the constructions.

While Daria and Fergus were doing site patrol with Pete on monday, Tom and I repaired two sections of the wooden boardwalks to the beach.
The Picture on the right shows the path at the beginning, the middle and the end of the work. We removed the mouldered wooden planks and substituted them with new ones.

Fergus and Tom transport soil for pathbuilding

On Thuesday, We were at the Mourne Mountains. We adjusted the walking path by moving stones and transport some soil to create a more comfortable natural looking trail


Till Christmas, we will do a horticulture course together with the volunteers from Castel Ward. On our first meeting, we did some theory, while the second meeting was filled with more practical exercises.

With a model example of an organized packed trailer for brush cutting and burning....

The area when we a arrived, while working and after work.

... the last days of the week we went to the dunes to continue our work "against" the gorse.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Hi :)

We are Miriam and Daria and we will continue the Blog till Christmas. We are volunteers at the Murlough Nature Reserve since October.

At present we have 4 volunteer staying in our volunteer accommodation. I, Miriam, am from Germany.This semester I'll graduate from CAU in Kiel my BSc is in Geography.
I, Daria, am from Switzerland.
 Last August I graduated in Anthropology and Geography at the University of Neuch√Ętel. 
Fergus has graduated in Nature Conversation at UEA. He has been volunteering since September and in the meantime he's applying for jobs. He's our little clumsy fellow, who never misses an opportunity to climb a tree. Tom has been here since August and he studied ecology in Bristol. Next to Nature Conservation he's also interested in learning Dutch and gymnastics. He's always looking for a practice wrestle with his housemates, especially with Fergus and Daria, because they always lose, while Miriam is too strong for him.

While Autumn shows his most beautiful face by colouring the leaves, the temperature is going to announce the wintertime. Last weekend we had some issues with the boiler/stove, so we had no working heater in the house. After a call to the local plumber we are now  glad that the heating is working again.
Our work is mainly occupied by cutting and burning of European gorse and Sea buckthorn - nasty invasive species on the reserve. Since my second week, we are outfitted with breathing protection masks and bigger gloves - that makes it a bit more "comfortable". We all take a turn about to help Damian with the tree survey, while the others were working with Pete brushcutting in the dunes or at the carpark or even health and safety site checks on different paths between Dundrum and Newcastle picking litter as we go. Sometimes it is incredible how people spoil natural and beautiful areas with their rubbish! Why are some people unable to use bins or take their rubbish home?  Of course, we'll do it, but it might be better if everybody took care and respected the environment - and leave the place how they found it: clean!

Another nice activity we did during the last week of November was planting oak trees. We planted some next to the path at the Dundrum Castle Woods and some along the main avenue in Murlough. We hope that they will be grown up to big trees when they will be checked up in 30 years ;)  On Wednesday the 9th December, we fell two sycamores not far from our house. We stacked the brash from the crowns (creating hideout for animals/habitat piles), the trunk is going to be prepared for firewood to keep us warm through the winter nights. It means that we transport the wood to the house, split them with the hydraulic machine and stacking it under the roof. Whilst Pete felled the tree and prepared the wood into portable pieces we used the time for climbing on trees and improve our fighting skills ;)

The weather gods were gracious and sent us some warmer days again. Meanwhile, the weather turns slowly back to characteristic November temperatures. Today - on friday the 18th - we saw the first snow on the top of the St. Donald while we were looking for new brushcutting areas into the dunes.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to keep yourself entertained while raking!

1) Appreciate the beauty and peace of the landscape!
Take pleasure in the small things, because you can't go up a mountain every day! You may be tempted to plan escape, or fill your mind with ideas of travel and adventure. Listening to Beth Orton through my headphones encouraged me to appreciate being here while I still am – to write poetry again, and so on. Melancholic tones are peppered through the songs, and countryside lyrics: Magpie, magpie, sittin’ here watchin’ the world go by, I wonder – do you ever question why? Oh crow, crow, I don’t think you mean quite what you know… I looked around me at the huge sky and the endlessly changing cloudscapes over the Mournes, and the still-green leafy trees, and thought I could stay here a while longer. Take a moment to lie down, look up at the sky and hear crackling fire and wind in trees. It is so relaxing here, if you take a break from working for a moment. It is the sort of place you could go to in your mind if you were stressed or trying to get to sleep. The smoke can also make you a bit sleepy! When I closed my eyes, fire and flames through webs of knotted grass appeared in my mind’s eye.

2) Distract yourself
It may be as well to distract yourself for a while. Listen to an audiobook through your headphones as you work, and don't forget to have fun with your fellow volunteers! Riding in the grass-loaded trailer is an essential game to brighten a dreary day. Driven along by the Land Rover, it is quite a bumpy ride! For something with a little more intellectual stimulation (which you may find you crave), try to remember Latin butterfly names with quizzes. The Common Blue clue was ‘Greek myth character who flew too close to the sun’ (Icharus), + ‘more than one partner’ (Polygamous) – but just the first bit (Poly), + ‘the Wallace and Gromit name for an invention’ (something-omatic) – but with an ‘s’ on the end – Polyommatus icharus! Red Admiral was simpler – Vanessa atalanta – girl’s name + Ancient Greek city under the sea.
3) Find out why you are doing it.
You are likely to find working more satisfying if you know the reasons for what you are doing. This desire sent us off on Thursday 22nd September on a jaunt two hours’ drive away to attend a Marsh Fritillary training day. Murlough is a key site for these rare butterflies, who only live on one type of flower: the Devil’s Bit Scabious. It is astounding they have made it this far in the evolutionary story without diversifying. The raking we have been doing, taking away cut grass, removes the nutrients from the soil, which encourages these wild flowers to grow, which in turn encourages the butterflies. We learnt about the place of butterflies and moths in ecosystems, including the threats they face, and Butterfly Conservation's plan for the Marsh Fritillary in Northern Ireland. This includes trying to link together habitat sites in a sort of chain, so that pregnant butterflies can fly between them - something they are quite reluctant to do! They identify new sites and talk to farmers, trying to persuade them to slacken grazing pressure, allowing more of the flowers to grow.
That afternoon we did some recording and surveying. We were looking for Marsh Fritillary webs, where the caterpillars hibernate for the winter. It wasn't the right time of year to look for the butterflies themselves. After our guide had pointed some out to us, we knew what to look for, so we went to a different location and started the survey-proper. We were doing the quick version of the survey, which involved first scanning all the ground and recording its suitability as butterfly habitat – grazing pressure, unevenness of ground, height of vegetation, and density of Devil’s Bit Scabious. Then you pick the area you think most likely to contain webs, and go back to scan properly, spreading out in lines two meters apart, and walking forward, looking on both sides. Our group found two webs, though perhaps it was luck being in the most sheltered spot! There was a wonderful moment when we were huddled at the bottom of the field comparing results, our guide dancing round in a gleeful butterfly impression, in a stand-out rainbow jumper and woolly hat - we suddenly wondered what we must look like to people in passing cars - I thought she was rocking the nature-loving hippy look.
After you know your reasons, it may be tempting to try and argue against them. I wondered if we really had to burn the grass we cut, and asked the ranger Pete. The answer was yes, but he did like my suggestion that it could be sent to a council scheme that collects green waste, turning it into compost for people’s gardens. The other volunteers were also tempted to rebel at times, speaking of ‘rewilding’ the reserve, converting it to woodland and managing it to ensure it wasn’t taken over entirely by Sycamore. These sorts of changes would take a while to introduce, but coming up with suggestions for improvement is a good way occupy an idle mind while working, and planning the volunteer takeover of the reserve (jokingly, of course) is an amusing pastime for lunch breaks.
Over and out - Lizzie.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Strimming, Raking, and Convolvulus Hawk Moths

Hi, Lizzie here again. It is week two for me of being a volunteer ranger at Murlough Nature Reserve.
Mondays are always used for site checks. We drive to every area that we are responsible for in the local area, and then walk or drive along the main paths, checking for broken fences and so on. We also need to pick some litter. We started along The Dundrum Coastal Path, which follows the line of the old Belfast and County Down Railway. (See photographs >>)
Here we have seen curlews, oystercatcher, redshank, and other wading birds. One of the rangers here, Pete, lives overlooking this bay, although he is less lucky with the risk of flooding at unusually high tides and storms. We moved on to the woodland walk surrounding Dundrum Castle, and Pete let us go for a wonder round the ruins, where there are towers to climb and look over the view of the whole of Dundrum Bay. Jacob and I were then sent up the Bloody Bridge mountain path, while the others did another section of coastal path. Along this path is a rocky mountain river, and there is usually a group of wet-suited individuals with helmets on getting ready to jump in plunge pools. The path continues up to the peak of Slieve Donard, but we only walked up to a bridge about fifteen minutes up. Fergus says he has heard the story of Bloody Bridge from Pete, something I am still waiting for! A name like that is sure to have a story behind it.
In the afternoon we strimmed, raked and mowed outside the house. Graham showed me how to use a hefty long-grass cutting machine, which moves by itself like a car. He made it clear how flipping dangerous it is, and I had a moment of horror when it seemed to be about to drive into Jacob and Pete. That might have earned our volunteer accommodation a new name with a story behind it.
On Tuesday, Graham showed us how to get the wood burner going in the morning. Chris and James - extra volunteers, came in, so there were a lot of different jobs going on that morning. There was the strimming, raking, piling, wheeling and dumping of grass, and the lifting, splitting and stacking of wood - and the odd bit of standing and chatting!
There was a moth discovery mid-morning. ‘The moth man’ was around, fortunately, and he was straight up the tree it was in with his ladder and net. He had it in a little pot, then out crawling over his fingers, in no time. It was really large, and mostly grey. A new find for the reserve - number 707, or something like that - a convolvulus hawk-moth.
We had a fairly early finish that afternoon after more stacking, as there was a BBQ in the evening for Miranda and Graham’s leaving do. Pete’s fire chimney, crafted with wire and a chainsaw, smouldered, then blazed away as we talked, ate and drank.
Wednesday served to test me on my strimmer training, as I had managed to avoid it since the previous Friday! I got it going okay, but when I had to replace the plastic strips which cut the grass, I put them in too far so they flew out as soon as I started the machine up. I had to walk down the drive to where the others were working and ask the long-suffering Miranda to help me put it right. I was still less than confident in my abilities, and felt only frustration when, strimming round a wooden post, I would accidentally shave wood of the post itself as well as the grass. As you might expect, I reverted to raking as soon as I could.
On Thursday, I went with Damien to fix the water trough for cattle.
The gorse bushes were scattered all over with dewy spider’s webs, silver in the sun. I explored overgrown, curling footpaths, and then chose a route to clear from the trough to the main path. I cut with secateurs, trampled, and kicked gorse tufts under the bushes. I ate blackberries - tangy sour or sweet – the uncompromisingly late summer and early autumn taste. The sun gradually burnt the mist away. My face was burnished before Damien got back from the hardware store. We picked litter from the path where someone had camped, and stopped hastily in the jeep to pick up the bottle of sun cream: it had slipped from the dashboard, straight out of the window onto the main road. We talked about dream jobs, driving over the track with sea on either side.
Paddy took me out to do visitor counters that afternoon. We dug under the sand to find the sensor pad and the box with the information stored. ‘Like a squirrel looking for nuts it has buried and forgotten where’, I said, (perhaps aggravatingly). Or a pirate digging for treasure, I thought.
If I had known I would have to remember all the processes involved in obtaining the data from the visitor counter and replacing it again, I may have paid a bit more attention. I seemed to remember okay the next Monday anyway. Jacob and I did the whole thing on our own, as Damien was putting up notices about keeping dogs on leads. What took the most time on both occasions was trying to find the box, digging about in the sand for it. After that it was just changing batteries, taking the microchip out, testing, wiping and setting the date for the new one, and putting it all back. (Site of one of the underground visitor counters! >>)
On Friday we made a start on the seemingly vast project of raking up after Damien who was using the tractor and the ‘Jungle Buster’ to remove grass and scrub, in a much larger scale version of what we were doing with strimmers on the plot of grass by the house.

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.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Scrub Management

Five Months of Fun           The Video

"We've come prepared"
So it has been a while, but there is a good reason. We have all been toiling away down on the reserve cutting swathes of scrub. The thing is, we cannot cut scrub whenever we please, oh no, there is a certain window imposed by DARD ( Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs). We can only cut scrub from the 1st of September till the 29th of February to minimise the impact on nesting birds.As a result we have been cutting scrub come rain or shine in order to meet a set target of scrub removal, allowing us to receive funding from DARD. 

Naturally, we have been working in some appalling weather, these are the Irish Isles after all. If you work here during winter you can expect to face bitter winds on the dunes, and if it isn't raining its usually pouring. Nothing that a good flask of tea can't fix though!
Never the less we have worked hard this winter and had met last years target.

Click Here to watch our full length video explaining the processes which we go through to manage the scrub: The Video

The Scrub Species

These are the species of scrub that we manage on our reserve:

European gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a plant that is very much adapted to living in the dune environment despite not being native to the reserve. It has done away with leaves entirely in favour for waxy spines, and from a stress tolerance perspective, waxy spines provide a few advantages over leaves. First and foremost, they have a smaller surface area to volume ratio, which results in less water loss which is important when fresh water is a precious commodity. The thick waxy coating known as a cuticle also reduces the loss of water by providing an impermeable layer. Lastly the spines provide a defensive mechanism to deter herbivores and they certainly deter us!
U. europaeus , a common sight

The roots bind the sandy substrate together whilst penetrating tap roots locate the scarce fresh water and nutrients. The roots also have swellings called nodules which contain Rhizobium bacteria. This bacteria fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into organic nitrogen (ammonium). In return the bacteria are provided with oxygen, respiratory substrates (food) and a protected environment. This shining example of a symbiotic relationship allows the gorse to prevail in an environment where many other plants would perish. The plant is monoecious meaning the male and female sex organs are on the same plant which leads to bright yellow flowers throughout the year but mainly proliferating in mid-spring. These flowers attract a whole host of pollinators and when pollinated form clusters of downy haired seed pods.

Western gorse (Ulex gallii) is a similar plant excepting its petal colour and its spine colour. It’s also worth noting that this plant is native to the reserve. The fleshy spines on the U. gallii are a lighter-green when compared to the bluish-tinted spines on the U. europaeus. The flowers also tend to be a parchment brown colour although it is common to find hybrids between the two species. Both gorse species are an important habitat for invertebrates such as the Gorse shieldbug (Piezodorus lituratus).

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is known to grow around 6 metres high, although that is very rarely the case here on the dunes as we are annually managing their distribution. It has alternate pale waxy, spear shaped leaves with thick burnished-looking brown stems. The younger shots have a pale white downy ‘fuzz’ and are covered in stiff spines which deter herbivores.
The plant is dioecious meaning there are separate male and female plants. The male plants produce small clusters of brown-gold flowers without petals. The female plant produces bright orange berries that soften over time.
H. rhamnoides , a tricky plant to subdue

These berries contain more vitamin C than cultivated oranges in some cases up to twelve times more! In fact, the oil found in both the flesh of the berries and the inner seeds is known to contain a very high proportion of nutrients and vitamins compared to its weight. Because of this, the oil is sought after on a commercial scale and is dubbed as a ‘super food’.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a large shrub/small tree that is native to Northern Ireland, but isn’t native to the dune heathland that we conserve. It is a deciduous tree with small dull-green oval leaves and dense stiff black spines, hence the name. It most characteristic feature however is the black-blue berries known as ‘sloes’ that ripen throughout winter. Like all of the scrub that grows here at Murlough, P.spinosa plays an important role in the ecosystem on the dunes, providing shelter and a reliable food source throughout the winter period for birds such as Meadow Pipits, Stone chats, Robins, Wrens and Skylarks.