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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.

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.