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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, 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.