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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.

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.


  1. As someone with vaguely journeyman knowledge of Environment things; nice read.

  2. Lovely piece, and a great video too; it got me all wistful for the days of chopping, dragging and burning out on the reserve (and the sterling company of course). I miss it so! Rose xxx

    1. PS, big up the volunteers from UWE! Say hi to the staff from me when you get back :)