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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, 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.