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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.

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.

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