Derrynane, Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry

The Wild Ireland Tour

A trip around Ireland to celebrate Ireland’s wildlife

Ireland’s wildlife gets bad press. Almost always, conservation is presented negatively; controversies about developments that damage wildlife, gloomy reports of species under threat of extinction, compensation for managing land for conservation, and so forth. It is a personal frustration of mine that rarely is Ireland’s special wildlife presented in a positive manner, or all that is good about wildlife celebrated. We have a unique and special natural heritage – this tour presents a personalised perspective on some of what is special about Ireland’s wildlife and an attempt to share this experience with a wider audience. Continue reading

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Epilogue – Wild Ireland Tour

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The Wild Ireland Tour route

Well the Wild Ireland Tour is completed and I deliberately left writing an ‘epilogue’ for a short spell to take time to reflect on the month long odyssey. First of all, to present some of the statistics of the cycle:

Distance cycled – 3,200 km
Number of days cycled – 30
Elevation gained – 28,794 metres
Time in saddle – 128 hours
Calories used – 60,131
Approximate revolutions of pedals – 600,000
Punctures – 2
Falls from bike – 1 (don’t ask! – but no harm was done).

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‘Into the West’

Before I left, I had set myself a wishlist of 10 species I wanted to see. By the end of the month, I had only seen four of the ten; Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Natterjack Toad, Dorest Heath and Twite. I had expected to fare better on this quest, but that I didn’t reinforces the fact that nature is not something that can (or should) be available on demand or, indeed, taken for granted. In one way I am pleased with this outcome, for it means that the Wild Ireland Tour has unfinished business that I should follow up on, and it provides the germ of a new adventure at a later date.

Since I finished, people have been asking me ‘what was the highlight of the Tour?’.This really isn’t a question I can answer, for the Tour was just a continuum of experiences, each different from the other. Certainly, some days were easier than others,  but it would be wrong to categorise them superficially into highlights and low points. Some of the days that made for the most difficult cycling conditions, for example, gave me a greatest sense of personal satisfaction for being able to deal well with the conditions.

But there are two messages that I will take from this journey, one relates to the wonderful landscape we have and the other to lessons for nature conservation.Coast resize

The Wild Ireland Tour took me through some of the most special landscapes and natural heritage sites in Europe. But no matter how stunning these areas are, without having people to share their knowledge and passion for their locality, and to serve as champions for nature, these place remain fairly sterile, inert areas. Yes, one can certainly be moved by the awesome power of waves breaking on the shore, or feast on the kaleidoscope of colours of a hillside, but it is only by seeing localities through the lenses of people who care, that places come alive and are imbued with character. Certainly investment in marketing and infrastructure is needed to unlock some of the value in our special landscape, but investment in people who can unlock the knowledge of the landscape is far more important if we are to gain the full benefits of our unique natural heritage. I don’t think this elemental precept  has even begun to be appreciated.

I also realise that those of us who have an interest and appreciation of the rich biodiversity of the country are a fortunate lot. The differences that separates one grassland type from another, or one woodland habitat from the next, are subtle, nuanced differences. We are privileged to be able to view the countryside through this prism of detail, but we must understand that this is a world Bike resizeinvisible to many. If we are to build a greater constituency for nature conservation we have to look at ever more novel ways to communicate the value of biodiversity, and break down the barriers that have become established between conservationists and the rest of society. How we do this, I’m not too sure, but do it we must.

The Wild Ireland Tour has been a fantastic experience. Bella and I enjoyed each other’s company for the entire month, an experience that we will both cherish. We met with some really inspiring people along the way, some of whom are working for conservation under difficult circumstances. I often heard it said that Ireland is a country of begrudgers; we found the exact opposite to be the case. People we approached to meet during the Tour could not have been more supportive or done more to help us along the way.  Thank you all for your support, it is really appreciated.

There are two people I must thank for their special support. When first I broached the idea of cycling around Ireland to my boss, Gearoid O’Riain, Managing Director of Compass Informatics, he said two things; first, you’re mad, and second it was a great idea. (Actually he also said a third thing about the state of my backside, but that is not fit for sharing!). Without hesitation he agreed to sponsor the venture, sponsorship which made the Tour possible.

And of course, my wife Josephine for her huge support. In a weak moment last autumn, I first mooted my idea for the Wild Ireland Tour.  Arrived home resizeWhen I conveniently put the hare-brained scheme out of my mind, it was Josephine that kept reminding me of the idea, and took it as a given that the Tour would become a reality. And she was also understanding (well most of the time anyway!) of the need for me to spend many long hours training since the beginning of the year.

I hope the blog was worth following, and that it helped in some small measure to promote Ireland’s special biodiversity. This effort is finished and I must move on; I think the lawn needs cutting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Diary – Day 31

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Chris Wilson telling Bella all about the Raven Nature Reserve

Well, we have arrived at the 31st and last day of the Wild Ireland Tour, only requiring a tour of Co. Wexford before finishing where we began at the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford. I headed off from Garrettstown to the Raven Nature Reserve to meet with Christopher Wilson, for it would be impossible to pass this way without saying hello.  I really only became interested in bird conservation in Ireland in the mid 1980s, by which time Chris was one of the stalwarts of  Irish ornithology. I didn’t know it back then,  but ornithology was only a relatively new departure for Chris at that stage, as his early career was as a police officer in London. Chris always had a passing interest in bird watching, but it was only with a bit of good fortune that he was asked to take up the mantle of Irish organiser for the final year of the Atlas of Wintering Birds of Britain and Ireland. And he must have taken to the task like the proverbial duck to water, for his contribution to nature conservation ever since has been enormous. His early interest was in birds, but this quickly expanded to include, butterflies, dragonflies, plants; in fact, almost all aspects of wildlife. Today he showed us his butterfly transect at the Raven that he surveys each year as part of the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.  

He is a powerful communicator, being able to instil his love of wildlife in a wide audience, to which he did to good effect when hosting a wildlife slot on local radio. He also worked closely with artist Don Conroy to produce many wildlife educational books. And as I saw how Bella was captivated by Chris telling her stories about the Raven Nature Reserve, about its special wildlife like the Red Squirrels, Natterjack Toads and Adder’s Tongue Fern, and personal stories about his late father, I realised there and then, just how good a communicator he is.

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Meeting up with the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club at the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve

And Chris has always been interested in imparting his knowledge of wildlife to others. It was this drive to share his knowledge that led him, together with colleagues Lorcan Scott and Jason Monaghan to set up the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club, 10 years ago this autumn. The Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club has gone from strength to strength over the 10 years, and now boasts 150 or so members. It runs a range of activities  throughout the year, based around a monthly evening talk and weekend field excursion for members to come and learn about Wexford’s wildlife.  But it is also actively recording and documenting the wildlife of the county and has already published a guide to the Lepidoptera of County Wexford and is planning on a similar publication on the county’s Dragonflies. The Club is one of the more active Field Clubs in Ireland, and there is a strong collaboration between it and the National Biodiversity Data Centre, and colleagues of mine are regulars on its programme of events. The Club uses the Pump House at the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve for most of its evening talks and some of its workshops, so it was only appropriate that it was there that I met with some of the members to say hello. It was really nice to spend some time with the Club members and to hear about the work the Club is doing. Thanks to its work, there is a far greater awareness and appreciation of Wexford’s wildlife now, than there was 10 years ago.

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Zoe Devlin, who has made a huge contribution to plant recording in Ireland in recent years
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Me with Zoe and Pete Devlin

After lunch we met up with Zoe and Pete Devlin. Zoe is well known for the huge contribution she has made in recent years to raising the profile of plant recording in Ireland. Her website, Wildflowers of Ireland, brings brightness and a splash of colour to the subject of plant recording, and provides a rich resource for anyone interested in identifying and recording plants. Her two books, Wildflowers of Ireland – A Personal Record  and Wildflowers of Ireland – a field guide are of a similar vein, effortlessly releasing some of the mystique surrounding Irish botany.  Ever since she was introduced to the beauties of a wild orchid when she was eight, Zoe has been fascinated by wildflowers. She has  photographed wildflowers for decades, and has amassed a very large collection over the years. It was on the prompting of her daughter that she set about using these photographs and creating a wonderful website around this resource. And her creations are a wonderful tribute to the many long hours that she has spent on pulling the information together, and to her desire to share her interest and knowledge with others. Of course, Zoe was ably assisted in this by her husband Pete who claims he had little or no role in this, but I suspect played a far greater role than he lets on.

And it was Pete who cycled with me for a good part of the journey through the Wexford countryside, and who regaled me with stories not about wildflowers, but about cycling. A man after my own heart, for I think I have had sufficient talk of wildlife for a while.

I realise that people with an appreciation and knowledge of wildlife are privileged, for they can see the subtle characteristics of  different types of woodlands or grassland, or can detect  minute features that separate one species from another;  a level of awareness and observation that others don’t possess. This interest in wildlife that people have is usually attributed to some inspiring individual or mentor who opened up the wonderful world of wildlife for them. It is the likes of Chris and Zoe or the many, many other naturalists who want to share their knowledge and fascination of the natural world with others that need to be lauded. And groups like the Wexford Naturalists’ Field Club who provide many opportunities at the local level for people to become involved and enjoy the learning experience. In a world where everyday life is becoming increasingly detached from the natural world, the work of these wildlife champions is of vital important to help build a support base for nature conservation.

And so I headed for the car ferry at Ballyhack,  and from Passage East back to Waterford. Arrived back to the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Champagne resizefrom where I had left one month earlier to complete my cycle around Ireland. I was delighted to get back home to a very warm welcome, and to pop open a bottle of champagne for Bella and I to celebrate a job well done. Prost!!

 

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Diary – Day 30

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With BirdWatch Ireland staff Steve Newton, Niall Tierney and Caoimhe Muldoon.

My cycle through Wicklow was a leisurely affair, and as today’s theme was bird conservation and I was amongst birders, my gene pool, it made for a really enjoyable day. Met up with Steve Newton of BirdWatch Ireland to give me the latest update on some of the conservation efforts on seabirds, and was joined by two other BirdWatch Ireland staff, Caoimhe Muldoon and Niall Tierney, for most of today’s cycle. Was really nice to have their company and to hear their enthusiasm for nature conservation.  Organisations like BirdWatch Ireland are well served when they have such high caliber staff to draw on.

There is a narrow stretch of shingle shoreline just south of Kilcoole in Wicklow where another conservation success story unfolded this summer. Along a 500 metre stretch of the shore 120 pairs of Little Tern, Ireland smallest and rarest breeding tern, fledged 219 chicks. This was the largest number of fledged chicks for some decades, and contrasting fortunes to 2012 when the colony suffered a total wipe-out. The success was due to the dedicated work of a team of four wardens who set up electric fencing and signs to stop mammals, of all kinds, interfering with the breeding birds. The fencing stops foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs, mink, dogs and humans from destroying, either intentionally or unintentionally, the extremely well camouflaged eggs laid on the ground. But the eggs and chicks also suffer aerial bombardment from crows and birds of prey, so that the colony needs protection around the clock, 24 hours a day for the six weeks or so they are nesting. And not only did the wardens chaperone the largest number of chicks this year, they also managed to put colour rings with unique codes on 60% of the chicks. This is a new dimension to their studies for it generates information on movements of  Little Terns away from the nest sites, something about which very little is known. And already, only a couple of weeks after departing Kilcoole, reports have been received of sightings of three birds, two in England and a third in France.

It is still way too early to see the success at Kilcoole as any significant change around in the fortunes of Little Terns in Ireland, but it does show that short-term intensive wardening of colonies can produce significant results. And this has already been well proven at Rockabill Island, out from Skerries in County Dublin where I passed yesterday. This summer, 1,241 pairs of Roseate Terns were crammed into the tiny island, making it the most important breeding site for this species in Europe. Not only that, but this population forms about 80% of the total Europe breeding population, so what happens here is fairly important for Roseate Tern numbers in Europe.  Breeding numbers had plummeted during the 1960s and 1970s, but thanks to an intensive management programme by BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS, involving the building of nest boxes and the warding off of predators, this time avian predators such as gulls and birds of prey, numbers have been increasing steadily. The 1,241 pairs that bred on Rockabill Island this summer was a record number, which is very good news indeed. So the future prospects of terns in Ireland looks good, but it does depend upon the continued funding of wardens to work intensively at sites, to give these beautiful birds a bit of a helping hand.

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The Wicklow peleton – Bella (team manager), myself, Richard Nairn, Niall Tierney, Mark Lewis and Caoimhe Muldoon.
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Red Kite country

When Richard Nairn, one of Ireland’s best known conservationists, got wind that the Wild Ireland Tour would be bringing me through Wicklow,  he suggested that I really should take a short detour via Avoca to see the Red Kites. And I did as he suggested, and both Richard and fellow Red Kite enthusiast Mark Lewis, joined the peleton for the cycle to Avoca. And his advice was good advice, for Mark pointed out about three Red Kites as we cycled, and many locations where Red Kites nested earlier in the season.   The graceful Red Kite became extinct in Ireland around 1790, because of a combination of loss of woodland and hunting of the birds. Thanks to the Golden Eagle Trust, a programme of re-introductions of some of Ireland’s lost majestic birds of prey is underway, with Golden Eagle, White-tailed Sea Eagle and Red Kite once more gracing Irish skies. The Red Kite reintroduction programme began in 2007 and brought about 100 young chicks from Wales. The birds were caged and fed for sometime before being released, in a controlled way, to the countryside around Avoca. This area was chosen as it most closely resembled the Welsh landscape from where the birds were brought. It is a landscape of rolling hills, mixed forests, and grassland and arable fields surrounded by well wooded hedgerows.  The reintroduction programme has been very successful, and somewhere between 25 and 30 pairs of Red Kites now breed in the sweep of country between Rathdrum and Avoca.

Some conservationists are sceptical about these raptor re-introduction programmes as they see them as in someway deflecting attention from the hard work of having to turn around the fortunes of our remaining extant  species. I don’t see it this way, as I feel the good news and enthusiasm generated by success stories like this can help build support for some of the less glamorous conservation work that desperately needs strong political and financial commitment.

 

 

 

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Diary – Day 29

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Bull Island, one of Ireland’s most protected natural sites.

Cheek by jowl with Ireland’s most densely populated area is a wildlife site of international importance. Surrounding Dublin city is Dublin Bay to the east, Sandymount Strand to the south and Bull Island to the north, making Dublin one of the luckiest cities in Europe for its natural setting. Imagine the good fortune to be able to board a bus in central Dublin and within about 15 minutes be able to watch flocks of thousands of Knot and Dunlin performing aerial displays from the safety of a public road. The jewel in the crown of this natural complex is Bull Island, probably Ireland’s most protected site. It is a Wildfowl Sanctuary, Nature Reserve, Ramsar site, Special Protection Area, Special Area of Conservation, Special Amenity Area Order, Biogenetic Reserve and crowing it all, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Bull Island itself is a fairly recent addition to the coastline, having formed after the construction of the North Bull Wall in 1790. It established as a sandbar behind the newly constructed wall, but over the 200 or so years, it has matured into a sand bank with at least 18 different habitats, an astonishing 10 of which are protected under European nature conservation law. And many rare species grow here, including Lesser Centaury, Red Hemp-nettle and Meadow Saxifrage, which are afforded legal protection under the Flora Protection Order and a further 13 species that are under threat of extinction in Ireland. Its birdlife too is astonishing, with up to 27,000  wildfowl and waders present at times.

Two features that make Bull Island particularly interesting is the strong habitat zonation apparent around the site, and the fact that the dunes are still expanding by the continuing accumulation of sand. These characteristics and of course its location within Dublin city make the site of remarkable amenity and educational value.

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A photocall with the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke and Meriem Bouamrane of UNESCO.

The international importance of this wonderful site was recognised in 1981 when Bull Island was included in the world network of Biosphere Reserves. Biosphere Reserves attempt to manage conservation, development and knowledge in a structure based around different management zones. Clearly for an urban-doorstep site with heavy recreational, amenity and development pressures the management issues for Bull Island are challenging. And until recently at least, the treasure that is the biodiversity of Bull Island has not been given the attention it deserves. However, long overdue plans are now being prepared for a much more integrated and ambitious approach to protect and recognise the special biodiversity value of Bull Island, managing it as just one important component of the ecology of the wider Dublin Bay complex. What is proposed is really quite exciting and ambitious. My arrival at Bull Island happened to coincide with a visit by Meriem Bouamrane  of UNESCO, Paris to hear about these ambitious plans. I was invited along specifically to see how the Data Centre could contribute to the Biosphere Education Network element being proposed for the Reserve by Dublin City Council, and being championed by Maryann Harris. I really hope that this initiative gains the political support it deserves to make it a reality and that much greater effort is put into promoting the educational and nature conservation of this special city site.

An added bonus for me was being welcomed to Bull Island by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Christy Burke to mark the occasion of my cycle around Ireland.  For me, this was the ceremonial end of the Wild Ireland Tour and really quite an honour. It is not everyday a Lord Mayor welcomes me to town.

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The Hottentot Fig was well established near the Bailey Lighthouse, Howth Head
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The Hottentot Fig is now eradicated from Howth Head

Nature conservation problems can be particularly acute in urban areas, but on the northern end of Dublin Bay, at Howth Head, there is a positive news story to relate. The negative impact of invasive non-native species on Ireland’s biodiversity is well known, yet there is little that can be done to stop the spread of many. However, the National Botanic Gardens noticed that the Hottentot Fig, a popular garden plant of South African origin had become established at a number of sites along the east coast of Ireland. Growing at Howth Head since 1962, it really only began to vigorously invade large areas decades later.  Rather than just noting its colonisation, the National Botanic Gardens took the proactive step of seeing if they could stop its spread; to nip it in the bud, so to speak. Under the supervision of Noeleen Smyth patches of Hottentot Fig were spot treated with a glyphosate and diquat mix, and almost immediately signs of dieback were apparent. Surveying the sites the following year, Noeleen was able to report on a 97% kill rate and the active recolonisation of the treated area by native vegetation. Any remaining areas were re-treated with the result that Hottentot Fig has been eradicated from Howth Head. It is really heartening that Noeleen and her colleagues at the National Botanic Gardens took the decision to deal with the threat of the Hottentot Fig before it became too big an issue to tackle.

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Bella and I received a great welcome from my colleagues at Compass Informatics. Thanks for the cake!

The final call for the day was Blackrock to the offices of Compass Informatics, who kindly sponsored the Wild Ireland Tour. Compass Informatics is a SME employing more than 30 people, providing mapping and information management systems to a large number of clients in Ireland and the UK. This is the company that runs the National Biodiversity Data Centre on behalf of the Heritage Council, and employs all the Centre staff. Bella and I were treated to a very warm welcome by our colleagues and we greatly appreciated the chocolate cake.

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Diary – Day 28

Today I decided to put in a long day’s cycle and covered 165 km from Newcastle to Drogheda. The route had no significant climbs and a good road surface so though I would take advantage of that.

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Mourne Mountains Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

But I must have upset all four of the wind Gods at some stage for they are conspiring together to keep a healthy wind in my face, and changing daily for maximum effect.


The first part of the cycle took me along a beautiful road with Slieve Donard towering over me to my right and the wide expanse of Dundrum Bay to my left. At Rostrevor, a combination of lovely mixed woodlands and open scree on the western side of the mountains provides the village with a stunning backdrop. The Mourne Mountains are designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, a designation which we don’t have in the Republic. The designation doesn’t appear to have  much teeth, but it is a beautifully positive way to  promote a beautiful landscape. The Mournes have also been proposed as Northern Ireland’s first National Park, but progress on this appears to have stalled due to local resistance. 

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Lovely backdrop of mixed woodland at Rostrevor
Carlingford Lough straddles the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and is yet another of our bays of high conservation value. The northern side of the lough has extensive mudflats and salt marsh vegetation, valuable feeding ground for our migratory wildfowl. The southern shore is remarkably different, as it is more exposed to currents and onshore winds. It forms a narrow band of pebble, shingle and rocky shoreline, but equally important for the pebble and drift line habitats it supports. For these are rare habitats at the European level, and while they support sparse vegetation, the plants found there are specialised.

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Drift line vegetation

Plant typical of this drift shoreline, for example, include Sea Rocket, Sea Sandwort, Sea Spurge, Sea Mayweed and the rare and protected Oysterplant.


As I cycled along the southern shore at high tide, I spotted a small island of land above the tide line, used as a roost by  Curlew, Redshank, Gowdits, Oystercather, Little Egret, Grey Heron and gulls. All were crammed in, orderly segregated by species to their allocated area – a lovely sight.
The final part of the cycle took me along the shore of Dundalk Bay. Although referred to as a bay, it has the characteristics more of an estuary with vast expanses of sand, mud and saltmarsh exposed at low tide. Thanks to the efforts of a large number of volunteers, the birdlife of the area is counted regularly each winter as part of the national Irish Wetland Birds Survey,

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High tide wader roost

organised by BirdWatch Ireland and NPWS. This is a huge undertaking for it involves counting wetland birds at more than 600 wetland locations, inland and coastal, once each month from September to March.  And what is more remarkable is that more than 80% of the counts are done by volunteer birdwatchers who give of their expertise and time freely. As  a result of this effort, an accurate picture of the most important wetland sites in Ireland for birds is obtained, and any changes to populations from year to year are identified.

 Dundalk Bay is of inordinate importance for wading birds as it supports well in excess of 40,000 waders each winter,

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Extensive sand and mud flats provide rich feeding for waders in winter

more than double the number that would qualify it as a site of International Importance. More than 12,000 Oystercatcher alone winter here.   But surprisingly few wildfowl use the site in winter, despite seemly ideal feeding habitat. It seems that wildfowl find conditions elsewhere more to their liking.

 

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Diary – Day 27

Today was scheduled as a Rest Day, but I decided to cycle the 50km to Newcastle just to keep the legs spinning but also to shorten tomorrow’s leg of the journey. The coastline here is already full of waders, but will become even more important over the next few weeks as the winter visitors arrive in force.

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The dune heath here has a luxuriant growth of heather

Newcastle sits on the southern end of the wide expanse of Dundrum Bay.  Just north of the town lies Murlough Nature Reserve, which holds the distinction of being the first formally designated Nature Reserve in Ireland, when it was established in 1967. It is an old fixed dune system, extending over 280 hectares and provides the best example of dune heath in the island of Ireland. It was immediately apparent that this was different to the other younger and more mobile dune systems that I visited so far on this tour, for the vegetation was dominated by thick tall heather and dense stands of bracken. I’d say that management of the bracken was an issue as I noticed that large patches of it were recently cut, but it is hard to see how it could be kept in check. The reserve does manage a herd of Exmoor ponies to manage grazing, but I didn’t see any when I visited.

Devil’s-bit Scabious was incredibly abundant in some of the grassland pockets, giving the grassland a blue hue.

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Devil’s-Bit Scabious grows in great abundance in parts of the grassland

As this is the food plant of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, it is hardly surprising then that this is an important site for this protected butterfly. Indeed, Murlough is extremely important for butterflies and moths, with a remarkable 600 species in total recorded here.  But one butterfly species, the Wall Brown, a conservation priority species in Ireland, has not been recorded for a number of years. It is feared that despite the best conservation efforts it has become extinct as a breeding species at the site.

The site looks really well managed, with a large network of boardwalks running through the site. This means that people visiting the lovely long beach here can access the beach without having any impact on the vegetation of the dunes.

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The extensive network of boardwalks protect the fragile dunes from visitor pressure

In fact, watching many families walking along the boardwalk I did wonder, did any of them realise that they were walking through such a precious habitat?

 

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Diary – Day 26

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Meeting Manx Shearwaters was not a good sign.

The Ards Peninsula is the narrow finger of land that encloses Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in Ireland and Britain. The eastern side of the peninsula is exposed to the full brunt of the Irish Sea, and rocky and pebble shores dominate.   Seeing the numerous flocks of gulls roosting on the grassy fields, sheltering from the rough weather conditions, is never a good sign for cycling. And passing Burr Point, the most easterly point of Northern Ireland, I noticed Manx Shearwaters passing by no more than 50 metres offshore. As I struggled with the strong south-westerly winds, I realised that Manx Shearwaters and lightweight carbon road bikes are strange bedfellows indeed.

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The sheltered bays of Strangford Lough

But  rounding the southern tip of the Ards Peninsula at Portaferry and into womb of the magnificent Strangford Lough was like entering another world. Sheltered from the wind, the exposed coastline gave way to a gentle, rolling pastoral landscape, the clouds parted and I was even bathed in warm sunlight. At Portaferry the choice presented itself of an 8 minute ferry ride to Strangford cutting across the narrow neck of the Lough or cycling the inner Lough, a roundtrip of 90km. But it wasn’t a choice really as I couldn’t miss experiencing the beauties of the largest sea inlet of these islands. 

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Calm waters of Strangford Lough
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Tranquil pastroal scene on Ards Peninsula

Strangford Lough is one of the great treasures of these islands. It is a huge sheltered sea inlet and of remarkable nature conservation interest. That it is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, a Special Protection Area, a Ramsar Site, an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Marine National Reserve, makes the point fairly forcefully. Given its setting, it is hardly surprising that it rich natural resources have been utilised for generations, and aquacultre has a long tradition here, stretching back to at least the 1700s when there was a thriving industry of seaweed harvesting for soda production. In recent years it is better known for harvesting of oysters, both the native edible oyster and the introduced Pacific oyster – the latter having been introduced to Strangford as part of trials in 1970. And the harvesting of these non-native species has proven more popular for they tend to grow quicker, show greater tolerance to disease and can be grown in a wider set of environmental conditions than the native oyster. But the impact of the Pacific oyster on our native edible oyster is raising conservation concerns.

For me, Strangford Lough is synonymous with winter birdlife. In winter, it supports a remarkable concentration of birds, up to 25,000 wildfowl and 50,000 waders. It is of prime importance as a staging post for about three quarters of the world’s population of the Light-bellied Brent Geese that stop over here in October to feed up on the extensive eelgrass (Zosetera) beds, before dispersing throughout the island. But the site also supports internationally important populations of Knot and Redshank.

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State-of-the-art Wetland Centre at Castle Espie

To capitalise on this wonderful birdwatching spectacle, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust has established a state-of-the-art Wetland Centre at Castle Espie, in the arm-pit of the lough. Here visitors can experience birdlife at close quarters. A series of walks and bird hides enable visitors to experience birdlife utilising different aspects of the coastal landscape; views opening onto wide estuaries, coastal lagoons, salt marsh and reedbeds, and walks through woodland, provide visitors with an unforgettable experience. The Centre has also used every opportunity to showcase the best of environmentally friendly practices, including use of renewable energy and recycling materials. The Centre is visited by 50,000 visitors annually, and even though we visited at a slack time of the year for birds, the Wetland Centre was bustling with activity.

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A reminder that this is ‘Crown property’,

The availability of centres like this must do a great deal to promote knowledge and enjoyment of biodiversity, and help build support for conservation. I would really love to see a similar Centre established in Dublin City to help highlight the importance of the birdlife of Dublin Bay.

 

 

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Diary – Day 25

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Presenting the BioBlitz certificate to Lady Dunluce – feeling slightly inappropriately dressed!

I was invited to ‘Tea on the Lawn’ with Lady Dunluce at Glenarm Estate. Not a personal invitation you understand, for otherwise I would have smartened myself up a bit. But this was a small ceremony organised by the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording (CEDaR) as a thank you to the volunteer recorders that participated in this year’s BioBlitz at Glenarm in May. And I was given the honour of presenting a special BioBlitz certificate to Lady Dunluce who owns much of the Estate. The event was a very thoughtful one on behalf of CEDaR, for those attending really appreciated being thanked for their voluntary efforts. I really appreciated the wonderful spread of sandwiches and scones that were laid on!

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‘Tea on the Lawn’ as a thank you to the BioBlitz volunteers.

Ireland’s BioBlitz is an all-Ireland event where four sites, one in each province, assemble teams of experts and volunteer recorders to compete to see which site can record the most species of wildlife over a 24 hour period. Glenarm was victorious this year, having recorded a remarkable 1,116 species. This tally included 304 species of flowering plants, 110 species of moth, 123 species of lichen, 155 species of bryophyte and so forth. These are amazing numbers of what can be difficult groups to identify, and shows the remarkable expertise that exists in Ireland amongst the biodiversity recording community. The identification and recording of biodiversity is a science, but unlike other sciences, a great deal of the survey work is done by people without any formal qualifications. In the UK in particular, this is referred to as ‘citizen science’.

It is remarkable really that there are so many people out there who spend a great deal of their free time surveying sites and documenting what they see. It means that it is possible to roll out large-scale surveys using citizen scientists, which if they had to be done by professional ecologists would be prohibitively expensive to do. And sometimes I wonder is it right that so much of the knowledge base on Ireland’s biodiversity is acquired by people working in a voluntary capacity, giving of their time and expertise freely? But of course the quid pro quo is that by generating all this information, it will be used to good effect for the conservation of biodiversity. I’m not sure that recorders feel that this side of the bargain is being honoured energetically enough.

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Heading for Belfast and a warm shower

I stayed chatting to people for far too long and found it difficult to leave the good company and warmth of Glenarm. But I eventually  got going and headed along the coast road to Larne, Carrickfergus and through Belfast. The rain had moved in, making for rather unpleasant cycling conditions, but not far after leaving Glenarm the coastline was not all that spectacular. It was really just a case of head down and  getting the distance covered so I could have a warm shower for the night. I kind of felt guilty for not taking more of an interest in the coastline for there were good numbers of birds feeding on the shore. I must have been feeling very guilty for as the Ringed Plover flew off I thought I heard them calling. ‘feeck youu’, ‘feeck youu’,feeck youu’. Was happy to stop at Bangor for the evening, with only 100 km cycled. Will mean that I will have a bit of ground to make up tomorrow.

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Diary – Day 24

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Beautiful long beach at Whitepark.
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Rocky sections of the coast

Today was a relatively short cycling day, distance wise only about 70 km, but it took me along challenging terrain. The route from Bushmills to Cushendall cuts across the enchanting Glens of Antrim, an upland plateau dissected by nine lovely picturesque glens. From Bushmills, and before arriving at the Glens, the road follows the beautiful north Antrim coast where there are many scenic vantage points overlooking the ever changing coast line; the stacks at Dunseverick, the beautiful wide sandy beach at Whitepark, the grassy cliffs at Carrick-A-Rede and the more dramatic cliffs at Fair Head.

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The stunning Murlough Bay

The road rises on the Glens plateau, a wide expanse of sheep grazed pasture and upland peat. I saw a signpost to Murlough Bay Nature Reserve and took the detour. The Reserve is situated in a beautiful bay set against a backdrop of cliffs, deciduous woodland and grassland. Getting to the Reserve involves a precipitous decent to sea-level along a narrow winding tarmac road, but it is worth the trouble for it is a stunning site. I had planned to spend some time walking the reserve to get a sense of its habitats and species, but this was one occasion when my interest in wildlife evaporated and that of cycling took over.  Tired legs or not, I became transfixed by the challenge of tackling the ascent back out of the reserve, just to see how I got on. And tackle it I did, all 2km of it, with an average gradient of 12% but parts as steep as 23%. Can’t say it was pretty, but good sense of satisfaction to get to the top.

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One of the nine Glens of Antrim

The remainder of the day was more of the same, dipping down into glens only to climb back out of them, cycling along tortuous winding roads, set in dramatic landscape and scenery, but making for tough, tough cycling. But cycling is the way to immerse oneself in the landscape, and I can safely say that today, I experienced the Glens of Antrim.

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Diary – Day 23

I felt a bit like a Storm Petrel visiting Inishowen, coming and going largely unnoticed. It was the one part of the country where I got the sense that there is a great amount of interest in wildlife, yet I was able to stay just the one day, so could not do justice to its wonderful wildlife or those actively involved in promoting it. But I headed for Greencastle in the rain and the wind, to complete my cycle along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Before I left home I was ambivalent about the Wild Atlantic Way, but having cycled along it, I am a convert. This is an extraordinarily good marketing campaign of an extraordinary landscape. The investment in branding and signage, marketing and on-line resources is exactly the kind of infrastructural support that is needed to bring the concept to life. And rather than detracting from the experience, the branding adds to it. One still gets the sense of a beautiful rugged landscape being discovered for the first time.   And as I boarded the ferry for Northern Ireland, I wondered, am I first person to have cycled the Wild Atlantic Way?

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Una showing us the bees at Magilligan Dunes

At Magilligan in Northern Ireland, I met up with colleague Úna Fitzpatrick and her young son Micheál. Úna doesn’t realise it, but she has a very important job. She is the Moody’s and Fitch of the pollinator world, collating data and tracking the health of Ireland’s pollinators. And pollination is of vital ecological and economic importance to Ireland – the horticultural industry alone contributes €153 million to the Irish economy each year, but of course pollination services are far more valuable than that. Pollination is principally done by the 101 bee, 20 bumblebee and 180 hoverfly species that occur in Ireland. Over countless generations these insects have carved out different niches for themselves to make best possible use of the resources that are available in the Irish countryside at different times of the year. But with the reduction of flower-rich meadows bees are finding it increasingly difficult to find conditions which allow them to flourish, so much so that more than 50% of all bee species have declined since 1980, and a massive 30% are threatened with extinction. It is an indictment of modern Irish society that we think we can ignore the plight of creatures that are of such enormous benefit to us.

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Magilligan looking towards Inishowen

Magilligan Dunes, on the eastern short of Lough Foyle is an amazing site and one of the largest dune systems in the UK. One bee species found here is the Northern Colletes bee. Ireland supports a significant proportion of the world population of this species, and here it appears to be doing well, bucking the trend across Europe where populations are in steep decline. Why this is so, we don’t exactly know.  But thanks to the work that Úna is doing, we now have a much better picture on where rare species occur, and how populations are changing. She is also building an important database of the food plants of pollinators, so we are much better placed now, to take actions to conserve these amazing species and the astonishingly important services they perform.

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The Causeway Coast

Further east along the north Antrim coast is the iconic Giant’s Causeway. Ever since I can remember, I have been enchanted by the amazing hexagonal shaped columns of basalt formed here. It is a World Heritage Site and one of the most visited sites in the island of Ireland. The relatively new £18 million Visitor Centre is a fitting monument in its own right to this remarkable site.

And living along the coast here, undetected until relatively recently, is a large healthy population of Grayling, a butterfly of rough grassland and bare ground. Such finds are being increasingly made in Northern Ireland thanks to the work of the ebullient Catherine Bertrand. Catherine is the only person in Ireland employed to work on butterfly conservation, and she is making a real difference. Employed by Butterfly Conservation, UK her post is paid by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to help that organisation meet its conservation priorities on butterflies and moths in Northern Ireland; in all there are nine species of butterfly that are conservation priorities here.

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Catherine Bertrand, Butterfly Conservation’s Northern Ireland’s Officer

Catherine is the catalyst for butterfly recording in Northern Ireland, and the interest in butterfly recording has grown significantly in recent years thanks to her energy and enthusiasm for the job. There is strong collaboration between Catherine and the National Biodiversity Data Centre as we manage the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme where volunteers walk a fixed route each week counting the butterflies seen. About 150 volunteers participate in the survey at the moment, both north and south of the border, and thanks to their efforts data on how butterfly populations are changing across the island of Ireland is generated. There is a perception that interest in wildlife in Ireland is not as great as that in Britain, but the butterfly and bumblebee monitoring schemes in Ireland have greater participation, per head of the population, than in Britain. So we are right to be proud of these two monitoring schemes.

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The photograph for which I nearly got thrown out of the Giant’s Causeway.

Before leaving the Giant’s Causeway I couldn’t resist the temptation of having a photograph of my bike on the famous basalt scene. So taking the bike on my shoulder I clambered over the basalt columns struggling with awkward cycling shoes, no doubt, a sight for sore eyes. For those few minutes, my exploits entertained the throngs of Japanese tourists visiting the Causeway, an unexpected piece of entertainment. The National Trust staff did approach me to enquire ‘..if everything was alright, Sir’. At that stage, though I had better behave myself!