Northwest Mayo is blanket bog country and for bog to develop it must rain on at least 250 days each year. It was only fitting then that we hit one of those 250 days for the cycle across the bogs of Mayo. The rain and an unpleasant west to northwest wind made for difficult cycling conditions. I was joined on the cycle for two days by Alex Copland of BirdWatch Ireland which helped to shorten the journey.
Every now and again you meet people who think big and have great ideas. Bill Murphy of Coillte is one such individual. Faced with having to make decisions about management of 4,500 ha of Coillte’s estate on the slopes of Nephin, an area planted with Lodgepole Pine around 1950, Bill let his imagination run riot. Instead of trying to eke a meagre return from the forestry operations here, could management take a different direction entirely? Bill came up with the idea of a wilderness area; a large tract of land where nature would take over, and signs of human intervention rolled back. The woodland would remain, but selective thinning and natural regeneration would give it a more ‘natural’ feel. The forest tracks would be removed so that access to this remote area would only be possible by foot, and the whole area would become an experiment in ‘re-wilding’ Nephin. Bill convinced his bosses in Coillte of the merits of this plan and has also gained the support of NPWS who own 7,000 ha of adjoining land at Ballycroy National Park, so that now, there is a 50 years agreement to create the Nephin Wilderness covering a huge tract of 12,000 ha. Bill freely admits he doesn’t really know what this area will evolve into, or what it will look like in 50 years time, but then, this project is all about venturing into unknown territory. And fair play to Coillte for giving it a go.
The cycle took us from Newport to Mulranny along the new Greenway, a fantastic initiative. Even on this wet and windy day, the Greenway was full of cyclists of all ages, many of whom looked like they had not have been on a bike for many a year. It is great that more of these Greenways are planned around the country.
The route took us north of Mulranny across the flat, open bog landscapes of Mayo; a wild desolate country with a quality all of its own.
Ever since I had an interest in birdwatching, I heard about a mysterious wet marsh located on the Mullet Peninsula where (to my mind) fantastically rare birds like Red-necked Phalarope bred, and where the fathers of Irish birdwatching explored. Annagh Marsh epitomised for me everything that was exciting about birdwatching and nature conservation in Ireland. Annagh Marsh has the distinction of being the first land purchased by the fledging bird conservation NGO, that was later to evolve into BirdWatch Ireland. And Annagh Marsh deserves this distinction for it is an incredibly important wetland site, not just for breeding waders, but for all aspects of biodiversity.
Over the years the marsh had become overgrown and the number of breeding waders was decreasing. Researching the breeding waders, they found that few of the Lapwing eggs hatched, they all see to fail just before hatching. Apparently, the chicks in the eggs peep for the last 24 or so hours before hatching, and an inventive fox was doing the rounds, listening for these peeping noises, then helping itself to dinner. To rectify this, BirdWatch Ireland applied for funding under the EU LIFE programme to improve the habitat quality of the marsh for breeding birds, and to put up an electronic predator control fence. The benefits of these measures were apparent after only two years, and when we visited to meet with the Reserve Manager Dave Suddably, there was a nice flock of juvenile Lapwing flying about, and good numbers of Snipe too.
Dave has been working closely with the neighbouring farmers also to introduce more favourable grazing regime to improve the conservation value of the grasslands in the vicinity. Dave’s interests extend way beyond birds, and he is finding really interesting wildlife in the area. He has found, for example, the Great Banded Sand Wasp and Belted Beauty Moth, both very rare species in Ireland. He also discovered a whole population of the Great Yellow Bumblebee, one of the species I have on my wish list for the tour. As we talked in the cold and damp, he pointed out one as it flew past. But as all I saw was a dark blob passing by at speed, I don’t feel justified in ticking it off my wish list.
It was disappointing that we visited the site in such poor weather conditions, as it was impossible to get a true feel for the wonderful riches of the site. But it was great to talk with Dave about the reserve and hear at first hand his obvious love of the area.