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.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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?

 

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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!

 

 

 

Diary – Day 22

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The cycle with Emmett provided a fascinating introduction to Malin Head

Today was earmarked as a rest day, but I thought it worth cycling the  Malin Head circuit to experience it properly, and all the better as Emmett Johnston agreed to keep me company. Ostensibly this was to be about Basking Sharks, but quickly it became apparent that Emmett knows this area intimately and wanted to tell me all about it. We headed north-west towards Lagg beach, climbed to a vantage point overlooking Five Fingers bay, and dropped down to White Strand Bay, before rising again on our road to Malin Head. Emmett pointed out dune systems where different conservation priorities can become entwined. For example Chough like tightly grazed dune grasslands whereas the conservation of the dune flora probably does best with light grazing. He pointed out a small overgrown haggart beside a derelict house where a Corncrake had set up territory. It didn’t matter to me that I could neither see nor hear them, just knowing that there was a family of Corncrakes so close by was a thrill in itself. This was one of nine calling male Corncrakes in Malin Head this year which is up on previous years. The whole route out to Malin Head was just one special nature conservation story after another. Dunlin,  richly vegetated hill slopes and verdant bog pools added to the experience.

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Emmett Johnson enjoying his cycle to Malin Head

Yet I get the impression that it frustrates Emmett that the local community living here can’t benefit more from their really special surroundings, surroundings that are to be found nowhere else in Europe. Rather than politicians trying to bring employment  in the shape of Call Centres and the like to these wonderfully diverse natural areas, could employment opportunities based on those special natural resources not be found? After all, the people here are of the land and of the sea, it is what they know best and are best equipped to capitalise upon. The key is to find ways in which management of our unique natural heritage can be predicated on a reward’s system, rather than just becoming an additional burden on an already stressed socio-economic community.

Emmett holds out hope that Basking Sharks might be one of the keys to the area’s survival, or even revival. For a long time no one paid much attention to Basking Sharks. The local crab and lobster fishermen in these areas were used to seeing congregations of Basking Sharks at certain times of the year, yet no interest was shown in these majestic creatures, as they were neither a conservation not a commercial fishing priority. Having his interest tweaked by Simon Berrow, Emmett set about finding out more about these animals and is doing really seminal research. He has tagged Basking Sharks to understand more about their movements, and working with colleagues, he attached short term video capsules to a small number of animals to observe their behaviour close up. He also engages with the fishermen to learn from them and to gain their support.

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Basking Shark territory

And he is finding out that Malin Head is of world importance for Basking Sharks, the world’s second largest fish. They pass Malin Head early in the summer in great numbers, not lingering but moving through at speed. At this time of year 1,000s pass through in the space of a few days; which if current global population estimates are to be believed would make the waters of Malin Head probably the most important route for Basking Sharks in the world. Later in the year, around this time,  Basking Sharks return to these waters, but this time their movement is leisurely, with animals in no hurry to move on. Some animals have been seen in the area for weeks at a time. Many theories are advanced to account for this behaviour, but it is mere speculation at this stage. What I also found surprising is that Emmett tells me that the usual picture of a Basking Shark swimming slowly through the water, mouth-open hoovering up plankton, is only one aspect of their behaviour.  Having completed a first sweep of a plankton swarm, they dart back at speed to the start of the swarm to begin over again. They also breach, apparently.

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A Basking Shark tag, one of the many ways used to study these animals.

There is a fantastic story to be told about the Basking Sharks, and Emmett and some colleagues think that  Malin Head is where that story should be told. They have developed plans for a Marine Ocean Centre adjacent to Malin Head, where research, local fishing and tourism interests could merge. Already two young students from the locality who have been bewitched by the Basking Shark work have gone on to study marine biology, which Emmett sees as a good sign. A great deal of work is still needed if this Marine Ocean Centre is to become a reality, but it is ambition and foresight like this that might just save special places like Malin Head.

As Bella and I sat with Emmett near Malin Head looking down onto the sea stacks and the ocean beyond, listening to the unfolding story of Basking Shark behaviour, it made me appreciate that there is such a wondrous natural world out there that we are still only beginning to understand and appreciate. I had earmarked Malin Head as the place I would see Basking Sharks on the Wild Ireland Tour, but in a strange way, I was kind of glad that the sea was too rough to see them, for it means that it will give me an excuse to come back again. And, I get the sense that this is one species that Bella might come back with me to see too.

 

 

 

Diary – Day 21

Today’s journey took us from Falcarragh to Malin, covering a large swathe of north-west Donegal. Immediately after Falcarragh, the landscape became greener, and less wild. Muckish Mountain provided an impressive backdrop of the cycle to Ard Forest Park, the first stop of the day.

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Ards Forest park boardwalk

Ards Forest Park is a large 480 ha site managed principally for its recreational value. The Park backs onto a wide expanse of beach and has a series of looped walks through the woodland, the longest being 13km. This is a site that one could explore for a long time. It has some fantastic woodland habitat, in particular areas of old oak  and wild wet woodland. Around the coastal fringe there is a nice dune system, salt marsh and both salt and freshwater lakes. When we visited, the weather was cool and windy, but in sheltered spots we saw large numbers of Sliver-washed Fritillary, a butterfly of deciduous woodland. If the weather had been better we would have spend longer exploring the wildlife delights of the area. Ards Forest Park is one of 10 Forest Parks that Coillte operate as part of its recreational role, and they really are worth visiting.

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The beach near Portsalon, Fanad Head

After Ards, the route took us around the convoluted coastline of Mulroy Bay, an extremely important bay in conservation terms. What makes this bay special is that it is a large shallow bay with a mixture of sheltered areas with weak currents, and other areas exposed to strong currents. And growing hear are reefs,  made up of a kind of living red coral called Maerl which have adapted to both extremes of conditions. And just like the Great-Barrier Reef, the reefs here support a bewildering variety of specialised and rare marine life, including species found in few other locations in Ireland. Apparently, an underwater dive will reveal a myriad of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, bristlestars and countless varieties of molluscs and fish. It is the only Irish location for extensive beds of a small beautiful red-coloured saltwater clam called the Flame Shell and many other exotic species. But one needs a mask and snorkel to enjoy these sights, which I didn’t have.

I cycled the Fanad loop, a lovely picturesque part of Donegal, but didn’t go as far as the lighthouse. South of Portsalon stretches a beautiful long beach to Saldanha Head. The small road loops up around this headland, making for a difficult cycle, the toughest climd I’ve encountered since leaving County Kerry.

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Thanks for the lift lads.

The car ferry from Rathmullen to Buncrana no longer operates, but Aengus Kennedy, a sailing instructor with a background in nature conservation and his colleague, Jack Gallagher, kindly offered to bring me across Lough Swilly on a rib. Delighted to have the shortcut, as it took at least 50 km off my journey. Bouncing across the fjord on the rib in choppy conditions gave me a good sense of the coastal environment in these areas, and the importance of the relatively sheltered bays for wildlife, boating, aquaculture and other marine activities. In winter, Lough Swilly is home to large number of migratory swans and geese that arrive from northern breeding grounds.

The last part of my journey for the day took me  onto the large expanse of blanket bog on the high ground between Buncrana and Carndonagh. Couldn’t help but be struck by the large amount of peat being cut for fuel here, with plastic fertiliser bags full of peat stacked all along the road.

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The Bog Road to Carndonagh

Was pleased to see the compact village of Malin where we stopped for the night. The long day’s journey had taken us over very varied landscape, with contrasting character. We sometimes lose sight of the fact of just how varied the Irish landscape is, and how quickly the character changes from one valley to the next.