Garden Surprise

As I looked out upon my garden, something caught my eye as it ran up stones, grass and a wall and finally rested on a stone right in front of me. My brain took some time to accept what my eyes were seeing. A Red Squirrel. It sped across my garden and it was gone as quick as it had arrived.

Red Squirrels can be found throughout forested areas in Ireland but have a much smaller population than the invasive Grey Squirrel. I have only ever seen Red Squirrels in Castlewellan Forest Park and Kilbroney Forest Park which both have old growth woods, mostly Oak. I know that a breeding pair were reintroduced in Silent Valley Mountain Park to encourage a new population in the area. I never expected to spot one of these amazing creatures so close to home. I live in a mostly agricultural landscape, I am surrounded by farmland with few large, old growth trees. It is not the usual habitat for Red Squirrels so this was definitely a pleasant surprise.

What made this moment even more special, was that I shared it with my 2-year-old nephew. I have been taking him out into nature all Summer long, showing him everything I possibly can and trying to pass on my love for the outdoors. When I squealed with excitement about the Red Squirrel, so did he and he couldn’t wait to get outside and see if we could find it. So of course, we got on our boots and grabbed our binoculars (Yes, he has toy binoculars to match mine) and went out in search of our new garden visitor. We were unsuccessful in tracking it, but I am determined to keep my eyes peeled for it again and would love to get a photo.

I love that you will always find something new, even in the places you think you know. No matter how many times you look at the same view, there will be something different, you might just have to open your eyes a little wider to notice it.

International Bog Day 2020

Yesterday, 26th July was International Bog Day so to celebrate properly I went for a rather late evening hike up a very boggy Slieve Muck. Slieve Muck is in the Mourne Mountains between two reservoirs, Spelga Dam and the Silent Valley. I have previously attempted to summit this peak but was unsuccessful because I was getting some hassle from Ravens and I chickened out. By heck I am glad I went back because it was amazing.

I think it is safe to say that this peak offers some of the best views of the Mournes with the least amount of effort. It only took me 35 minutes to reach the top, not a difficult climb, just often wet and slippery but worth it. I parked along the road close to Spelga Dam, climbed the stile and started following the famous Mourne Wall. At times I had to drift away from the Mourne Wall as the ground was very wet, moving into the Heather and Sphagnum Moss was usually muddy and there was also some outcrop that couldn’t be passed. As you climb higher, you get a spectacular view of Spelga Dam and the surrounding area. As I finally reached the top I was excited to spot an OSNI Triangulation Pillar, I was unaware that there was one on this peak so it was a nice surprise. The Mourne Wall meets in 3 directions at the top of Slieve Muck and standing atop the stile over the wall I was treated with an amazing view. Standing in one spot, I could see all of the Mourne Mountains, The Irish Sea and the entrance to Carlingford Lough and it was pretty spectacular. I walked a little further, and thankfully I did because now I could see both Ben Crom and Silent Valley reservoirs and the fantastic Lough Shannagh. It’s in the moments like these that you completely forget the tough hike and wet socks and you would be ready to do it all over again just to see this view. I met one other hiker and we chatted a little about the weather and the view and I brought up how wet and muddy the climb was, to which he replied “Sure it’s not called Slieve Muck for nothing”, he couldn’t be more right.

I always wanted to summit Slieve Muck, not just for the view but for the history. The mountain goes by another name locally, Poverty Mountain. Some believed that they can literally see Poverty wrote out on the mountain, and I must admit, I have definitely noticed a P-O-V standing out to me but no more than that. It was also named this because the locals lived in tough conditions and hard times, most of which were sheep farmers and one of those sheep farmers was my Grandfather. My mother tells me stories of her father going to the mountain with his sheep and it was always Slieve Muck. The sheep would be left there to graze for some time and then he would have to round them up again and bring them back to his farm. Walking up these slopes was exciting as I thought about how many times he would have taken these same steps. It may seem silly, but it made me feel a little closer to the man that I never got a chance to meet. He was supposedly a true mountain man who would sing and play his accordion for whatever audience he could find.

Of course, I was checking out the local flora and found some interesting things. The slopes were covered in Bell Heather, Sphagnum Moss and Bog Cotton, it is mostly the Blanket Bog form that occurs across the uplands of the Mourne Mountains. The Sphagnum Moss holds a lot of water and with a constant flow of water down this mountain the Sphagnum is working hard. It is quite amazing that you can hear the flow of water on the mountain, either the dripping along the outcrop or the gushing of the stream beneath the Mourne Wall. The landscape was also covered in the Yellow-flowered Tormentil and some small red and blue flowers that I have yet to identify in some of the wetter parts. I was incredibly surprised to find pond weed growing in a pool of water on the lower slopes. The water was only a few inches deep and was flowing quite quickly, but it was definitely a species of Potomageton which I believed only grew in lakes. As I was returning down the mountain, close to the bottom I saw something very special to me, a Peltigera Lichen. I squealed a little I was that excited. I have only ever seen Peltigera Lichen in Alberta in Canada, and they were mostly on the bases of large trees but here I found it on a small granite rock. It was only a small Peltigera but it meant a big deal to me. I also spotted some Cladonia Lichen and lots of Moss species on the granite rocks that make up the Mourne Wall. The landscape is not very diverse, it is exclusively used for grazing by sheep and I didn’t see much fauna, only a few small birds, one Raven and very few insects.

I spent Bog Day just as it should be spent; with squidgy footsteps, soggy socks and a happy heart.

The simple duck pond

A simple place where fun, adventure and nature combine.

My local duck pond is very local, I can be there within a 5 minute car ride and it is somewhere that I have been visiting since before I can remember. From my mum pushing me around in my pram, to me pushing my toy doll in a pram, to a few cheeky teenage dates to now going with my nephew. It has always been the go to place for a quick walk.

It is now, when I take my camera to photograph the Ducks, Swans, Moor Hens and Coots that I realize just how precious it was to have this place so close to me. I walk around these days identifying and photographing the wildflowers and trees, appreciating absolutely everything in this beautiful space. The trees are filled with birds; Magpies, Robins, House Sparrows, Great tits, Blue tits, Wood Pigeons and of course there are a lot of Black-Headed Gulls and Herring Gulls hanging around.

Today, I visited with my Dad for the first time in a long time and it was a real treat for him as we spotted a pair of Coot with 5 chicks. It was a delight to just sit and watch the parents diving deep into the water and pulling up pond weed to feed to their chicks. These simple, pure and heartfelt moments need to be relished.

It was close access to natural spaces and wildlife like this when I was growing up that really cemented my love for nature and biodiversity and encouraged my passion to pursue a career in the environmental field. So, for a common duck pond, it will always be a pretty special place for me.

Prince’s Island Park: Constructed Wetland

It was such a pleasure to discover a constructed wetland in the heart of Calgary, Canada. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know it was even there until I finally walked to the far side of Prince’s Island Park the other day. I used to work beside the entrance to Prince’s Island Park so I am amazed that I never knew about the wetland. Obviously, if you are close to the river at all in Calgary, you will notice the large population of Canada Geese and various duck species but you would never guess that there is a wetland tucked into the park. The wetland was created to treat storm water before it enters the Bow River, but it also acts as a new habitat for lots of species and increases the biodiversity of the area.

This amazing work has been carried out by the Alberta Conservation Association. By artificially damming water and planting carefully selected plants like Wood’s Rose, Balsam Poplar and Slender Wheatgrass, they have developed a very impressive constructed wetland.

After the initial construction, it is up to nature to take over and that is definitely what has happened here. Whilst walking around the wetland area, you are surrounded by waterfowl, mostly Canada Goose, Mallard and the American Widgeon and the trees that line the pathway are filled with birds. I was treated to a sighting of my first North American Water Vole which was swimming between the banks of the wetland.

North American Water Vole (Microtus richardsoni)

Wetlands are an extremely important and useful ecosystem that we need to preserve and learn more about. I love that the pathway takes you all around the wetland banks on Prince’s Island and is filled with information signage to help teach people more about the importance of the flora and fauna of this special habitat. Constructed wetlands are a concept that other large cities should be thinking about; they increase biodiversity, improve water quality and can act as a buffer zone against floods, storms and other extreme weather events, especially along coastlines.

Don’t forget about the birds during Winter

I woke this morning to a heavy frost outside, the first frost of the Winter in Northern Ireland this year.

I love the frost, it highlights the different aspects of my garden and is truly beautiful.

As I drank my first coffee of the day, I watched the flurry of birds around my feeders. A mixture of playful Finches and Tits and of course the territorial Robin. Throughout Autumn there were very few garden birds spotted around my feeders. During Autumn, berries are extremely abundant and so birds feed on them when available. But now, as the weather turns colder, the berries are gone, the leaves have shed and the earthworms are protected by the hard, frost-bit soil.

So, I urge you to put something out for the birds. They aren’t a fussy lot; they like various nuts, seeds and breadcrumbs. I always make sure to put out Niger Seeds which always attract the Goldfinches.

Trust me, it’s pretty nice to watch them flutter around whilst you have the first coffee of the day.

Ruling the Roost

I began my ascent of Slieve Muck on a beautiful sunny September morning. The mountain has always caught my eye and I have always wanted to walk along this section of the Mourne Wall. I climbed the stile and started to follow the wall and immediately understood why this name was given to the mountain. It is definitely “Mucky” as the hillside is full of water, mud, Moss and Heather. Slieve Muck helps to feed the waters of Spelga Dam which lies directly below it.

As I walked further, I was intrigued by the sound of running water as t seems to run beneath the stones of the Mourne Wall. There is a lot of outcrop formations showing the underlying geology of the mountain and this explains the surface run-off waters. If souls are narrow between the surface and the underlying rock, the souls will saturate quickly and cause excess waters to flow down the mountain. This water created waterfalls on the most minute scale. With the sun shining down on the mountain, these patches of wet rock glistened and sparkles, and was quite beautiful.

The higher I got, the more I could appreciate the view of Spelga Dam with the old road and bridge still visible. For a while I just stayed there, watching how the shadows of the clouds changed the landscape. I let the winds rush past me. The sound of traffic was starting to fade and all I could hear was the wind and the birds. Suddenly I realised just how many birds there was.

From the bottom of the mountain I had spotted a few large Ravens flying along the summit of the mountain. But I had been distracted by my surroundings and missed the gathering of Ravens that were now circling me. They were making a lot of noise now, as if calling in for more recruits.

Now, I do love birds, but have you ever seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie called The Birds? Well, it was the only thing going through my head at that minute. The gist of the film is a pack of birds that terrorise a town, attacking the people and ultimately pecking them to death. I was aware that I was being a bit dramatic, so I kept on walking as just paid more attention to the birds. I think I counted the birds every few minutes and their numbers kept growing. Some were soaring high above the mountain, some were perched on the wall and others flew behind me. I was determined not to let them deter me from my summit. Then they started to fly closer to me, so close that I could hear the flapping of their wings and that was a bit too close for comfort. Their swooping and circling felt like threats and the higher I climbed the more aggressive they got. So, I called it a day. I turned around and started my descent. Immediately the Ravens began to fly further away from me and their numbers started to dwindle. Their forces were retreating as I was. The calls continued but they were no longer threatening, they now sounded like cackling. I guess they were happy that I had been defeated.

There should be an important rule to follow whilst exploring nature, to back off when you are infringing on wildlife. I was moving closer to their roost, their habitat and their home, so the Ravens were simply defending their territory and it is my responsibility to respect that. I will venture back to this area and try to reach the summit but on this day, the Ravens were ruling the roost.

Heather in the Mournes

During the Summer months Heather grows rapidly amongst the mountains. The three species found in my area are Ling Heather, Bell Heather and Cross-leaves Heather, all of which boast beautiful purple hues when in bloom. Up high in the Mournes and the Ring of Gullion, the Heather is widespread and lies like a deep purple blanket upon the hillside. It is truly beautiful but also shows that the mountain side it a healthy heathland. Heather grows in bog ecosystems, with peat souls and lots of water. With such a dry Summer this year, it is encouraging to see the Heather continue to flourish throughout the Mournes. A lot of hard work has been carried out to maintain the condition of the upland bogs in this area and it has been a success.

Bogs are a common sight throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom and are key to the great biodiversity found there. Along with Heather, many plants like Bog Cotton, Bilberry and Mosses will be in fluxed by insect life. On a recent hike up Slieve Binnian, I was surrounded by Bumblebees, Flies, Midgets and Butterflies. Specifically, I spotted a few Tortoiseshell Butterflies fluttering around the Heather.

Even now as the Summer is ending and the Heather begins to die off, it still bears its beauty, as it now shows off a new orange shade. This orange symbolises the end of Summer and the beginning of Autumnas the leaves of other plants and trees will start to change colour and eventually shed and fall.

Want some Jelly with your Ice-cream?

There is nothing more typical of my Northern Irish culture than to head to the beach on my day off work to enjoy an ice-cream, most likely a 99.

So yesterday I ventured out to two local beaches for a short stroll. Firstly, I visited Greencastle Beach and then I went on to Cranfield Beach, both of which lie on the shores of Carlingford Lough. Both beaches are popular for leisure and Greencastle has a working ferry and lots of smaller boats anchored along the shore.

I am pretty sure that the first time I had every seen a Jellyfish was on Greencastle Beach and yesterdays experience did not disappoint. To my surprise the beach was flocked with small Moon Jellyfish (Aurelia aurita also called Common Jellyfish. True to its name, this species is a very common sight around British and Irish shores and it is this species that I have seen before. They can be identified by their four purple rings that can be seen very clearly within their whitish translucent bodies. Their sting is very weak and should not be too much of a problem for people in the water or on the shore.

Moon Jellyfish/ Common Jellyfish (Aurelia Aurita)

As I walked further along the waterline I found larger jellyfish that I had never seen before and they are the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata). These are very impressive with their bright orange/red colour and are the largest jelly species in the world. Although the Lion’s Mane prefer cooler waters it is becoming more common to find them stranded along British and Irish coastlines. This species comes with a powerful sting in and out of the water so great care must be taken when visiting the beach during the Summer months.

Lion’s Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata)

As I arrived at Cranfield Beach there was a noticeable difference between the beaches in relation to stranded Jellyfish. Cranfield and Greencastle are only minutes from each other but there are vast differences, Cranfield is a Blue-Flag Beach and Greencastle has a more rocky shore and pebbled beach. Although I did spot some Jellyfish on Cranfield, they were much smaller and it was mainly the Moon Jellyfish present here. I spotted one Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii) on the beach and I didn’t see any of the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. The Blue Jellyfish is small and translucent like the Moon Jelly but has a more vivid Blue colour on it. This species has a mild sting which has been compared to that of a Nettle sting.

blue jellyfish.JPG
Blue Jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii)

I found it astonishing to see so many Jellyfish but very sad that they had to be stranded for me to see them. Unfortunately, most of the individuals that I seen yesterday will have dehydrated and died before the tide came back for them. Only the larger individuals will have had a fighting chance. As they float along in currents, they are quite defenceless to stranding between tides.

So appreciate the beauty of these Jellyfish but from a distance as even when stranded they can still sting.

What to do if you have been stung by a Jellyfish;

  • If in water, get out immediately
  • If there are any stingers left in your skin, remove them if possible as they will continue to sting you
  • Apply heat to relieve pain
  • Take paracetamol to relieve pain
  • If pain persists, seek medical attention
  • DO NOT URINATE ON THE STING (This is a MYTH and will not help in any way)

For more information follow the link below providing information from the NHS;

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/jellyfish-and-other-sea-creature-stings/

Bees’ Needs Week 9-15 July

This week we are celebrating the third annual Bees’ Needs Week hosted by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), so for the rest of this week try to keep a thought for the bees and their needs. These insects are essential for pollination which keeps are agricultural industry thriving and there is no alternative after them. So, we MUST keep them healthy and turn around their populations to ensure our own future on planet Earth.

“Bees and other pollinators are vital contributors to the beauty of our landscapes, our economy and our £100 billion food industry”

(Environment Secretary Michael Gove)

 

I am very glad to see that the UK government is highlighting and campaigning for such a delicate matter. All the numerous bee species in our ecosystem are under threat and it is down to us to take actions against their population decline.

I am lucky enough to live in the beautiful Northern Irish countryside and my back yard is buzzing with bees, especially during this great weather we’ve experienced lately. I have watched many Bumble Bees and Carder Bees had at work amongst the wildflowers in my garden like Foxgloves and Wild Roses. They are literally everywhere I look, and I am constantly trying to capture a photo of them. Even as I am writing this post, I can see lots of bees poking around the Wild Rose bush outside my window and it genuinely makes me happy to see this. Whilst I am surrounded by bees here, it is a completely different story around urban areas where populations are dwindling. This is where the real action needs to be taken.

Many activists have a lot to say about the matter and David Attenborough is included. He recently spoke out on simple actions that could be made by the public to help the bees. His idea was simple and effective, to leave a spoonful of sugar mixed in water outside for the bees to drink. This sugary substance is like nectar that they acquire from flowers. I ask you to listen to this wise man as everyone has a spare spoon and leave it out in our garden or on a windowsill and I am sure at least one little bee will be happy to see it. David Attenborough stated that bees become exhausted and dehydrated as they travel around so this sugary solution will help to revive them and let them get back on their way.

IMG_2341

They have simple needs;

·         Water

·         Nectar (sugar)

·         A place to rest

Defra have a great video about Bees and their needs;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uVeyH7XQXg

 

The 5 simple actions you are encouraged to do;

1.       Plant more flowers, trees and shrubs

2.       Let your garden grow on the wild side

3.       Cut your grass less often

4.       Don’t disturb insects or their nests

5.       Be more careful with pesticide use

And of course, you don’t even have to have a garden to help the bees out, why don’t you get a flowerbox for your windowsill as even the smallest of places can provide the bees with their needs.

 

For more info on bees and Bees’ Needs Week just follow the links below;

https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/Bees-Needs-Making-your-garden-bee-friendly-factshe.pdf

https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/

https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/bees-needs/media/ 

Heatwaves and Gorse fires; Why is Northern Ireland so unprepared?

I am sure that it is now international knowledge that Ireland and the UK have been experiencing a heatwave for the past week or so. Two nations full of complainers and over-exaggerators when it comes to anything involving the weather. A few months ago, we were frozen over, and we had to close schools and businesses and I even had to wear my hiking boots to make it over my road a few times. But now that temperatures have been flying steady above 20 degrees the whole island of Ireland has been put on a hosepipe ban. Oh yes, you heard that right, an island that experiences rain for at least 10 months of the year is worried about water shortages and pollution.

Sadly with this heatwave comes the threat of gorse wildfires across Northern Ireland, in which approximately 600 were reported in the last week. This issue is not only tragic to the environment but deeply threatens livestock, farmland, homeowners and the economy. The thought of any of these fires being purposely set is appalling as brave members of our Fire and Rescue Service continue to put their lives in danger to combat the flames. I was driving along the Mourne Coastal Route during a beautiful sunny evening and suddenly the road in front of me was engulfed in thick smoke as a gorse fire raged along the cliffs. The firefighters were on the scene already trying to stomp out the flames, but it was obviously difficult when they were surrounded by dry grass and gorse which caught fire so quickly. A few days later, I heard that the area around Bloody Bridge in County Down was also experiencing gorse fires, this is only a few miles down the road from Ballymartin where I had seen the last gorse fire. Bloody Bridge is a popular spot for watersports, picnics and sunbathing so the area has been buzzing with people throughout this good weather. On the news, I have seen reports of large gorse fires across the nation, which worries me of how our landscapes are so fragile against the slightest of environmental changes.

Although this heatwave is a weather phenomenon, it is the sort of event that may become more frequent as our climate becomes more unpredictable in the future. Hopefully our governments, in both Ireland and the UK will work harder to implement solutions to the problems climate change and global warming will continue to throw our way.

But for now, there are things you can do to help reduce the risk of gorse fires;

·         Report any fires immediately by calling 999

·         Extinguish all barbeque equipment and cigarettes properly

·         Refrain from setting camp fires

·         Refrain from leaving rubbish in areas that are vulnerable to wildfires, as rubbish like plastic and glass bottles can act as a lens to superheat the ground beneath them resulting in a spark.

For more information on what to do to help prevent wildfires and what to do if you see a wildfire follow the link;

https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/news/daera-urges-public-help-prevent-wildfires