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.

My first true ramble of Summer 2020

I am lucky enough to live in the Northern Irish countryside and have been out enjoying nature as much as possible during Covid-19. It has been great for exercise but mostly for my mental health during these stressful and uncertain times.

I have been out a lot on short, local walks but have mostly been focusing on running so I haven’t been on many hikes, so I finally made time for a proper ramble last weekend. It rained all day, of course, what else would you expect during June in Ireland, but there was a break in weather in the late afternoon so I jumped at the opportunity to get outdoors. I headed to Kilbroney Forest Park with the aim of reaching the Trig Point on the summit of Slieve Martin. The weather was fair; mostly dry but windy. I felt the full force of the wind as soon as I reached the Trig Point, and it was one of those experiences of quite literally being knocked back on my feet and taking my breath away. The view was beautiful, no matter the weather and was well worth the sparse rain I had to walk through. The skies were dark and moody over the shores of Carlingford Lough, threatening lightning that never came.

I was overcome with a strong sense of calm, gratitude and curiosity, I knew that I wasn’t ready to head home so I spotted a small trail among the Bog-Cotton filled Heather and began to follow it. I started to spot beautiful wildflowers like Common Cow-Wheat and Heath Speedwell and most exciting of all was the Lichen. I spent a lot of time last Summer collecting Lichen in Canada and it has really sprouted a passion to explore the species we have here. The Cladonia Lichens are the most interesting and my favourite so it was great to spot some Cladonia chlorophaea, Cladonia coniocraea and Cladonia floerkeana on tree stumps along the path. I followed this path, not knowing where it would lead and it was beautiful but after a while, I realized that it was a mountain biking trail so I shouldn’t have been walking on it but couldn’t find away off without heading back the whole way. Luckily it was late in the evening and there were no bikers using the path so I had it all to myself. The dark clouds cleared up and the wind died down a little as I carefully continued on. I watched the birds flying high above me and the ones that flew out of the heather close to my feet. I finally found myself on a forestry road, which took me through a sea of tall Pine trees and eventually led me back to where I had parked my car. I must admit, I wish I was brave enough to be a mountain biker because they have some of the best trails in Kilbroney Forest Park.

My own definition of a ramble is going out for a walk or a hike and just letting your curiosity control your destination. I like the feeling of not knowing exactly where I will end up and what I will find.

Get outdoors. Get a little lost. Find your path. Repeat.

What do you do when it rains; stay inside or grab a raincoat?

Most people hide from the rain, taking shelter indoors but I find that it makes me want to go exploring.

My ultimate favourite place to be when it is raining is along the beach. Any beach. There is something very special about it. There is usually very few people about, if any. I suppose it sounds very selfish, but I love having the beach to myself so this is perfect for me. I studied at the Ulster University Coleraine Campus, so I was very lucky to be surrounded by Northern Ireland’s beautiful North Coast and I used to visit the local beaches quite often. My favourite was Portstewart Strand, a 5-minute walk from my house, which I used for escaping the stresses of university of life. Quite often I woke early to head out there, especially when the weather was unfavourable. My housemates always thought that it was strange of me to enjoy the beach whilst the wind and rain hammered down on me, but after months I finally convinced one of them to join me, and he instantly understood why it appealed to me so much. He realised how refreshing and calming it was to stand on the open beach and to be truly surrounded by nature as it reached out to all of your senses. 

Rain in Northern Ireland usually comes with some pretty strong winds so the waves are usually crashing along the shoreline. It is these kinds of conditions that remind us of how fierce and powerful the ocean can be. I could sit on the shore for hours listening to the waves and watching the birdlife. 

So last week I had a free day, it was raining and I wanted to get out of the house, so I ventured to Murlough Nature Reserve outside Newcastle in County Down. It’s a place that I visited when I was younger but it has been some time since I have been there, so I am glad I thought of it. There were a few cars in the carpark so I wasn’t the only one brave enough to face the stormy weather.    

As I walked through the 6000-year old dune system I couldn’t help but watch the birdlife flying above me. The birdlife in this area is very interesting with many species to be found; Buzzards, Red Kites, Greybacks, Magpies, Oystercatchers and of course a few species of Gulls. It was amazing to watch these birds soar along with the strong winds, swooping in and out of the dunes with such ease. The closer I got to the shore, the louder the waves got and when I finally left the dunes behind and stood on the open sand the noises of nature were deafening, the waves, the winds and the calls of the birds. I took a few moments to take it all in. Then I began to try to capture the beauty before me, which often proves to be very difficult. As I looked along the shoreline towards Newcastle, I noticed how the mist had moved in around Slieve Donard. The Mountain was engulfed in white. Looking out towards the Irish Sea, it could have been a colour chart filled with greys displaying every grey you could imagine from the sky to the sea.

It is very difficult to portray the beauty of a dull, grey stormy scene through a camera lens, so I urge you to grab your raincoat and go out and experience it for yourself. 

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.

Damn that was a lot of people!

Whilst Northern Ireland has experienced a dry spell for the last few weeks, there has been signs of the landscapes suffering due to this lack of rainfall. Grasses are drying up and gorse fires are occurring across the county whilst farmers are praying for a drop of rain for the sake of their livestock and crops. Now, I know well enough that living in Northern Ireland means that a drop of rain is never too far away so these issues will definitely not be long lived and farmers will soon be back to complaining about too much rain.

 

One thing that this spot of drought has brought is the unveiling of a landscape that has been hidden for years. I’m taking about Spelga Dam, a large reservoir settled in the Mourne Mountains of County Down. With the recent high temperatures and lack of rainfall the reservoir levels have dropped so low that an old road and bridge can now be seen. Both of which predate the dam which was built during the 1950’s and have only been seen during periods of which hardly ever occurs.

 

I was informed by a friend about what was happening at Spelga Dam so I knew I had to check it out, but I visited on a Sunday and that was a big mistake. I have family living close to the area so it is a place I know very well and I have never witnessed anything like it, the whole area was bunged. Everyone and their mother was out to see this famous bridge that the whole town and country was talking about. As I walked along the path, I could hear accents from all over Ireland and even spotted some lucky Americans that were treated to this sight on their holiday. Young, old and everything in between came out to see a piece of Mourne history that may never be seen again after the rain returns.

 

It was surprising to see how this has survived all these years, especially the bridge, although there are cracks and gaps, the structure is still pretty solid. The road and bridge was narrow, as it was probably built when a pony and trap was the primary transport in the Mourne area. I was happy enough to stray from the road a little, to get some space from the vast crowds and I found something pretty special. Lined along either side of the river that the bridge crossed over was tree stumps. This truly amazed me. I took more photos of these than I did the bridge. These trees were sacrificed to the reservoir just like the bridge, but they were cut down for lumber before hand. I find them so interesting as over the years the water has washed away the soil and mud to reveal the tree roots. They looked like driftwood really, but they were still connected to the ground. Its surreal to think that they have been cut away at, abandoned and submerged in water for about 60 years but they are still standing. Seeing the stumps made me imagine the landscape that existed before the dam. I pictured a quaint little river and a road with filled with horse ridden carriages/ traps and I’m sure the banks of the river was a great spot for a picnic for the locals.

 

I hope to visit Spelga again before the road, bridge and tree stumps vanish but hopefully there won’t be as many people next time. I was honestly in disbelief when I got stuck in a traffic jam when leaving.

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