Jo's Woodland Walk
To celebrate Murlough reaching 50 years in the care of the National Trust, Jo Whatmough, the first ever Warden at Murlough shares her knowledge.
Murlough’s establishment in 1967 as Ireland’s first Nature reserve, was in itself something to celebrate, as it brought to a conclusion long and tortuous negotiations for its purchase from the Estate of the Marquis of Downshire who intended to commercially develop the dunes. This caused grave concern among archaeologists, geographers, botanists and zoologists, who pressed the Stormont Government to protect the site.
Indeed, the area had long been known and recognised as a very diverse, rich and valuable site. The first suggestion that the sand dunes of Murlough, then better known as the Dundrum sand hills should be protected was made in 1946 in a Report, ‘The Ulster Countryside’, by the Planning Advisory Board to the Stormont Government. At the same time a growing post-war conservation movement was suggesting similar forms of site protection in Great Britain; however little progress was made in Northern Ireland.
Possibly following the closure of the commercial rabbit warren on the dunes, due to the occurrence of Myxomatosis in 1954, plans were developed by the Downshire Estate, who in 1956 offered 111 hectares (275 acres) of land to the Forest Service for afforestation with Corsican Pines (Murlough is 282 hectares/ 676 acres in size). By 1957 the Forest Service had already started work on the south-western end of the reserve, planting a trial plot of 1000 Corsican pines, and thatching areas of open sand to prevent wind blow, in what was at that time a very much more open sandy dune system than we see today. Not surprising really following the prolonged use of the dunes as a commercial rabbit warren for hundreds of years, and its use as a military training area in the war, by the American forces billeted in the area and on Murlough prior to the D- Day invasion in 1944.
The threat of conifers covering much of the dunes was just too dreadful for those scientists who valued the dunes for its geographical development, the richness of the archaeology dating from Neolithic times; as well as the diversity of rare plants and animals. Their concern led to discontinuation of planting from 1959, yet lack of further protection led to Professor E. Estyn Evans of the Geography Department Q.U.B to produce, yet another paper in 1960. Following which The National Trust was invited to negotiate with the Downshire Estate.
First Nature Reserve
When negotiations were eventually successful, an endowment was provided for its purchase from the Ulster Land Fund, and the dunes were acquired in Autumn 1966; at last long term protection, was secured, and the establishment of Ireland’s first Nature Reserve in June 1967 was indeed something to celebrate. Trees were thus of fundamental importance in the establishment of the dunes as a nature reserve, though the original trial planting of Corsican pines was removed in the early 1990s. Interestingly their progeny, from fallen cones, still appear close to the original plantation. Trees and shrubs from a much earlier phase of amenity plantings have however become of prime importance in the management of the reserve over the last 50 years, and continue to be so. Nevertheless, they have created new habitats unknown to those post war botanists, yet in places, still of interest if not always benign.