The history of Murlough's trees and woodland

Murlough National Nature Reserve, woodland, trees, nature

We have little idea what the vegetation of Murlough was like in prehistoric times, however we do know the dunes were managed as a commercial rabbit warren for at least 300 years, and possibly from Norman times, until rabbits were killed by Myxomatosis in 1954.

It is unlikely that there were many mature trees growing on the open dunes in recent history. The first Ordnance Survey map of 1835 shows trees growing around what was probably a trapper’s cottage (one of two trappers employed to manage the harvesting of rabbits), where a copse of mature hazel still exists on the shore of the Inner Bay. It is also possible that the scrubby woodland currently growing along the channel and around the North Point may also pre-date the Downshire plantings and be native woodland.

Downshire Estate 1783

A range of native trees and shrubs can be found today on the North Point, probably derived from this native woodland, especially hazel, spindle and blackthorn, which together create impenetrable thickets. Silver and downy birches with willows readily spread into the heathy areas and damp hollows, whereas ash, holly, hawthorns and rowans tend to be more isolated.

Most of the forest trees we see today, date from the acquisition of the Dundrum estate (including Murlough) by the Downshire Estate in 1783. The first plantings, in the early 1800s, were around Murlough Farm, the Queen Anne style house which was then used as their summer residence. In 1858 the Marquis of Downshire built Murlough House, also as a summer residence, together with a new access avenue and stone bridge.  A wide range of tree species was planted along the avenue, and around Murlough House as garden trees and shelter belts. The main amenity plantings on the reserve area started in 1860, using stock from Scottish nurseries, but continued until the end of the century.

The dunes

Despite the dunes having been a mostly treeless environment, a broad range of species have shown little problem in establishment and surviving on the reserve, and in some cases, have naturally spread to create extensive areas of sycamore woodland around Murlough House, which has continued mostly unchecked.

A further set of non-native shrubs were introduced into the woodland areas as game cover for pheasant shooting, some of which are invasive in the woodland habitats. Rhododendron on the other hand can be highly invasive in heathland, and has had to be controlled, as have   bird sown ‘garden escapes’, such as Cotoneaster and Berberis species.

Indeed, much of the practical and costly management of the reserve over the last 50 years has been in trying to control the natural spread of non-native trees and shrubs to attempt to maintain the open heathland and dune land habitats which are considered to be of greater value.  Considerable effort and finance has been, and continues to be, focused on the removal of sea buckthorn, sycamore, gorse and Scot’s pine.

Forest Service

The planned coniferization of the south-western dunes by the Forest Service from 1956 introduced a further set of trees and shrubs. Many of these have originated not from the planting of the trial 1000 Corsican pines, but from the forest brashings which must have been used for thatching any open sandy areas prior to planting. The area now called the Ring Reserve now holds sapling Corsican pines, Nobel firs, birch and Rhododendron. Larch was once found but seems not to have survived.

The exclusion of rabbits also affected the development of heathland, with the Ring Reserve always having been dominated by this habitat, whereas in 1967 heath was limited to the landward dunes on the rest of the reserve.

The trees to look for

The fine trees along the avenue are impressive and add significantly to the landscape. The splendid tall straight black trunks of the outer line of pine trees are typical of Austrian pines. Broad leaved trees grow on both sides of the avenue with English oak, European lime, and large leaved lime, sycamore, beech, and wych elm. There were also several English elms but most of these succumbed to Dutch elm disease some years ago, whereas the wych elm appears to have a greater resistance. Closer to the House an even greater diversity of trees was planted, Scots Pine, with its red bark, silver birch, more beech and the two limes. Sweet chestnut and horse chestnut are also found. In all, a wide range of forest trees, many of which are not native to Ireland. Although they have grown into substantial trees, few seem able to naturally spread from these original plantations.

Wych elm

Being high light demanding, the two pines have easily spread onto the acid soils of the heathland, whereas Wych elm and sycamore are more often found in woodland. Indeed, sycamore has been so successful as to create large areas of woodland itself at this north-eastern end of the reserve, with only a few saplings of other species being able to survive its dense shade.

Sea buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides is without doubt the most important of all the introduced shrubs, first planted on mobile developing dunes around the house in the 1870’s, in an attempt to stabilise them. In this walk we mostly see its skeletons, as it is dying below the sycamore canopy, in a long fought out war between the two species. These two invasive species, have been, and will continue to be the focus of much of the hard work undertaken on the rest of the reserve, which continues to demand great effort and high financial expenditure in the future. The story of sea buckthorn deserves a walk on its own.