Murlough Woodland Walk
This first walk is an introduction to the woodland which grows around Murlough House and on the North point. There is a wide range of trees to be seen, most of which were planted in the late 1800s following the building of Murlough House by the Downshire estate. Most tree species have established well, but few have spread, sycamore being the major exception, which has, in the last 50 years, progressively spread to form extensive woodland around the house, and out over the dune land. It is a highly competitive tree which shades out other species to form a near single species of woodland. As the woodland is maturing an interesting ground flora is developing, which will be the focus of a spring time walk. Closer to the North Point a more natural woodland of hazel, blackthorn and spindle will be visited before the walk returns looking at the heathland trees.
The trees of Murlough
Enter the reserve at Keel Point, the western end of Dundrum village on the A24, near Newcastle, Co. Down
Follow the avenue SE from the concrete towards Murlough House. Note the large open grown Austrian pine on the left, often the nesting tree of long eared owls. In the autumn, noisy rooks and crows may be carrying unripe cones from this and other pines, to bury them on the open dunes. Exactly why is uncertain, but this has been the way the pines have spread in the past. Ignore the path signed to the beach. Continue until approaching the cattle grid and stop @ IJ 41206/35100 before entering the trees. Note the nine species of trees which are growing before the gate.
All the mature trees seen along the avenue were planted by the Downshires. Here from the left are an open grown Scot’s pine (spreading branches, red bark, blue green needles), silver birch, willow, sapling sycamore, sapling holly, large leaved lime. On the right are European limes, a hybrid tree which typically has shoots (epicormic growths) growing from the base of the trunk; wych elm and a large beech; and on the outer edge the black barked Austrian pine with greener needles. Note the lack of plants growing under the beech, which suppresses the growth of other plants, including its own seedlings.
Pass through the small gate next to the cattle grid and continue for a short distance towards Murlough House before turning right onto a grassy path @ IJ41272/35088.
Several groups of pines of both species were planted around this western side of the garden of Murlough house, probably as a wind break from the prevailing winds. Here the pines have grown tall and straight, with narrow crowns, as they have competed for space and light. The younger sycamore trees are all self-sown. They are also tall and straight, also having had to compete, and where only the most vigorous have survived under the open shade of the pines; but they are now competing with the pines, at canopy level and winning. This sort of battle will be seen in many places on the walk, and sycamore is nearly always the winner. Note the dense bramble understorey below the trees, with occasional elder bushes; these indicate the soil is rich in nitrogen, probably derived from roosting birds in a winter roost where brambles and elder-berries were ‘planted’ in bird droppings.
Continue along the path, turning left, just before reaching a gate at IJ41226/34992. Pass through another group of shelterbelt pines. At the top of the hill look right through a gap towards the mountains, out over a deep valley. (If you are short like me, this may be obscured by bracken). Rhododendron grows on the left of the path, a game cover plant. The climbing plant using the young self-sown pine tree on the right is hop, Humulus lupus, probably a garden escape. Even though it dies back each autumn, its tough twining stems can be seen year round. It has large rough three lobed leaves.
Ahead through another gap is a view into a sycamore wood on a farther dune, with ferns growing on the woodland floor. This wood is all self-sown, and has invaded a sand dune, killing off the natural dune plants. As the path bends left, on the right under the young sycamore trees can be seen many dying bushes of sea buckthorn, which are being robbed of adequate light and killed by sycamore, as seen on the right of the path all along the front of the house. Sea buckthorn is a spiny shrub which is native only on the south east coast of England. During the late 19th Century it became fashionable throughout Britain and Ireland to plant it on dunes, to stabilise the coastline. Naturally liking open sunny conditions with well aerated soils, which are preferably lime rich, as is shelly new beach sand, it rapidly grows to form dense thickets, forever spreading into new ground. Such young thickets are all too often still found on Murlough’s coastline unfortunately.
Meeting another path, turn left towards Murlough House @ IJ41416/35002, stopping before meeting a fine large mature beech tree.
The wide spreading branches of the beech tree, and two others growing on the left among the pines, indicates that these trees have grown in open conditions without competition. Beech, like sycamore produces a dense dark leaf canopy which is hard for other plants to tolerate. They both unfurl their leaves early in the spring and are generally late to lose them, reducing light on the woodland floor. Beech also produces root exudates which further prevent plant establishment. Both species can produce large quantities of seed, but on Murlough beech seem less capable of spreading than sycamore, although occasional saplings do appear. Beech is more typically found on chalk and limestone soils in southern Britain, and perhaps doesn’t like the dry, more acid soils of the dunes, or Murlough’s climate is not hot enough to produce much viable seed, as is the case with the limes, something which sycamore clearly doesn’t mind.
Turn right at the beech tree IJ 41391/35039, down a path skirting the front of Murlough House. Stop to look at the first large oddly shaped sycamore on the left hand side at @ IJ 414350, which was once pollarded. Because they are sheltered in this valley, mosses have grown on the branches, along with the fronds of an epiphytic fern Polypody (many figured), Polypodium vulgare.
The two sycamores on the left clearly show they have been pollarded in the past, with many branches growing from the top of a single trunk. Pollarding, like coppicing was a traditional way to harvest branches from mature trees to provide a sustainable crop of timber. Where deer or cattle might have grazed, and damaged the re-growth; the trees were pollarded above grazing height. These trees were not pollarded to harvest timber, but to stop them intruding into the view of the sea from the house. For, when the house was newly built, it was situated much closer to the sea and the land to the right of the path was then much lower mobile dunes. They must have built rapidly because they have buried a stone boat house which was built close to the beach, the only signs of which visible today are two lines of wooden stumps from the old slipway, occasionally seen on the outer beach. Access from Murlough House to this boat house was over a bridge which passed over this sunken pathway at the far end.
Continue down the sunken pathway and take the left-hand path, grid ref: IJ41408/35057 at a large lime tree with a massive ‘bird’s nest’ of epicormic growth. Climb to the top of the path and stop to look down into the woodland below on your right. Walking along this path is taking a walk back in time. On the left-hand bank and on the face of the cliff line below the path are large mature sycamore trees which must have been the original plantings around 1860. These have become the parent trees for the establishment of the sycamore woodland which has now colonised the lower level of younger dunes.
The path you are now standing on was once the top-edge of a cliff on the 1834 and 1859 O.S. maps with the sea lapping below. It was like this when Murlough House was built. The woodland below grows on a low sand plain with two dune ridges, built by the end of the 19th C. The outer spit surrounding the inlet did not appear until the 1901 O.S. map. An alien spiny shrub, sea buckthorn, was planted to help to stabilise these newly developing dunes, the earliest record for which is 1884. 50 years ago much of the woodland, especially on the outer edge was dominated by 3 metre tall impenetrable buckthorn, which has since been invaded and killed by sycamore to create woodland. The oldest part of this sycamore wood is at this southern end, with subtle changes in the age and spread of sycamore, the ground flora and the presence of dead and dying sea buckthorn changing as we walk northwards. Look out for differences as you progress.
Continue along this cliff top path, @ IJ 41418/35159 note concrete steps on the left coming from the back of Murlough Stable yard to meet the path. In fact, this route crosses the path, as two Y shaped flights of steps continue down onto the woodland floor, but are now covered by vegetation. Note a well grown sapling wych elm on the cliff face.
In 1942, during WW II, many American forces were stationed in Northern Ireland prior to the Normandy landings. During that time, the dunes and beach of Murlough were used extensively as a military training area. Troops were stationed on Murlough, officers in the house, and other ranks in Nissan huts built around the stable yard and on the dune plain below the cliff, where the older trees must have provided a dense camouflage cover. The huts and toilet blocks were built on concrete foundations, which were spaced out over the woodland floor. These persist, and though covered in dense leaf litter, tend to suppress the establishment of trees and shrubs today. Hence the open character of the wood at this southern end of the wood.
Continue along the path until another set of steps on the right leads down to the shore @ IJ 41395/35212. (The path to the left, past the Stable block could be a short cut back to the concrete.) Note the size of the sycamore log at the base of the steps, probably one of the original planted trees.
The hut bases here lie just at the base of the cliff. So the wood is less restricted and is denser, with ivy covering the ground and growing up the trees, which are still competing for space, and filling the canopy. Where buckthorn grew it enriched the soil with its dead leaves and, by using a fungal root partner, added nitrogen to the soil. It formed massive bushes rising from long horizontal stems which dominated the woodland when the reserve was established in 1967 but have since been invaded by young sycamore trees which have enjoyed the enriched soil, and eventually overwhelmed and killed most of the buckthorn which cannot cope with the competition for light. A survey of the breeding birds of the wood carried out in early 1980s showed that the dense buckthorn structure, with few overtopping sycamores, was rich in breeding birds at an unusually high density. sadly, the sycamore wood on its own cannot support such a rich diversity of birds.
Continue along the path until passing below a large sycamore on the left which arches over the path@ IJ 41380/35236. By now you may have noticed a few young trees saplings of other species growing on a more crowded floor to the woodland, with the younger sycamore trees. At the beginning of this path the sycamore trees in the lower wood seem well spaced and the woodland floor is quite open. Here you will notice the trees are more crowded and the woodland floor has more shrubs and ferns.
A recent survey of the wood undertaken by a volunteering student Richard Dere, discovered a range of new species of young trees growing under the sycamore canopy. Brambles were commonest, with hollies, hawthorn, elder, gooseberries and yew, three young yew can be seen from the path as can a large bird cherry. All trees with edible fruits, the seeds from which have been deposited by roosting birds. Wind-sown wych elm, and beech were also recorded; but a patch of young horse chestnuts is something of a mystery. Sadly, several bird-sown invasive alien plants, were also found. In the 1980’s, the wood was used as a very large winter roost by thousands of crows, rooks and jackdaws. Huge flocks flew in at dusk, first collecting on the beach in a noisy congregation before descending on the wood for the night. The effect has been dramatic, as much guano was deposited, together with seed, which led to changes in the ground flora as well as the appearance of more ferns, much ivy, bramble and elder, (all bird sown), and now other trees.
Continue until meeting a Y shaped forked sycamore on the right @IJ41367/35314 which has a sapling elderberry bush growing in its fork.
Here on the woodland floor can be seen an area where the sycamore/sea buckthorn is in its last throws, with lots of dead or dying buckthorn bushes showing their upright stems growing from horizontal stems along the ground. The sycamore is smaller and a few young hazel trees start to appear along with shaded older multi-stemmed bushes. Note the distribution of bluebells on the woodland floor has not yet spread into the barer ground left by the dying buckthorn. This is best seen in the spring. The large heavy seeds of bluebells are dispersed by ants.
Continue for a short distance along the path until @ IJ 41372/35368, (green topped post on right) where a distinctly different form of woodland grows on the bank to the left. This is a hazel wood. Hazel is a naturally multi-stemmed large native shrub. A good example lies on the right at the base of the cliff and was clearly once growing in more open conditions. The shading influence of invading sycamore can be seen here again, and is a threat to the survival of this native woodland, so some felling of sycamore is taking place.
Walking northwards from here the nature of the woodland changes. There are now many more large hazels, mixed with spindle, blackthorn, hawthorn and dog roses. There are also some still-living sea buckthorn plants on the right of the path. In the autumn and winter many of these show berries. All, except the buckthorn, are native scrub species and may represent a remnant of native woodland, which could have been growing on Murlough for a very long time and has been increasing on the reserve in the last 50 years. Young hazel saplings are spreading into the woodland, and the heathland behind. Exactly what is moving the hazel nuts, apart from gravity, is a matter of conjecture. Squirrels and jays are the usual suspects, but are not thought to be regular inhabitants of the reserve. If you see any please let the Trust know, or post it on the web page.
Continue along the path, which eventually becomes a cliff overlooking the channel, taking care not to slip down the bank. Some way along take the first path which leads to the left, and continue to the gate @ IJ41294/35694, joining the Boathouse path. Continue left through the gate where the hazel scrub grows on both sides of the path. Continuing along this path back to the Avenue, the walk crosses heathland with a new variety of isolated trees and groups.
Dense hazel scrub
A large ash grows on the right near the end of the dense hazel scrub, together with a downy birch and many bushes of scrubby willows. Ash and birch are high light demanding trees, which spread by wind sown seeds. Ash is not a common tree on Murlough and is more typical in Northern Ireland in hedgerows, though it can form richly diverse woodland. Walking back over the heathland you will see several scattered small trees, including a group of three, ash, rowan and hawthorn on the left. Many hawthorn are scattered over the heathland and have probably been bird-sown as their fruits are berries. The young Scots pines may also have been bird-assisted as crows and rooks carry their cones around in the autumn, for some unknown reason.
Stop to look at the large group of willows on the right @ IJ41264/35453. Look for the pussy willow male flowers in the spring, followed by the silky fluffy female seed catkins. You may also see seed catkins on a mature downy birch on the edge of a large group of them on the right. Note other ‘scrubby’ willowy patches farther away to the left.
Birch and willows are wind-sown, and produce vast numbers of light seeds. Several of these dense patches of ‘scrubby trees’ can be found on the heathland of the North Point, and are growing in damp depressions which were once ponds, identifiable on the 1963 aerial photograph. They are both colonising trees which were probably some of the first trees to invade the land surfaces following the end of the ice ages. Birch can become highly invasive, especially on heathland, where it is seen to be damaging to this especially valuable habitat, and thus may need to be removed.
Continue along the path past a bank of tall gorse on the left, taking the right fork, avoiding the gate, until @IJ 41246/35239, where a power cable crosses a fine group of young Scots pine which have spread out from an original plantation on the left between the path and Murlough House.
These fine young Scots pines were self-sown, probably growing when rabbits were killed by Myxomatosis in the early 1950’s. The original planted shelter-belt parent pines were killed by an invasive fungus Armillaria, possibly because a large refuse dump had been made in the middle of the wood. The dead trees were removed in 1977 and a native mix planted in their place. Ironically this included birch, which might now be seen to have been something of a mistake. A further natural spread of young pines now would probably also be frowned upon and contained. Nevertheless, these pines add an extra diversity of bird life to the reserve as well as enhancing the landscape. Elsewhere on the dunes self-sown pines have mostly been removed. There is little doubt that trees could grow over much of Murlough. Gorse, birch and pines would begin the development of woodland, especially on the landward heathy dunes. Grazing is the best management tool to try to prevent this, but the removal of trees is also sometimes necessary.
Continue along the path until you meet the road, turn right and return to the parking area. I hope you have enjoyed your walk, and understand a bit more of the complexity of Murlough, and the demands for management.
Sycamore woods like that around Murlough House are not normally considered to be of great conservation value, as they are species poor, and because sycamore is a non-native species. This wood would not normally be included within the habitats of greatest value on Murlough but, because it is of known age and has so far developed naturally it is of significant ecological interest. There are however limits as to just how much sycamore wood should be allowed to spread out onto other parts of the reserve, assuming resources can be found to do so? Would you be interested in volunteering some of your time to help?
Return to the concrete standing.
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