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History of Murlough National Nature Reserve

View over the sand dunes towards the Mourne Mountains at Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down
The sand dunes at Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The dune system at Murlough is estimated to be up to 6,000 years old and the present landscape owes much of its appearance to millennia of natural processes. Discover the history of the dunes, and how Murlough came to be Ireland’s first national nature reserve.

'Murlach' the recognised Irish form of the place name meaning ‘sea inlet’, is a development from the Old Irish word 'Muirbolc' meaning ‘sea-bag’ (lagoon or inlet of the sea). A particularly stormy period in the 13th and 14th centuries resulted in a huge movement of sand. Dune was formed upon dune, resulting in the unusually high dunes seen here today.

Human history at Murlough

The history of human use at Murlough spans 4,000 years. Ten archaeological sites are recorded within the dunes that under the care of the National Trust, all of which were located during a series of archaeological excavations in 1948, 1950–51 and 1958 by Pat Collins.

Prehistoric occupation

These sites demonstrate extensive prehistoric occupation or settlement and burial covering the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Early Christian periods.

Megalithic remains

Prehistoric sites in the immediate environs of the dunes include a portal dolmen and two standing stones, possibly remains of a former megalith. Early Christian sites are well represented in the general area with a ringfort and three souterrains. Medieval sites are represented by Dundrum Castle and by two recorded battle sites in Dundrum in 1147.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages the dunes were unsurprisingly used as rabbit warrens, being overlooked from the north by Dundrum Castle. The castle was built in the late 12th and early 13th century by John de Courcy when establishing the Anglo-Norman Earldom of Ulster.

Rabbit warrens

The rabbits from the Murlough warrens would have been harvested for their meat and pelts and their grazing had a major influence on the development of the heath grassland characteristic of the site today.

The buildings at Murlough

Murlough contains three listed buildings, all located towards the northern end of the peninsula. The Grade B1 Stable Block (now used as the warden’s office) is part of the outbuilding complex associated with Murlough House.

A gate lodge and bridge

At the entrance to the peninsula on the shore of Dundrum Inner Bay lies the Grade B-listed Keel Point Gate Lodge, built around 1877 for the 4th Marquess of Downshire. Immediately beside the gate lodge and providing the main point of access to the dunes across the bay is the Grade B2-listed Downshire Bridge.

The boathouse and cottage

At the northern edge of the peninsula lies a boathouse with an accompanying slipway and on the western edge of the property close to the main Newcastle Road is a gate house known as Slidderyford Cottage.

Buildings from the Second World War

The dunes were used during the Second World War as a base for troops, planes and tanks. Two sites from this period of usage survive within the Trust ownership: a former rifle range located close to the northern end of the peninsula and a possible tank park on the south side of the approach road to Murlough House and the warden’s office.

Northeast of the property within the Ballykinler Army Base lies the recorded site of two circular crop marks now thought to be related to military training on that site.

A threat to the landscape

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.

Corsican pines

In 1956 they offered 111 hectares (275 acres) of the land to the Forest Service for afforestation with Corsican pines. By 1957 the Forest Service had 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 much more open sandy dune system than we see today.

A concern for scientists

The threat of conifers covering much of the dunes was of concern to scientists who valued the dunes for their geographical development, the richness of the archaeology dating from Neolithic times, as well as the diversity of rare plants and animals.

Further protection required

Their concern led to discontinuation of planting from 1959, yet lack of further protection led to Professor E. Estyn Evans of the geography department at Queen's University Belfast to produce yet another paper in 1960. Following this, the National Trust was invited to negotiate with the Downshire Estate.

Ireland’s 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 the autumn of 1966. At last, long-term protection was secured, and the establishment of Ireland’s first nature reserve in June 1967 was something to celebrate.

Trees were 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 planting have become of prime importance in the management of the reserve over the last 50 years, and continue to be so.

Plants growing in the dunes and a view to the Mourne Mountains from Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down

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