Natural Environment Enhancement and Protection
Protecting and enhancing priority habitats and species and key landscape features remains a cornerstone of the Trust’s work. Assisted by the funds provided by our Landscape Partnership, a key focus in recent years has been on the high Mournes, designated both nationally and under the European Union Habitats Directive for its upland heath. But, as we also outline below, red squirrels, native woodlands and other aspects of the lowland and coastal areas of the AONB have benefitted from the efforts of our staff and volunteers, along with partner organisations.
Our work to restore degraded areas of the upland heath in the high Mournes demonstrated the synergies that could be achieved through close collaboration between our Ranger and Countryside staff and the officers of the Mourne Mountains Landscape Partnership, pooling knowledge, expertise and resources. Involving a range of actions to promote recovery of the worst eroded areas, it has enabled us to go beyond simply keeping at bay the impact of forces like wildfire and recreational use. This is achieved particularly through stabilising and ‘landscaping’ peatlands and slowing the flow of water across the most degraded areas to allow build-up of the material necessary to support the mosaic of upland heath species that had previously thrived in these locations.
A best practice site visit to the Garron Plateau in County Antrim at the start of the year helped put in context the learning to date from our heathland restoration trial sites, informing our review of what had worked and, in turn, planning of next steps.
First, we carried out remedial actions on aspects of the phase 1 works that had not been fully successful before work proceeded to expand the areas under the favourable management approaches, particularly at Binnian/Lamagan col and Binnian Lough. Work was completed by late autumn, completing the implementation of the bulk of the recommendations of the management plans developed for nine sites, with the exception of Slieve Commedagh where review and stakeholder consultation informed a rethink of proposed approaches. On nearby Slieve Donard, not among the original heathland sites, we were pleased to be able to incorporate some of the heathland restoration techniques alongside our erosion control work, re-wetting areas adjacent to paths with the dual benefit of helping direct visitors to a sustainable line and allowing patches of flora like sphagnum and other mosses to expand.
To continue to learn we further expanded our monitoring regime with the creation of dip wells to sample water tables and made further use of fixed point photography and vegetation quadrats, in part applying knowledge gained from attendance by staff and volunteers at ‘Bog Fest’ Peatland Conference in the Peak District in September 2017. Analysis of the cumulative information available to date indicates that interventions have in the most part been effective with significant re-colonisation of previously barely vegetated areas.
We re-introduced our conservation grazing regime at Ben Crom and introduced it to the Annalong Wood heathland site as well as enhancing fencing at Annalong Valley to facilitate future conservation grazing. Preparing for sustaining the work beyond the life of the Landscape Partnership also included research, specification and acquisition of specialist equipment.
We continued to take action to mitigate the threat of wildfire to our landscape both with site specific works and at a strategic coordinating level.
A controlled prescribed burn was undertaken at Ben Crom/Silent Valley after all necessary risk and weather assessments and liaison with NI Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).
We provided two wildfire introductory courses at Silent Valley for NIRFS staff, while input to the NI Wildfire Forum and NI Wildfire Strategy was informed by continued gathering of best practice knowledge, including meetings with experts from South Africa and Germany.
In 2017/18 wildfire outbreaks were again few and small in scale in the AONB. However, at the time of writing this report, fires in the summer of 2018 have, unfortunately, demonstrated the veracity of the sentiment expressed in our 2016/17 annual report that we cannot be complacent about this threat. Given the changes to climate and land use, addressing it will continue to be a key priority.
Our work to protect and propagate the genetically distinct Mourne Juniper continued, assisted by funds for equipment from the Mourne Mountains Landscape Partnership.
Seeds collected from ripe berries were nurtured in our incubator as were cuttings recently planted in a purpose built new propagation bed at Dunnywater nursery. A stratification trial of juniper seed was completed in August and exhibited some limited success in germination of the seed. Other batches were retained in propagators and monitored for germination.
Unfortunately, subsequent months showed a poor survival rate of germinated seedlings. However, using new facilities and equipment for propagation and bringing on of juniper from cuttings there was good success from this method. Monitoring of the 100 juniper specimens previously planted at three quarry sites around Drinneevar and Thomas’ Mountain continued, showing a good survival rate in the open landscape.
We worked in partnership with Ulster Wildlife Trust, Northern Ireland Red Squirrel Forum and Belfast Zoo to protect and enhance the growing red squirrel population at sites within the AONB. Provision of an office and equipment storage for the UWT Red Squirrels United project at our Silent Valley base provided a great foundation for the partnership working. Among the key activities we undertook were our ongoing monitoring and maintenance of camera traps and maintenance of feeders at Silent Valley and Mourne Park, including recruiting a third level student to assist this work. We provided grey squirrel control training for 3 volunteers and 8 staff. As well as the successful release of five young female red squirrels from Belfast Zoo to Mourne Park plans for an introduction of squirrels to the Silent Valley were well advanced by year end.
... And Lots More
Other highlights of our natural heritage related work in the year included the following:
- Input to RSPB led Red Kites project as member of RKITES Steering Group. Roost Survey Training for two former Youth Rangers and promotion of Red Kite Tours.
- Nesting Buzzard protection, including awareness raising through various media.
- Surveying for rhododendron and invasive species removal training for landowners.
- Engagement through Invest NI’s ‘Industrial Symbiosis’ with local businesses to utilise landfill waste in conservation projects. Includes plastic barrels from ChromaScape Europe Ltd and CES Quarry, Saintfield for ‘slipes’ in erosion control work hessian sacks from Baileys Coffee Company in Belfast to be used as an alternative for sheep’s wool to create floating paths over boggy areas.
- Maintenance of native trees planted last year at Aughrim Hill ‘Trees for Mourne’ site.
- Site visits with Woodland Trust to scope potential native woodland projects at Happy Valley, Annalong Wood, Bunkers Hill and Batts Wood respectively leading to ‘funding ready’ specifications.
- Assistance to National Museums NI/ CeDAR ‘What’s In Your Pond?’ campaign for data on frogs and newts.
- Barn Owl and Pine Marten monitoring • Engagement with UWT led Grassroots Young Farmer Project.
- Bug Hunts in Castlewellan Forest Park and Family Nature Walk as part of Castlewellan SOMA festival.
- Completion of ‘Mini Mourne’ Wildlife Gardens at Rathfriland High School; Kilkeel High School; St Louis Grammar, Kilkeel; St Malachy’s High School, Castlewellan; Holy Cross Primary School, Atticall; All Children’s Primary, Newcastle and Shimna College, Newcastle.
Engaging and Celebrating Volunteers
Following a period in which the Active Lifestyles project, funded by BIG Lottery for almost ten years, provided the mainstay of our volunteering programme, we relied this year on diverse sources for the staff and equipment required to support our wonderful volunteers and leverage the environmental outcomes that come from their efforts. These included the Baily Thomas Foundation, the Halifax Community Foundation, the Mourne Mountains Landscape Partnership and the Interreg funded ASCENT project.
This funding mix enabled us to continue to cater for both people with special needs as well as other groups and individuals. The former included clients from Mountview ARC, Autism Initiatives, Mindwise and Mencap who continued to attend the nurseries at Silent Valley and Dunnywater on a weekly basis to help look after the native trees and organic gardens.
Other regular contributors were our weekly path team who continued to make a significant contribution to combatting erosion, not least with James Fisher and Stan Jameson recruited to augment the sustained efforts of Peter McGowan, Roy McCullough, Alan Dawson and Maria Harte. The level of competence achieved by the weekly path team and some other long term volunteers was attested to by the fact that we were able to recruit, on short term contracts, some of their number to assist our staff and contractors with emergency path repair works at Slieve Binnian, Ben Crom and Slieve Donard.
As well as training in conservation techniques through the activities undertaken, we also try to offer key volunteers more formal training opportunities. This year these included First Aid in the Outdoors training and 4 x 4 driving.
Young people also featured heavily in our volunteer effort. As well as our annual Youth Ranger programme which catered for 8 young people, we had activities for groups including the Pennisula Explorer Scouts and an event with Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service aimed at young people with troubled backgrounds. Attendance at the Queen’s University Career’s fair proved fruitful in terms of third level student volunteer recruitment and study visits focussing on heathland recovery and erosion control techniques and wildfire issues.
Corporate Groups continue to contribute, being particularly valuable for tasks that need many pairs of hands over a short intense effort. Citi Bank continue to lead the way bringing groups through the year as well as holding a Volunteering Week in June. The ‘Love Your Landscape’ corporate conservation day in cooperation with Business in the Community (BiTC) attracted Kilkeel firm Rockwell Collins and Her Majesty Passport Office and a BiTC staff group from Belfast. This looks set to be a popular annual initiative.
We were delighted that our Citi Bank volunteers were recognised on a Northern Ireland stage receiving the ‘Live Here Love Here’ Coca-Cola Coast Care Group Award for doing much to keep the Kilkeel coastline clear of litter over the year. What’s more, this made it two years running that a MHT volunteer group was recognised by Live Here Love Here, following on from the recognition of our Youth Rangers in 2016. This year’s cohort of Youth Rangers achieved John Muir awards, a UK based environment award scheme which recognises connection with, enjoyment of and care for wild places.
Our own annual Mourne Natural Heritage Volunteer Awards also recognised some star volunteers. CJ Hennessy, who participated in a placement through Mencap, was ‘Best Newcomer’ for his work in the Silent Valley and Dunnywater Tree Nurseries. The Individual Volunteer Award went to Ruth McParland, a long-time associate of the Trust, recognising in particular her recent involvement in upland trails and heathland restoration work, supporting our Area Ranger. The Group Award went to our own weekly Volunteer Path Repair Team for making significant improvements to the Glen River Trail and, moreover, sharing their skills and knowledge with new volunteers and wider stakeholders. The Path Team play a significant role in supporting the ASCENT project (Apply Skills & Conserve our Environment with New Tools) funded by the European Union and in so doing they contribute to developing international learning and innovation to protect sensitive natural environments.
Reprofiling eroded peat banks
Fencing of heathland enhancement plot in Annalong Valley
Prescribed controlled burn at Ben Crom
Genetically distinct Mourne juniper plant bearing berries
Red Squirrels bred in Belfast Zoo have been released into sites in the Mournes (Photo courtesy of Jon Lees)
Our apiary at Dunnywater
Staff and volunteers attended 'Bog Fest' peatland conference in the Peak District
Youth Rangers with our volunteer path repair team
Corporate volunteer group erosion control on Slieve Donard
Our Citibank volunteers - Coast Care Award winners
2017 youth rangers receive John Muir awards