Gearóid Ó Muilleoir, pen name Dúlra, is a wildlife buff who was brought up on the slopes of Belfast’s Black Mountain where he spent almost every waking moment hillwalking, birdwatching and fishing.
He’s witnessed massive changes in the local environment, with fields disappearing and nature retreating. “When I was young we had corncrakes breeding in the heart of west Belfast and a barn owl used to swoop down over the street as we played in the evening," he says.
“All that’s gone - but the one thing that has given me heart is the rewilding movement. Nature just needs to be given the space to do its thing without human interference and it can return from the brink.”
Gearóid has spent a lifetime in journalism, working with all the main newspapers here and he’s now production editor of the Sunday World. Outside of the environment, his other passion is the Irish language and he’s a regular on award-winning Belfast station Raidió Failte.
AN old ‘bird man’ used to live in Andersonstown whose knowledge of nature could have filled an encyclopedia. Jimmy Garland was as wizened as the trees he spent so much time among – and there wasn’t a single wild thing he didn’t have in-depth knowledge of.
Birds usually line their nest with the softest material they can find – just like a baby's cot.But the kestrels of Belfast Lough might find their new nest a bit uncomfortable this year. Because if they settle down for the night in this spectacular, purpose-built abode, they might just feel the prick of a thistle in their nether regions.
“I’M off up the country,” said Dúlra as he nipped out the back door this week.“Enjoy,” came the reply, “pick up some eggs if you can, we’re out of them.”Dúlra was heading for Portmore, the nature reserve a few miles from Crumlin. In all his years he’d never been there, and lockdown gave him an opportunity to tick another place off his bucket list.
IT’S a bird that normally lives at the North Pole outside Santa’s grotto, but instead this week it somehow finds itself on Dúlra’s bird table. The mealy redpoll is an Irish rarity – and rightly so because it’s a bird that thrives in the coldest climes of the Arctic Circle. But occasionally bad weather pushes it south, and on and on it often flies until it crosses the North Sea into Scotland and, on rare occasions, across the Irish Sea.
THIS is Dúlra’s new lockdown pal – a jackdaw that’s hopping around the garden unable to fly. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with its wings, but as you can see in the picture there is some damage to the top of its beak as if it had crashed into something. Although windows are treacherous for so many birds, Dúlra doesn't think that's how it got injured.
It’s the ultimate zoo attraction – come face to face with the world’s most dangerous animal, with just a few thin bars to separate you. Nestled in a dark recess between mountain gorillas and orangutans, the display at Boston Zoo in the early 1960s left visitors stunned. A sign warned people of the sheer depravity they would be witnessing: “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.” And when nervous visitors peered into the darkness, they saw themselves looking back – the window was in fact a mirror. A brilliant piece of drama and a trap that every single visitor fell into. Because we never see ourselves as destructive – in fact we fool ourselves into thinking that we actually help nature. Sure, who built the zoo itself? In our eyes we’re always helping other species – saving whales and pandas and rainforests. It takes a blunt – but smart – message like this to hit home. Today you hear plenty of soundbites about climate emergency and how wildlife is in crisis – but they are all empty words. When action is required that encroaches on what’s best for us, wildlife is discarded. We’ll be up in arms in our livingrooms in protest at the Amazon burning, but don’t fuss when our own country is turned into a wildlife desert. This week’s Brexit debate is another example, where the focus is on who will be allowed to plunder our seas, with not a word about protections for delicate sea creatures.
WHAT will he write about, Dúlra thought yesterday, his fingers hovering over the keyboard. He was just about to start a story about a trip to the lough shore when from the corner of his eye, he noticed something moving at the base of the lone tree on the patio right outside the window.
IT wasn’t Dúlra’s finest moment. One minute he was happily admiring the wonders of nature around the perimeter of Hilton Golf Course near Templepatrick, and then suddenly he was chest deep in water! When golfers talk about a water hazard, at least now he knows what they mean!The problem is that when most people wisely have their eyes on the ground when they’re walking, bird-watching Dúlra’s head is in the air. So if anything’s to blame for him taking a bath, it’s the beautiful buzzard that he was keeping an eye on at the time. Dúlra heard from a golfing pal that the giant raptor is always in the trees near the 14th hole. And sure enough, right on cue, there it was, perched on a branch like an ornament overlooking the green. It doesn’t need to work hard for a meal here – just keep an eye out for one of the many rabbits – and by killing them, the birds are doing the greenkeeper a favour.
IT was a problem that needed an ingenious solution – and we may well have found it thanks to a feat of engineering. A pair of kestrels have taken up residence at Giant’s Park down by the docks. They’re there every day, swooping and hovering over the vast grassland, eyes trained on the ground below for the tiniest movement from a mouse or meadow pipit.
Dúlra would bet not a single reader could correctly guess where this lovely country laneway is. It looks like it could be tucked away on our hills, perhaps leading to an old farmhouse. But the truth is Dúlra took this picture in the very heart of our city, on the shores of Belfast Lough. Our lough has been out of bounds for the city’s residents for as long as Dúlra has been alive – there’s no easy access points, unless you go up in the direction of Jordanstown.Giant’s Park has the potential to change all that. Here a mind-boggling range of habitats has been created so that not just seabirds can find a safe haven, but even traditional hedgerow birds that love rural laneways like this. Dúlra took a dander around the park this week and it’s hard even to put into words the incredible nature there. The variety and number of birds is partly because of the time of year – there are vast aerial movements in mid-autumn – and partly because this part of Belfast Lough has become a wildlife sanctuary. Not totally by design, of course – we’ve never been known to show such foresight or generousity to wildlife. But while we wait a few more years before ‘development’ can start when the noxious gases have left the underground rubbish that lie under Giant’s Park, it has become like an oasis in the desert. One of the reasons wildlife is thriving here is that it’s off bounds to people. Dúlra gets a special pass because of a plan to encourage kestrels to nest there (more of this in the future).
WHEN Conor McClory went out for a dander along the beach on Sunday, he’d no idea he was about to stumble on something remarkable. Storm Aidan had just blown out and the keen surfer was admiring the waves along with pal Sophie Curran when they spotted something shiny bobbing near the shore as the tide was going out. “At first look I thought it was a bomb, then when I saw there was writing on it I thought it might be someone’s ashes so I didn’t want to open it,” he said. Sophie thought the inscription was in Russian – and asked her sister who has a friend in Russia. A few WhatsApp messages later and it was confirmed. Conor brought the strange object back to his parents’ house in the hope of discovering what lay inside. His mother wouldn’t let him take it apart indoors just in case – so he and his father got to work in the garden. “It had four big bolts on each side so it wasn’t easy,” he said.
Dúlra got the fright of his life this week when he opened the garden nestbox for its autumn clean. Because inside lay an unhatched egg and the skeleton of a poor wee chick...
Sunny was a special dog, not that you’d know it if you saw him in his favourite position – stretched out on the doorstep, lapping up the sun’s rays – hence his name. You'd hardly know it, but there was no dog smarter. Lying at the back door, he was docile, letting the world pass him by as if he wasn’t interested – even patrols of British soldiers went by while Sunny remained unperturbed as the whole dog population of upper Andersonstown raised their collective voices like a pack of wolves on a moon-lit night. To Sunny, the city dogs had forgotten their roots, their purpose. The streets weren’t their natural environment; that lay just above the horizon where the green slopes of the Belfast hills rose. Sunny was just waiting for his moment. And as soon as he heard the whistle from his master – future U105 newsreader Colin ‘Bungie’ O’Carroll – signalling the journey to the mountainside, he sprung into life. Dúlra had the pleasure to see Sunny in his element. It was a thing of beauty, like seeing a pedigree horse up close – yet this was no pure-bred dog. Sunny was part greyhound, part sheepdog, a mutt, but those genes had combined to produce a dog with boundless energy and brains which would outfox, well, even a fox.
LIKE many young people, Dara McAnulty can clearly see how we’re allowing something unimaginably precious – Ireland – to be destroyed. In truth it breaks his young heart. He’s spent much of his 16 years watching how our countryside is abused – drained, flayed, trampled, developed and polluted. We’re often blind to it because it happens so incrementally that we don’t notice, or we’re powerless to do anything about it except sigh in resignation as each wilderness vanishes. Earlier this month we won international recognition as the country that’s done most to annihilate nature – coming 229th out of the planet’s 240 countries (we’re marginally ahead of war-torn Afghanistan). If humanity is at a crossroads, we took the wrong turn before Dara was born. For as long as he can remember, Dara loved the Fermanagh countryside – he couldn’t wait to run out to the garden every morning before school to revel in the insects and birds all around him.
IF you got a whole new outfit, you’d want to parade it around town. In these times of austerity, who could blame you for wanting everyone to see you in all your finery? it would give you a welcome lift – especially with a long, cold, challenging winter looming. Well, that’s how our birds feel right now, because they’ve just been given a whole new head-to-toe ensemble. And these birds feel many times better than we would with our new outfit, because they only get those new feathers once a year. All of them have just got their new costume. It's when their lives are at the peak – breeding season has ended and winter hasn’t yet arrived. In human terms it’s probably the equivalent of your fifties when the kids have hopefully left home and you can take a breather!