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.
INDIVIDUALS often feel powerless when it comes to global issues like climate change. Will sharing a car to work really make any difference when coal-burning factories on the other side of the world continue to pump clouds of carbon into the atmosphere?
OUR early spring lockdown lulled kestrels into Belfast to nest on a rocky slope just off one of the main artery roads. It's a place that is normally thronged with people walking and driving past, but it had been almost totally abandoned during lockdown. But just as the eggs hatched a couple of weeks ago, the city opened up once more. And now these spectacular falcons find themselves surrounded by people walking by just feet away, unaware the birds of prey are nesting above them. Dúlra spent an hour at the site one evening this week, huddled under a tree so they wouldn’t spot him. Of course, it’s disingenuous to think that a hawk can’t see us – we don’t say 'hawk eyes' for nothing. Their eyesight is the best in the animal world and they can see eight times more clearly than we can.
FOR an hour on Sunday evening, Dúlra thought that some calamity had befallen the rare grasshopper warblers of the Belfast hills.
Dúlra had a skip in his step when he left Slievenacloy this week. He was buzzing inside like he had just got his lotto numbers up.
IF there’s a happier man, Dúlra’s never met him. And why not – Michael Meharg’s office is the rolling hills of Slievenacloy. Dúlra was at the nature reserve on Monday watching a pair of wheatears through his binoculars when the farmer came into view. He was out checking his herd’s latest editions – four calves born that very day.To many people Michael’s job is unforgiving, a 24/7 chore with no days off. But as Michael leant on the gatepost for a chat – he always has time for anyone who enjoys nature – it was clear he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. “When the calves get their first feed, they lie down for a long sleep. And that’s when they often get separated from their mother. So I’m just making sure they’re all together,” he said. And maybe it was just as well – Dúlra watched as he found one calf among rushes at the corner of the field well away from its mother. With Michael’s gentle encouragement, they were soon reunited. “If you can’t find a calf, I can make the noise like a wee calf and then her ears will go up and she’ll start walking, and I can follow her and find the calf,” he said. “There was a first-time mother across the field and she lost sight of her calf yesterday – it’s like a mother in a shopping mall who can’t find her child – the look of panic on her. I couldn’t find it either, but I came up later in the evening and they were together again.“It must have had a full belly and just curled up in a wee ball among the grass.” Michael added: “There’s nothing that beats being around the cows at this time of year. I’ve birthed hundreds and hundreds of calves and there was one the other night that needed a bit of help – not much – after six hours in labour, but seeing that moment of birth, the first gasp of life, it’s incredible. She was exhausted, but as soon as the calf comes out, she’s up licking it and making the connection calls to it and they’re bonded. “There’s something about that which is just wonderful.”Dúlra had earlier been admiring these cows at Sliabh na Cloiche, the Mountain of the Stone – they somehow fit into the windswept landscape here in a way that other farm animals wouldn’t. And that’s because they’re a rare native breed, the Irish moiled cow – which Michael has been able to save from the brink of extinction. Just six remained at Belfast zoo, which he has now turned into a herd of 100. Or 104 this week. The ‘moiled’ comes from the Irish ‘maol’ meaning bald or hornless. Small and tame, they’re more like pets – and they’re at home on these rough uplands. “See that rath there,” said Michael, pointing at the circular ridge a few yards behind us, “these cattle were here when people lived there many centuries ago.” As the May sun settled over Lough Neagh, ridges appeared on the fields all around Michael, evidence that people once lived on these slopes and ploughed the fields.“It’s believed these lazy-beds are all pre-famine,” said Michael. “They're wonderful to look at but sad at the same time.” And with that he was on his way to the next field to search for more calves.
DÚLRA nearly fainted to find this amazing bird on his garden feeder this week.It’s like a bird of paradise – but many, many times bigger than those tiny hummingbirds.It’s a jay – scréachóg in Irish – a native bird that just didn’t exist in Dúlra’s youth. The closest he ever got to one was when he found a beautiful fluorescent blue feather on a path in Colin Glen – it could only have been that flash of blue from the jay’s wing – and kept it for years as a bookmark. But as for the bird itself, well, it was more myth than reality. The jay was yet another victim of the denuding of the Irish countryside. Jays love forests, and without trees they are homeless. The slither of forest that makes up Colin Glen might just have been enough to attract a pair, but despite scanning the treetops on every visit over decades, Dúlra never did see one there.
THERE’S nothing more perfect, more beautiful, in the world than these five eggs. Even among the vast horde of treasures in the famous Louvre museum in Paris there will be nothing to match them, no jewel more spectacular. The pyramids and the Taj Mahal may be wonders of the world, but they don’t hold a candle to these wonders of nature.
THERE’S a lot of talk about reforesting Ireland, but it seems to Dúlra that precious little is ever done about it.
Napoleon’s Nose is one of Belfast’s most famous landmarks – and for Dúlra its majesty lies not only in its historical significance, but in its remote beauty. So remote in fact that the silken kestrel – which last week sadly joined Ireland’s red list of endangered birds – still nests on the cliffs here. So Dúlra went this week in search of the falcon which was, just a decade ago, our most common bird of prey. And as he walked through the brambles, he couldn’t believe what he found before him – not a rare bird or animal, but something much more inexplicable.Dúlra’s going to enter it into the Guinness Book of Records as Ireland’s highest shopping trolley. Here it is with Napoleon’s Nose as a backdrop, which rises 1,200 feet above Belfast. That means the trolley sits at a cool 1,000ft above sea level. Surely it’s worth a mention in the famous book, eh Guinness? Dúlra can only guess the Herculean effort required to take it to this point. Trollies like this Tesco one are fitted with swivel wheels to help them glide effortlessly across supermarkets’ sleek floors. But on the thick, muddy and bramble-laden foothills of Cave Hill, they’re about as much use as a pair of ballet shoes. In fact it’d be easier to carry the trolley on your shoulder than push it across this terrain. The nearest Tesco is about two miles away in Abbeycentre – but from there it’s uphill all the way. Dúlra seriously doubts someone took it here directly, filled with their weekly shop. But who knows? Maybe they enjoyed a picnic below Napoleon’s Nose, or maybe it was an extreme fitness challenge, on a par with a desert marathon. Dúlra tried to shift the trolley in the vain hope that somehow he could get it off the hill, but it was impossible. It felt like a ton weight – they’re made to be sturdy so they don’t topple over. Each trolley costs about £100 to make – but there’s no known second-hand trolley market (unlike, say, pallets), so they aren’t stolen to order, but just for convenience. If you can call dragging one 1,000ft up Cave Hill a convenience. Still, quite a few go missing every year – in fact £500 million worth worldwide – and many end up in our own Lagan. For Dúlra, its presence was both a conundrum and a cause for sadness – that even 1,000ft above Belfast, we still manage to dump our unwanted things on nature. Thankfully, just as Dúlra was turning to go home, the kestrel, pocaire gaoithe, appeared overhead, scanning the long grass below for mice. It’s now one of 54 birds on the Irish red list, a rise of 46 per cent in a decade. We’d be off our trolleys to let it disappear from the Belfast hills. • It’s an all-to-familiar scene – a pile of twisted branches in the middle of a field, alongside a shorn border where a hedgerow once stood.
It’s the miracle of North Belfast. Nine ducklings saved by band of neighbours who just wouldn’t give up. The drama started when a trail of ducklings walked out onto the road in front of mum-of-three Paula O’Brien on Saturday afternoon near the top of Cavehill Road. Paula and husband Dave were going to drive on – until they noticed a big black cat ready to pounce. Paula asked Dave to pull over so she could shoo the cat way, which she did. But then a strange thing happened. The duck and her seven ducklings refused to budge. Paula told Dúlra: “We have a pet carrier in the back of our car because we have two dogs, so I said to Dave, why don’t we try to get them all into the pet carrier and we could drive them down to the Waterworks and let them go there?
WHEN you head up to Colin Glen for a nice late-spring dander, you don’t expect to be caught in a snowstorm. But on Monday we got caught not just by one storm, but by SIX! At one stage our heads were pounded by hailstones the size of pennies, but minutes later the forest was magically filled with a multitude of snowflakes floating like fairy dust, all illuminated by the sun which incredibly was shining at the same time. We had gone there in search of two of the glen’s long-time residents – kestrels and dippers. Kestrels have nested in a quarry here for as long as Dúlra can remember, while dippers are among our earliest nesters and will probably already be incubating their eggs. But in the end it was two other birds which stole our hearts.
THIS mother bird sitting on her nest in downtown Belfast this week tells us all we need to know about the long winter – it’s over! The mistle thrush is incubating her eggs in the heart of the city just outside BT Tower and the Hilton Hotel, an area which is usually bustling with workers. Of course now with most people working from home she’s got the city all to herself. A row of cherry trees has been planted here, and it’s amazing how even small inner-city trees like these can be so vital for nature. Last year Dúlra wrote about a colony of goldfinches that built nests in the same trees. A bird-watching worker in the tower block had heard their delightful twitter from an open window and told Dúlra about their nests, which were built among tangles of leaves on the extremities of the trees.
EVER try carrying a ladder to the top of Cave Hill? Of course not – because you’re not stupid. Dúlra, on the other hand, not only did it once, but twice. Last week he was suckered in to put, literally, his shoulder to the wheel in a bid to give the kestrels of Cavehill a new home. It was a worthy project – kestrels have suffered a calamitous decline all over Ireland because of our overuse of rodent poisons, but thankfully they’re still holding out on the Belfast Hills. A decade or two ago they could be seen hovering over every motorway verge and even the gardens of West and North Belfast. Today if you want to catch a glimpse of this spectacularly beautiful falcon, you’ll have to put your walking boots on. There’s no finer sight than a kestrel soaring below while you’re on the hilltops. Its deep crimson back – something you rarely see from the ground – is mesmerising. You need good binoculars to do it justice – the city as a backdrop only makes it better – and it’s something that is rarely if ever caught on camera.
THIS wee carton of magic is filled with hundreds of mini-miracles. Dúlra collected the frogspawn at a stream near Lough Neagh this week and put them in his garden ‘pond’ – a bucket of water sunk into the ground. The stream in the picture is packed with spawn, floating like translucent clouds. There’s no harm in taking them, firstly because they are so bountiful – a single female frog lays 2,000 eggs – and secondly because Dúlra’s going to give them a much safer home. If every tadpole survived we’d have a problem of biblical proportions, so maybe it’s just as well that 49 out of every 50 are eaten. Frogspawn are like plankton in that they provide a stable diet for almost every other animal.
THIS is how easy it is to demolish hundreds of years of natural history. An ancient hedgerow on the Belfast Hills was effortlessly scythed down by a mechanical digger last week to make way for new homes.