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.
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.
THIS is the story of a brick. Not just any brick, but one that holds the secrets of our hills – it too was forged in red-hot temperatures. Dúlra picked it up as a souvenir as he was leaving Colin Glen this week – he had a special place in mind for it. And not sitting on the mantelpiece or on the living-room floor like Father Jack! The lower part of Colin Glen was for many years the heart of brick-making in Belfast – and today, these bricks – many shattered – are still scattered all around it. Kick a bit of dirt here and your toe will probably sting from meeting a piece of buried, rock-hard clay, and they’re as common on the surface as wild flowers.
Wee Mac is the luckiest dog alive.
AN amazing discovery has been made on the Belfast hills – thanks to student Aaron Kelly undertaking a course project like no other. This grainy picture is of an elusive pine marten in a mystery spot above West Belfast – the first time it has been found on our hills. Most of us don’t know this native Irish mammal even exists. When the forests that covered our land were axed, this once-common ferret-like animal was feared to have become extinct. It made a near-terminal retreat to a few remote patches of thick cover in the wildest west. But Aaron (23) – who from a young age has been enchanted by the hills that sweep above his Ballymurphy home – always kept an eye out for any sign of the pine marten every time he went into the country.
Damage to our countryside can be repaired – and here’s living proof. This is one of the countless quarries carved out of the countryside around West Belfast and simply abandoned, leaving a land scarred by ugly pockmarks. There were no environmental regulations those days – or if there were they were often ignored – and the land around our city was used and abused. All across our mountainsides, lush fields suddenly turn into treacherous cliff-faces. Whole buildings were often abandoned in these quarries as if they’d been evacuated at a moment’s notice – in the past Dúlra has peered inside and found workers’ lunchboxes and teapots sitting on tables like a scene from some post-apocalyptic film.
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.