Category Archives: Nature

Interview with Siobhan Thompson – Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership

Interview with Siobhan Thompson – Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership

Blog by Joanna Martin

I am interested in finding out what is being done to help the Curlew, so I approached Siobhan Thompson the Natural Heritage Officer at the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership.  I had heard about a dramatic event she was involved in last year when Curlew eggs had to be rescued from burning peatland.

In September 2016, in a 130 hectare site, the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership was established with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund to manage, conserve and enhance the wetlands.  Lough Neagh is the largest inland freshwater lake in the British Isles covering an area of 151 square miles; it is situated in the centre of Northern Ireland with five of the Province’s six counties touching its shores and is a haven for wildlife.

The aim of the project was the restoration of peatlands and wet grassland, but it wasn’t until March 2017, when Siobhan heard the call of several Curlews flying overhead, that she realised the area was an important breeding site for this endangered bird.  Since then the area of 3-4 nesting pairs has been monitored from a distance with birds being tagged with GPS devices.  Electric fences are erected allowing a 25m area around each nest to keep ground based predators away.  The team work closely with local farmers who are keen to be involved. 

Siobhan explained “I wait like an anxious mum for the Curlews to return each Spring and hearing their call is so uplifting…”  In March the courtship displays begin, followed by the birds building a nest on the ground called a ‘scrape’.  By the end of April to the beginning of May the first clutch of eggs will have been laid.  

Chicks hatch after 26 days, and at this point the female parent leaves and the male takes over.  Chicks leave the nest within hours of hatching, walk under the electric fence and literally run off as fast as their legs will carry them.  Siobhan remembers “I stood on a fence post watching in dismay as a tiny chick ran off across several fields disappearing into ditches and reappearing on the other side…”   

In 2020 there were a number of fires on the peatland which continued on and off for three weeks.  It became obvious that the Curlew’s breeding area was going to be affected, so Siobhan and her team applied for a licence from the NIEA (Northern Ireland Environment Agency) to lift two clutches of eggs from nests and move them to safety, the first time this had been done in Ireland.

With the help of Dr Kendrew Colhoun and Kerry Mackie of KRC Ecological, the eggs were placed in an incubator and then moved to a secure location for hatching and hand-rearing. They were kept in a pen at RSPB’s Portmore Lough Reserve, and out of seven eggs, five birds were reared to adulthood and released in September 2020.

I asked Siobhan what hope there was for the Curlew in Northern Ireland going forward, and she explained that Northern Ireland is way behind the rest of the UK and Ireland in support.  England, Scotland and Ireland all have funding for habitat restoration and emergency response packages for the Curlew in place.  The plight of this iconic species has been recognised as one of the UK’s most urgent conservation issues and the NIEA desperately needs more financial help from the government.  Curlew numbers have dropped by 80% in Northern Ireland “if the situation isn’t prioritised this beautiful bird will be lost from our landscape in 5-10 years.”

Photography: Siobhan Thompson

For the original blog and much more, check out: Curlew Cottage Design

Growing Wings

Growing Wings

Despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 in 2020, and now heading into 2021, our new batch of students have still managed to make the most of the unusual circumstances. They started their placement with us on September 1st 2020 and have been super busy throughout! They have received a huge variety of training, including herbicide use qualifications, and there will be plenty more in 2021. Every two weeks the students submit a report on a topic they have been learning about in the field. Come rain or shine, the students have put all their energy into carrying out practical conservation work to protect and enhance the environment around Lough Neagh. Heading into 2021, there will be a lot more desk-based work and they are adapting well to the ever-changing circumstances. Our students are a real asset to our team, bringing enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and craic to every activity and task they are presented with. I am their line manager and had told them at the start of their placement that you need big wings to wing it in the environment sector with the ever changing circumstances and they are definitely growing them. I am proud of the way they take everything in their stride. They make my job enjoyable and are a pleasure to work with! Thank you Lauren, Yamini, Joel and Catherine and keep up the good work.

Watch this video for an excellent summary of everything they have done so far.

A big thank you to Heritage Lottery Fund NI for funding their placement. Without it, these students would not gain the valuable skills and experience they need to break into the world of work.

Thank you also to the other organisations who we work in partnership with to bring variety and learning into the students’ placement. RSPB NI, Ulster Wildlife, Ecomantella, Belfast Hills Partnership, Mourne Lifeguard Training, Armagh Banbridge Craigavon Council, Mid Ulster Council, Feasting on Weeds and so on!

Totem Animals

Totem Animals

Blog by Liam Campbell

I broke my ankle lately, stupidly wearing sandals clambering over rough ground. I should dress appropriately for my age! However, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good. This has forced me to  slow down, and to take notice. To Take notice of the small things. To pay closer attention.

I am very lucky to live in a remarkable place in the Sperrins and to work at an equally remarkable place by the shores of Lough Neagh.

Tied to my desk, I have begun to take notice of a little wren in the prickly, impenetrable pyracantha bush against the wall, outside my window. The Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who gave the world the central system by which all living things are classified in Latin (many disagree with this system) has given the wren the most amazing of Latin names Troflodytes troglodytes, sounding like some gigantic creature from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Such a big name for such a little bird. The Irish, derolin, little druid, I find more accurate and pleasing.  Although tiny they can deliver a shrill song with great gusto and dispense great wisdom if we take time to notice.

I am old enough to remember the pre-decimal coins of the Republic of Ireland that featured animals such as the hare, the Irish Wolfhound and the salmon. The smallest coin, the farthing, featured the woodcock when I thought it should have been the wren. But then it may have been too associated with paganism! More of this later.

Sometimes when, I think of scale and the climate crisis that engulfs us, I feel so small and powerless to do anything. Amid the increasing lexicon of environmental catastrophe, it is no surprise that there are new words for fear (after all environmental psychologists have given us – Nature Deficit Disorder to name our disconnection from the natural world,  as if we are not part of it!) To pay attention to what is happening in the world and to imagine what might come next instils fear in most of us. We as human beings are responsible for this devastation and we often suffer guilt and anxiety as to what to do about it. Our suffering is guilt as well as fear. Some call it ‘eco-anxiety’, others have termed it ‘solastalgia’

I feel that we have to ‘adopt’ the smaller more-than-human beings and see what they can teach us. Sometime the world is just too big and makes us feel helpless. Concentrating on the smaller as in the form of a mascot, totem or whatever we call them, can help see the bigger connections and pictures.

 An animal such as the wren, salmon, eel,  crow, eagle,  a tree, even  Sphagnum moss  or similar is adopted. In a sense it becomes a symbol of a collective unconsciousness and becomes a means to renewal and restoration.

Adapting to that world requires that we understand ourselves as individuals, as groups and as one species among others – that we learn to live our collective and individual lives on the Earth’s catchment terms. Engaging the lives of wren, wild salmon, or whatever can create a situation wherein the peoples of this place begin to experience themselves as functional parts of the place itself. Engaging the lives of any part of the wild in any self-defined natural area will lead to this. The wren  is a  good teacher and as some natives elders say, “ Any animal knows way more than you do “.

The “environment” as a “whole” can sometimes seem too large to relate to, whereas an “element” of it such as the wren can help us relate to the “whole”. Archetypes, according to the psychoanalyst Jung are “forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. Although they are relatively distinct, these universal forms are embedded in a web of relationships, in which each archetype ultimately involves all the others”.

My colleagues have been involved in a wonderful curlew restoration project for some time now and last week saw the successful release of three curlews chick across the Lough Neagh landscape – an amazing contribution to the declining curlew population. These were so much part of the soundscape of my childhood and indeed adulthood and yet the decline is so dramatic. I can think of no better a totem to adopt. The local children are doing it with various ritual and art projects.

The curlew can be the saviour of this wonderful place.

 There are many forms of mimesis and ritual that can help reconnect society with the whole community of life. In many societies, mimesis serves the purpose of renewal and restoration. An act of mimesis reconnects the worlds for sacred service and community. We need spiritual practices, art and ritual, because authentic work has to come from the inner self and acknowledge the “spiritual way of knowing”. Recovering or re-connecting with this love of life in all its forms comes through creativity, art, imagination and meditation. Through ritual we can reconnect with the inner child and that child’s relationship to the earth and to their place on it. Ritual can help to heal and nurture the child within. Being a member of a community of beings is expressed by mimetic ritual – be this, the protecting of eels, bog, or the curlew or the coming together, the meitheal (lit., working party) of any group of people to work at their relationships with the more-than-human world.  This requires that we be open to the stories and art of others and indeed our own instinct and that we be willing to let these into our lives. It requires that we relearn how to read the landscape, something our ancestors did by instinct.

Back to the animal coins! I have been doing a bit of research on the history of their introduction. . Indeed, so familiar and commonplace did they become that it is hard now to believe that their release in 1928 was followed by a heated debate about their symbolism. In the Senate, poet W.B. Yeats welcomed the government’s decision to appoint a committee of artists to advise on the design of the coins, declaring that stamps and coins were ‘the silent ambassadors of national taste’. Yeats was therefore a logical choice as chairman of the committee on coinage design. By the time the designs were officially released to the public, they had already attracted controversy owing to unauthorised disclosures of the committee’s choice of symbols. The symbols were listed in December 1926 by the short-lived newspaper Irish Truth, which predicted that they ‘will not merely be unpopular, but will be met with positive derision’. The coins were condemned by their detractors for promoting paganism because they bore no religious symbols; for repudiating the national tradition by neglecting conventional national emblems; for stereotyping Ireland as an agricultural nation. The fact that there were no religious symbols on the coins was a major cause of concern for the critics of the designs, who believed that the coins should proclaim Ireland’s status as a great Christian nation. For a number of critics, the absence of religious emblems was no accident but was part of a larger conspiracy to remove religion from public life. Several saw the hands of the Freemasons at work in the coinage designs! Critics of the coins liked to describe them as ‘pagan’, paganism being a more pejorative term for secularism and materialism. As one critic explained, ‘The coins are called pagan in the sense that there is a total absence of a sign that they symbolise the sovereignty of a Christian nation’.
Those who held this view had little time for the argument, advanced by defenders of the coinage designs, that to put religious emblems on coins would be to profane holy symbols. To the defenders of the coins, there was nothing irreligious about the animal symbols. The liberal Irish Statesman mocked the coinage critics: One would imagine that while man was created by God the animal world was created by the devil, so angry are the critics . . . Who would have thought that that poor little hare on the threepenny bit was a form of the devil, or that little woodcock was a demon.
The absence of religious symbols from the coins was a virtue for their defenders, several of whom quoted the biblical verse about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. ( History Ireland etc ).

For me this shows some of the historic roots of all this disconnect and the separation of life on this planet. One writer  contends that the “original sin of humanity” is “the tendency to abstract ourselves from the earth, from the place of which we are an integral part”.

Things are changing however in in conservative church circles  to a more inclusive and less separatist attitude to nature. This too is the call of Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato  Si – On Care of our Common Home ( 2015 ) which is in my mind a very radical departure in Christian thinking as a  “ wide-ranging, comprehensive and positively disturbing call to our deepest selves to awaken and act in unison for the common good “.  Issues such as The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism, The Principle of Common Good and  The Control of Water are given full chapters in this most radical of departures. The choice of the phrase ‘our common home ‘ is itself radical in that it highlights our shared space as the entire community of life and the possibility of recovery.

There is a great story in Irish folklore of the wren becoming king. At least Linneaus gave them a kingdom and as Finton O Tooke said in a recent Irish Times article on the Covid and climate crisis – “ We are not the kings anymore!” It might be no harm for each of us to have a totem animal (that is not human). The curlew is not a bad one to choose.



Curlew chicks are enjoying a new lease of life around the shores of South Lough Neagh after their eggs were rescued from a peatland blaze.

The team at Lough Neagh Partnership has been delivering the National Lottery Heritage Fund supported “Saving Nature” project in the area under the Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership since 2016, but this year things on the Moss took a dramatic twist when a fire ignited on a large block of peatland habitat and, as the local Northern aIreland Fire and Rescue Service worked around the clock to put the fires out, the temperate weather conditions, lack of rain and fanning winds reignited the fire on other areas of the site.

Forced to undertake frontline conservation work after the fires which smouldered for weeks burned over 50% of their site and removed vital nesting habitat for the adult curlews and destroyed essential food supplies for the still to hatch vulnerable ground nesting chicks, the Lough Neagh Partnership team alongside partner organisations RSPB NI and NIEA, took emergency lifesaving steps to save the eggs. For the first time in Ireland the partners acquired a licence to remove the fragile eggs from their natural habitat and maximise their chances of survival, as these birds are one of Northern Ireland’s most endangered species, having declined by 85% since 1985.

The eggs were placed in an incubator and transported to a secure location for hatching and hand rearing. The chicks were then transferred to the RSPB’s Portmore Lough reserve where they were kept in a pen on soft rush pastures providing ideal feeding habitat for curlews.

Dr William Burke of Lough Neagh Partnership said: “These birds are so vulnerable and incubation was crucial for the survival of these chicks. This project became a real labour of love for our project officer Siobhan Thompson who, alongside Dr Kendrew Colhoun, and Kerry Mackie of KRC Ecological, completed the works on behalf of Lough Neagh Partnership. Kerry’s experience in incubating eggs and hatching chicks championed an innovative solution in record time to ensure the successful moving of the eggs and he then monitored the hatching of these eggs during some of the most difficult times we have ever experienced. The growth of the chicks has been miraculous and we are overjoyed to be able to release them at Portmore Lough RSPB reserve.”

Dr Neil McCulloch, Ornithologist at Northern Ireland Environment Agency, said: “Curlew have declined catastrophically over the past 30 years and the plight of this iconic species is now recognised as one of the UK’s most urgent conservation issues. The decline has been particularly severe in Northern Ireland, with over 80% of our Curlew having been lost. One of the main problems has been the poor survival of young birds and every chick is now precious. The Lough Neagh Partnership are therefore to be congratulated for their prompt action in ensuring the survival of these broods and NIEA is delighted to have been able to assist this project. We now hope to see these young birds returning to the Lough Neagh area in future years and becoming part of an increasing Curlew breeding population. The fact that this project was necessary also highlights the danger to wildlife posed by fires in the countryside, most of which are avoidable.”

Seamus Burns, RSPB NI Area Manager, said: “When asked by this community-led project to make Portmore Lough Nature Reserve available as a safe and secure place in this emergency response to save these curlew chicks, RSPB NI was happy to support.”

Kendrew Colhoun said: “This was a big step for us to take. As conservation scientists, our key job is to work with the local community to gather information on these special birds to help inform their protection. It is clear that our love for them is shared by the community and we simply could not be bystanders to the acute threat of burning this season. In the wild we have thankfully seen some young birds successfully fledging elsewhere in this area this year and further boosting the Lough Neagh population, albeit by unconventional means.”

The curlew chicks have now been released as they are able to fly and survive independently and it is hoped they will continue to thrive and breed in the Lough Neagh landscape.

Curlew Chick Flight
The Much Maligned Lough Neagh Midge…

The Much Maligned Lough Neagh Midge…

Over the weekend, I read three articles in different newspapers about the Lough Neagh Midge…

In one local paper, people were being “terrorised” by “plagues” of midge… In another regional paper, an indignant journalist compared them to coronavirus saying “a first tranche arrives taking lives and scaring us witless”…

I first encountered the harmless Lough Neagh midge in May 2016 – I arrived at work at 8am and noticed a few hovering around… Pockets of them sitting on the fences…  when I left the office at 11am to go visit one of my sites I came out the door to clouds of them… gliding in slow motion through the air, they didn’t make any noise, and though I feared I was about to be bit to death and drained dry of blood in the short dash to the car, I quickly realised this wasn’t the case… They flew all around me, bumping off my eyes, catching in my hair, making it into my mouth, but none of them bit me.

So started three weeks of large clouds of Lough Neagh midge – All my sites along and near the shoreline of the Lough had thick clouds of them, it was impossible to open the car window, without filling the inside of the car.. I would drive along the road and spot thick plumes of them swirling like smoke above hedges and treetops… In some ways when I watched them they reminded me of a starling murmuration, gracefully swooping and dancing around one another, I wondered what they were and what purpose they served.

I learnt that the Lough Neagh midge is a Chironomid midge, and that they are among the most important of the wild residents of Lough Neagh we will encounter. Lough Neagh is the largest fresh water lough in Ireland and the UK, it is a beautiful expanse of water that supports and provides homes for a vast array of invertebrate, fish, bird, and other wildlife.

The chironomid midge is right at the heart of that ecosystem, it provides a valuable resource for the wildlife in that food chain, blooming just in time for many of the species that live in and around the lough.  I love watching out my window as the Swallows, house martins and swifts swoop and race through the clouds of flies, catching them in their beaks and taking them back to the nests where hungry chicks squawked to be fed. The birds at Oxford Island have almost always been able to support 2-3 batches of young a year, and that’s down to the midge.

They have four stages to their life cycle – Egg, Larva, Pupa, and Imago (adult midge) and at each of these stages they are providing a valuable food resource. In the Lough, they are eaten by eels, fish, frogs and once they emerge from the Lough they help feed beautiful dragonflies, spiders, birds and other invertebrates… They live on the bed of the Lough for a year or more, eating dead plants and algae, acting as super recyclers of Lough waste products. If the midge wasn’t there, waste would accumulate and poison the waters, local wildlife would decline, fish and eels would not thrive and the fishing industry that supports many people and families around the Lough wouldn’t do as well.

I learned that as adult flies they don’t have any mouth pieces so cant bite or sting us, their sole purpose is to find a mate, and the clouds you see above the trees and hedges gracefully winding around in thick plumes are performing their courtship dances, the female then goes and lays her eggs in the water and then with no drama die and are absorbed back into the Lough…

When you know the bigger picture you can see just how important this little midge is for nature and people. What a valuable creature it is at all stages of its life cycle…

I started to feel a certain sympathy for the midge – alive for only a few days trying to find a mate – I would try to gently catch and release any that had inevitably made their way into my car as I dashed into it.. It didn’t seem fair to take them miles away from other midge especially as they had made it this far.. I quickly came to realise that wasn’t possible either…

So whilst I know they can be viewed as pests, and it’s a little uncomfortable having to walk through them, I know that after a few weeks they will be gone, and that really its worthwhile co existing beside them for that short time period. I think the much maligned Lough Neagh Midge isn’t so bad after all…

Volunteering During Lockdown – Litter Lifts

Volunteering During Lockdown – Litter Lifts

Volunteering During Lockdown – Litter Lifts
Blog by Lisa Critchley

As environmental organisations are beginning to dust off their equipment, sanitise their gloves and get new procedures in place to take their valuable volunteers back out, volunteers need not necessarily wait to get back to action. There are some simple volunteer tasks you can do whilst we are sorting ourselves out! One important task is litter lifts. These are straightforward and can be done anytime you head outside.

The Problem

I have noticed a significant increase in litter since the lockdown restrictions lifted. There are more people about, enjoying the great outdoors, maybe taking a bottle of water with them or an energy drink. Fast food chains have re-opened, flooding with eager customers, desperate to get their teeth into their favourite food after months of no access. Many other food and drink services have opened their doors as well, offering takeaways in order to adhere to restrictions still in place. It is good news that we can now head out and support our local restaurants and cafes or eat our desired fast food again. However, it is terrible that this supposedly positive story of restrictions lifting, places re-opening and things getting back to normal, comes hand in hand with utter disregard for the natural environment and irresponsible behaviour. The majority of litter I see when out and about is takeaway cartons, fast food chain packaging, single use coffee cups, bottles of water, energy drinks cans, drinks cans and cigarette butts. It is very disappointing that some people are so careless and disrespectful of their local area and scenic spots. They come to these locations, consume their purchase and simply discard it on the ground, in the bushes, on the verge, into the rivers, on the Lough shore. No doubt they chose the location to enjoy their food, drink or exercise for its beauty, so why not keep it that way and take the empty cartons, bottles and cups home? They are lighter anyway!

Litter Lift

Litter is a big problem for a number of reasons. It is unsightly and can be smelly, spoiling our enjoyment of walks, scenic areas and parks. It contaminates and pollutes soil and water causing issues for wildlife and plants. It is dangerous to wildlife who can mistake it for food and eat it or become caught in it, both of which can lead to fatalities. It blocks our drainage systems, which can cause flooding. It can be washed into rivers and streams meaning it eventually ends up in our loughs and the oceans, which is again, detrimental to our wildlife and plants.

Lots of litter takes a very long time to break down, for example, even a seemingly harmless orange peel can take 2 years to decompose or a cigarette butt can take up to 12 years. This means that all our irresponsibly discarded rubbish stays in the environment for a very long time, affecting many different wildlife, plants and habitats.

Litter Lift

How Can You Help?

If you, like me, are frustrated by the litter you see when enjoying your local walks or visiting a scenic spot, you can do something about it. I know it is not your litter, but it is your world so you can definitely help by picking it up.

All you need is a pair of gloves (these are essential for health and safety) and something to collect the litter in like a bin bag or shopping bag. If you have a litter picker, you can also use one of these. They are not essential but do increase your reach and help if you have a bad back and cannot bend down.

Health and Safety

Before you start picking up litter there are a few things you must take note of:
– Don’t pick up broken glass or other sharp objects. You will put yourself at risk of being injured.
– Don’t pick up dog poo bags with dog poo in them. This is a health risk and disgusting. I have never understood why someone would go to the trouble of picking up a dog poo and then leave the bag. If they are not taking it away again, it is better to leave the poo as it will rot away, unlike the plastic bag!
– If you are working close to a river, as tempting as it is, please don’t reach for litter close to the water if it puts you at risk of falling in.
– Take extreme care if you come across single use gloves or face masks. These hold the risk of being contaminated with Covid-19. Never touch these directly, use a litter picker if you have one and remember to sanitise it after.

Litter Lift

After the Litter Lift

Once you have finished picking up litter, tie the bag up securely and put it in the nearest bin, if it doesn’t fit, you can leave it beside the bin and the council will collect it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t surprise me how much litter can be collected in a small area, having led litter lifts for years, however, it may come as a surprise to you how much you find when you start to look. It certainly surprised my boyfriend how much I collected when making the video – in about a 20-metre stretch I lifted enough to pretty much fill a bin bag.

Litter Lift

Thank YOU!

If you do decide to pick up some litter next time you are out, thank you so much for helping to keep our beautiful countryside, and urban areas, clean! I would love to hear about it if you have picked up litter, so please let me know by emailing me.

We are hoping to get small groups of volunteers up and running again very soon. If you would like to volunteer for Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership, please email me and I can add you to our mailing list.

Volunteering in Lockdown – Litter Lift

Over lockdown, the practical side of our Litterless Lough project had to come to a stop, meaning many sites that we would normally target for litter lifts have been left unchecked. I have noticed a disheartening increase in litter with the opening of takeaway services and knew I could still do something about it by making this video. We are almost ready to take volunteers back out again but in the meantime or if you cannot join volunteering sessions, you can still make a difference! Watch this video to find out how.If you do head out and lift some litter, thank you so much and please let me know!

Posted by Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership on Saturday, 4 July 2020

Planet Earth 2 – Grasslands – Michael McCoy

Planet Earth 2 – Grasslands – Michael McCoy

Planet Earth 2 – Grasslands

Guest Blog by Michael McCoy

One of the most extraordinary types of plant in the world is grass. Grass covers about one-quarter of life on Earth and is virtually indestructible. Some species of grass can grow 2 metres in a day while others endure fire, ice and floods. Grass goes through a cycle of growing in abundance, then destruction, followed by recreation. As a result of the endurance grass has, it is able to support and host a wide variety of animal species all over the world.

Grass is very important to Saiga deer as they not only feed on grass, but also utilise the plant for hiding their new-born calves. This give the calves a chance to quickly learn how to stand up by themselves and be able to move with the rest of the herd. Saiga always give birth to twins so they can multiply at a faster rate when the grass is plentiful. Saiga will travel many miles to find new patches of grassland and can detect any new growths with their specialised nose. Most Human civilisations rely on grasslands for use of food. In todays age, we cultivate grasslands to grow crops which are sold to general public for consumption. The Prairies in the United States of America is exposed to some of the most intense agriculture in the world.

The Okavango is a grassland in Botswana that is home to many great species. Storms release large amounts of rain which floods the surrounding land. Most plant species would drown when submerged in the flood water, however, grass thrives and grows at a rapid rate above water level. Many herbivores take advantage of the rapidly growing grass although flooding can also hinder some predators. Lions find it difficult to hunt as the water prevents them from getting any traction for running while also making noise which alerts nearby prey. One advantage that the flooding does have for Lions is bringing in large gatherings of prey including Buffalo. These herbivores are very deadly with their heavy bodyweight, thick hide and sharp horns. In order for Lions to defeat such a beast, they must act cautiously and work together. Many years ago, Humans like Lions would have travelled and lived on floodplains for the same reason; flooded grasslands attracted large numbers of herbivore. This allowed humans to hunt the herbivores for protein and fat.

Some grass species can transform from first shoot into their flowering period in a matter of days. The flowers on top of these grass species provide food for a number of species including the Harvest Mouse. Harvest Mice will utilise the tall grass to help build a nest. The nest will be spherical, made out of tightly woven grass and built high above the ground in the grass to prevent attacks from predators on the ground. Harvest Mice will climb across long grass in search of food using a prehensile tail which allows for agile climbing. The most nutrient-rich food is at the top of the canopy, unfortunately, this exposes Mice to top predators such as Barn Owls. To evade predation, Harvest Mice often fall to the ground level and must make their way back to the nest. The Mice can read patterns of stems like a map and will be able to find home safely. Both Mica and Humans have what is called a Hippocampus, which is a brain structure that helps greatly improve memory and can create a mental map of areas. Humans have a more developed Hippocampus and so have produced many maps of sites with some even showing the entire planet. The use of maps have great importance in finding new habitats and in todays age, helps with positioning of cities for trade and transport.

In the African Savannah, grassland can be very rich in nutrients, however, this does not last as drought will cause the grass to die out. In some conditions the grass begins to burn due to the extreme heat. As the drought intensifies, the conditions become harsher for everyone. Animals with permanent territories such as Lions can tough it out and so stay put while other species travel across the Savannah chasing the rain and with it good grasslands. Jackson’s Widowing birds seek fresh grassland as it is not only vital for food but also for attracting a mate. The males use the grass and create a stage by evening out the surface by picking out grass shoots while leaving a centre piece of tall grass. In order to get the females attention, the males jump up and down in the tall grass. The winner is the male who can not only jump the highest but also the longest period of time. Females will then judge the males on how tidy the stage is build. In Humans, relationships can be made or broken depending on how tidy the partner is at home. There normally needs to be some compatibility with the lifestyle each has chosen. Most people prefer clean, tidy living spaces in which everything is organised.

Millions of grazers are supported by grasslands all over the world, with one species having by far the greatest impact. Grass-Cutter Ants made an ingenious discovery millions of years ago which is cutting down grass which is indigestible and feeding it to Fungus in their ant hills. This in turn allows Fungus to grow which the Ants then feed upon. As Ants have large numbers within their colonies they require the transport of huge quantities of grass. This practice is essentially pasture farming, which involves feeding and sustaining a living food source with another type of food. Humans have followed in this practice with the likes of feeding Cows grass in order to acquire good healthy beef.

Some grassland experience extreme cold conditions with much of the vegetation covered in at least three metres of snow. In the Prairie lands, Bison search for vegetation which would be buried under the snowy blanket. They use their brute strength and massive neck muscles to push through snow. This method is not always the most effective as it requires a lot of energy with little payoff. Foxes on the other hand use a bit more precision to pinpoint food as they seek mammals which move beneath the snow. Foxes have sensitive hearing to listen for movement and must be patient in order to be successful. This proves that it is often more beneficial to use intelligent behavioural tactics than rely on brute strength.

In conclusion, Grasslands have become a key plant group with a wide variety of species that have created many different ecological niches around the world. Grass along with its inhabitants has been able to survive by being resilient and able to overcome whatever the environment throws at it. Perhaps we could follow their example and make the best of our current situation.





Local Distinctiveness

Local Distinctiveness

Blog by: Liam Campbell

Rivers and loughs etch time into place and challenge our ideas of constancy and transience. Our ancestor had both the intimate need and the time to gain insights into their loughs and rivers. One purpose of our Lough Neagh  Landscape Partnership is to connect ( reconnect ) people to the water. Is there a better time than now? We can take tine and look anew at the long linear edge of the lough and its rivers which juxtapose two different worlds that each enrich each other.  According to experts at least 600 species of plants ( one third of the indigenous plants here ) are found in or by rivers and lakes – the interface between land and water offering the richest range of habits of all.

Places are not just physical surroundings, they are a web of rich understandings between people and nature ( though I sometimes don’t want to separate these – are we not part of nature too ? )  people and their histories, people and their neighbours. Each of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows … in this way we cover the universe with drawings  we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. But they need to be written according to the shapes of our inner landscapes (Bachelard, cited in Macfarlane, 2007: 232).

From an early age I was aware that my father was in demand as a water- diviner, the seeker of wells aided by a forked hazel rod. This ancient functional relationship with the earth and water  held a mystique for me. I want to take water the role of water places in my life more seriously and to reinvent the water of here as a place to go to and love. Its is not just about maintaining diversity and local distinctiveness but it must have meaning for the people who inhabit and use it or it is unlikely to be cared for. Little things ( details ) and clues to previous lives and the landscape may be the very little things which breathe significance into the roads, field and shoreline. If others try to define these for you, or the scale is too big ( the lough is a big place ) , the point is lost. Local distinctiveness is about anywhere, not just beautiful or special places. We have to begin somewhere and water offers a rich angle on the things we thought we knew. How  can we renew our acquaintance with it ?

Some ideas

Once  we start talking about streams, rivers and loughs, perhaps we will start ‘owning ‘ them again.

Investigation and celebration

  1. Make a parish area Water Map – chart all the local watery features from the smallest stream to springs and wells and find out the names of the pools, quays, bridges etc and discover what they mean – but write it down somewhere !
  2. Collect oral histories ( especially from our elders when we still can ) about working beside, flooding ete etc – the list is endless
  3. Celebrate springs and well with seasonal festivities – religious and secular
  4. Take photographs of all watery features
  5. Collect and use information from local people, local papers etc – Look at what Ardboe for example does
  6. Start a parish / area archive with water as a theme
  7. Research watery industrial archaeology such as mills, weirs, fishing quays, canals, stepping stones, fords and ferrys etc
  8. Consider a diary of daily observations beside the water
  9. Poetry, prose, drama and music
  10. Check out a whole water and names heritage
  11. Organise loughshore and riverside walks and picnics when it is safe to do so
  12. Think about the water source when you turn on the tap
  13. Think about the amazing concept of catchment
  14. Think about customs and stories, boundaries and borders, ancient patterns and recent histories, pilgrimages

Group actions

  1. A water audit of use and practice
  2. Install water butts
  3. Food production and water pollution – research
  4. Water power – investigate
  5. Report water pollution
  6. Think of what you put in the drain
  7. Think about culverting water before you do it
  8. Are hard areas always the best – permeable surfaces – less run off
  9. Use recycled water
  10. Leaks !

The silence of landscape conceals vast presence. Place is not simply location. A place is a profound individuality. Its surface texture of grass and stone is blessed by rain, wind and light. With complete attention landscapes celebrates a liturgy of the seasons, giving itself unreservedly to the passion of the goddess. The shape of the landscape is an ancient and silent form of consciousness. Mountains are huge contemplatives. Rivers and streams offer voice; they are tears of the earth’s joy and despair. The earth is full of soul (O’ Donohue, 1997: 115).

Two final things – In our daily lives we need water all the time. We humans are composed of over 90 per cent water. Without it, nothing can grow and secondly if we had to carry water from the well, we might appreciate it more. After all that how Lough Neagh began!

Volunteering During Lockdown – Himalayan Balsam Pulling

Volunteering During Lockdown – Himalayan Balsam Pulling

Volunteering During Lockdown – Himalayan Balsam Pulling

Blog by: Lisa Critchley

Conservation volunteering normally goes on throughout the year; however, as I am sure everyone knows, this year has been quite different. Normally groups of volunteers would be out and about carrying out various, important conservation work such as habitat management, invasive plant species control, wildlife and plant surveys, litter lifts and so on. The fact that these important tasks have been unable to go ahead will have a negative impact on our local environment and disrupt essential work organisations have been doing over the years.

Volunteering in Lockdown – Himalayan Balsam Control

Conservation volunteering is a really important part of protecting our environment and improving our wellbeing. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown that followed, most, if not all, conservation volunteering came to a halt. This means that many important tasks have been missed. However, there are some tasks you can carry out without your fellow volunteers or team leader. Watch this video to see what you can do!If you are interested in volunteering with LNLP, contact:

Posted by Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership on Wednesday, 10 June 2020

However, it is not all doom and gloom! There are some simple tasks volunteers can do without the company of their usual group or team leader. One such task is controlling the plant: Himalayan balsam.

 Himalayan Balsam Pulling 1

What is Himalayan balsam?

Himalayan balsam (impatiens glandulifera) is a non-native invasive plant species. Non-native means that it is not from this country. It was introduced in the 1830s as a garden plant, no doubt brought back from the Himalayas by explorers as a prized exotic plant. It quickly spread from gardens and into the natural environment, taking over areas along riverbanks, wetlands, woodlands and field margins. The Himalayan balsam seedpod explodes when touched, scattering its seeds several metres. The seeds can survive and even germinate in water, which is why it is so prevalent along riverbanks and lough shores. The plant does well in our climate, grows rapidly (from seedling to two metres in one season) and produces large leaves that shade out competition from other plants. It also has no natural threats in this country, such as diseases or insects that eat it, so the population is not naturally kept under control. Its effective seed distribution and ability to outcompete other plants is what makes it invasive.

Why is it bad?

As previously mentioned, Himalayan balsam outcompetes our native plant life. This is bad as it reduces the biodiversity of the area in which it grows and weakens the population of our native flora, affecting the ecosystems in which it is present. Himalayan balsam also has a very shallow root system. This can have a detrimental impact upon riverbanks and sloped areas in which it grows, as, when the balsam dies back in the winter, there is little to no root structure left behind to hold together the soil. This means that riverbanks and slopes will erode more easily.

One argument that some make is that Himalayan balsam provides a good source of food for pollinating insects such as bees. However, it is much better that the insects feed off and pollinate our native flora to ensure a rich and strong biodiversity is maintained in our natural environment.

Identifying Himalayan balsam

Identification of Himalayan balsam is fairly easy, especially as the plant grows bigger. It starts to become more visible during late spring to early summer:

  • Leaves: generally grow in whorls of three and have toothed edges
  • Stem: hollow and fleshy, when squeezed it is easily crushed, normally has a pink/red base to the stem
  • Flowers: develop in summer. They are pink, bonnet shaped and grow at the top of the plant
  • Seedpods: develop in late summer/early autumn. They are green and explode when touched

Himalayan Balsam Pulling 2

What can you do to help?

Now you know what Himalayan balsam looks like, you can start to help to control it. It is very easy, very satisfying and fondly known as ‘balsam bashing’ in the world of conservation.

The shallow root system means the balsam can be pulled up with little effort. Grasp the plant at the base (or as near to the base as possible) and pull it up out of the soil. Break the stem between the roots and the first growing node (ridge around the stem of the plant) and leave on the ground to rot away. Try not to pile the balsam up on top of other plants. It is a very easy task and an individual or small group can clear a large area in a short space of time.

Himalayan Balsam Pulling 3

A few things to think about before doing this:

Health and safety

  • If you are near a water source, make sure you do not go close to the edge of the water and are not at risk of falling in
  • If you have a bad back, know your limits with bending down or crouching to reach the stem. It may be better to avoid doing this task
  • Be aware of brambles and nettles in the area so you don’t get scratched or stung
  • Be aware of any dangerous objects in the area and do not go near to them i.e. broken glass, barbed wire fences etc.


  • Adhere to government guidelines on social distancing and other restrictions
  • Do it as part of your exercise allowance


  • Only carry this out in areas you are permitted to go – as tempting as it is, do not enter private land to carry out the task

Plant identification

  • Only pull up the plant if you are certain it is Himalayan balsam
  • Familiarise yourself with the descriptions above
  • If in doubt, don’t pull it out

If you do end up pulling up some Himalayan balsam whilst out and about, please let me know! Email me to tell me where you pulled it and the rough size of the area. If you have any other questions about this task, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Last but not least, if you would like to volunteer for Lough Neagh Landscape Partnership, email me and we can go from there!

Happy balsam bashing!

Himalayan Balsam Pulling 4

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aine Mallon

Planet Earth 2 – Deserts – Aine Mallon

Planet Earth 2- Deserts

Guest Blog by: Aine Mallon


This report will be discussing the diversity of species found living within the desert and many of their survival skills that they have learnt to successfully hunt and survive in such a barren area of landscape where little precipitation occurs and, consequently, living conditions are hostile for plant and animal life. I will also be linking the adaptations that the animal kingdom has made to thrive here with society, and how we can all learn from these documentaries to get through COVID-19 together. I will also be concluding with how the impact of climate change is altering these desert landscapes.

Namib Desert located in Southwest Africa

Within all deserts, there is no escape from sun, wind, and dust. They make up a third of the lands of our planet, and this desert has been drying for almost 55 million years and yet a pride of lions has managed to survive living here. The desert lions of Namib have adapted to their surroundings and conditions and are able to survive because they can go long periods of time without water, getting most of their moisture from the blood of their kills. And they behave distinctly than other lions as prides are smaller, they have bigger home ranges and travel further and there is no infanticide.


To find their prey, they need to travel very long distances in search of food. Hunger will drive them to take some risks when hunting larger prey. Desperation drove the lion to hunt a giraffe, however a giraffe could kill a lion with one kick therefore the whole pride must work as a team to do so. We have seen today in society where people are also coming together for volunteering to help deliver food and supplies to the elderly and more vulnerable people who cannot go to the shops on their own. From how the lions work together to find food, we may not realise at first, but the work society is doing and everyone playing their part is helping to save and bring food to others who need it most.

American West Desert

This desert is more prone to storms, there is a period of drought (roughly 10 months) and then the desert gets heavy rainfall, tonne of rain is dropped in under an hour, during their spring season in October and November. This will bring a sudden bloom of the flowers ‘hibernating’ beneath its surface. Although some plant species have adapted to the long drought period within the desert which allows them to dominate the American deserts.

Deserts 2
Formation: Sand & gravel carried by flood will carve the channel into solid rock. Some have widened until land between them is sculpted into table lands and isolated pinnacles

The cacti plant has water locked within its tissues, by storing water in swollen stems. It can protect its water with a barricade of spines. Like the cacti, humans have been able to make the ultimate adaptation; that of making the environment adapt to us. We have domesticated crops and livestock, we irrigate, we wear clothes, build shelters, air-condition, or heat our homes. We have learnt new ways to survive such drastic changes to our lifestyle and we are now learning to do so during COVID-19. We are learning how to adapt to working from home lifestyle, we are learning to appreciate the benefits technology has brought us by seeing our loved ones and family. We are growing to acknowledge the outdoors for both our mental and physical, as well as bringing new changes to our back gardens to help support wildlife around us.

Hunting grounds around the cacti

As this plant dominates the desert, many species have acquired special techniques for hunting around this plant. The spines that cover almost every in the desert provides protection and shelter for many animals, such as the ground squirrel. However, the Harris Hawk has a tactic for driving this prey out into the open. By hunting in packs, each hawk will land on the area and ‘tip-toe’ around the cacti by continuously lifting its feet to avoid the sharp spike. The hawks will therefore drive the prey out from the shelter.

Deserts 2

The butcher bird is also another species who takes advantage of the cacti. Carcasses are left hanging on the spikes of this plant because the butcher bird uses the hooks to dissemble prey to feed its young. Another benefit of this is that is keeps the prey from scavengers on the ground floor.

The cacti are predominantly a threat to species and can harm them, however it is evident that the animal kingdom has learnt to use everything in its surroundings for survival. Survival within the animal kingdom is not easy, they face many challenges but arise to overcome. This provides us with hope to be able to get through COVID-19 by adjusting our lifestyle and helping to save the lives of others.

The impact of climate change

This lack of water makes desert landscapes vulnerable. Climate change is reducing the melting of glaciers that provide freshwater to desert communities. Increasing evaporation and dust storms are pushing deserts out into communities at their edges. Human activities have also impacted the desert biome in that they have polluted the atmosphere. This affects all biomes, including the desert. People have also drilled for many fossil fuels, such as oil, in the desert. This causes pollution and is harmful to the animals living near the oil wells.

As with any landscape, to protect it and all the species that thrive within, the key to this is further decrease climate change. Many examples of mitigation techniques include;

  • Reducing energy demand by increasing energy efficiency,
  • Phasing out fossil fuels by switching to low-carbon energy sources,
  • Removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere.