Murlough National Nature Reserve

A visit to the area of special scientific interest and conservation

Cormac Loughran carries a large telescope on his shoulder as he leads a party of amateur birdwatchers to a shallow bay on the edge of the Murlough National Nature Reserve, Co Down.

‘The telescope is very helpful for beginners,’ he says. ‘With practice you will get the “jizz”—you will be able to identify birds from their shape and size and where they are sitting, without using glasses.’

Loughran is Area Warden for the National Trust, who own the reserve. Today he is accompanied by volunteer Neil Willis, a keen birdwatcher since childhood.

We walk down a path pocked with rabbit holes, lined with gorse and bracken. Willis exclaims, ‘There’s a stonechat! It sounds like two pebbles knocking together, punctuated by a whistle.’

Soon afterwards we hear a similar noise, like crashing rocks. ‘Another stonechat?’ someone asks.

Willis laughs. ‘That’s a wren! They make a tremendous racket.’

The northern end of the reserve looks out towards Dundrum Inner Bay, an important feeding and roosting area for wintering wildfowl and waders. On this autumn afternoon, the tide is coming in, and the birds are busily searching for food in the mudflats close to the shore.

Loughran explains, ‘You need to choose your time, because when the tide is out the birds feed much further out, and it’s hard to see them.’

Redshanks and greenshanks are quite easy to identify. Attractive wading birds, they are similar except for the colour of their elegant legs. They make a beautiful plaintive sound as they move about. We watch them probing the mud with their long slender bills, searching for worms and crustaceans. We also spot a black-tailed godwit, a mallard duck, oystercatchers and a curlew.

‘Curlews nest on moors and peat bogs, and move down to the coast in winter,’ Loughran explains.

Lapwings fly past, their dark wings beating slowly. Willis notes, ‘They are a conservation talking point. Their numbers are declining because of changing land use and crop types.’

As winter closes in, more birds will arrive from the north, among them widgeon, dunlin, knot, turnstone and golden plover. The knot is a wading bird whose Latin name, Calidris Canutus, comes from King Canute, famous for failing to hold back the tide. It breeds in the high Arctic and comes here in winter. Another migrant, the Arctic tern, can do a round trip of over 20,000 kilometres.

At the heart of the reserve is a great expanse of sand dunes, some reaching up to 37 metres high. They are covered with tough marram grass. Inhabited since the Stone Age and farmed by the Normans as a rabbit warren, the dunes are now prized for their rich plant-life and their butterfly population.

As we walk back along the path, Loughran spots the round purple flower of the devil’s bit scabious. Caterpillars of the rare marsh fritillary butterfly feed on these. The marsh fritillary has helped the reserve win recognition as an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation.

A protective boardwalk creates paths through the dunes and leads to the spectacular beach. The sea rolls onto four miles of golden sand backed by grey and white shingle. The majestic Mourne Mountains rise to the south, luminous in a misty veil.

Getting there
The Murlough National Nature Reserve is on the A24, 25 miles south of Belfast and three miles north of Newcastle, Co Down.

Further information
National Trust, Murlough National Nature Reserve and The Mournes, Dundrum, Co Down on 028 4375 1467 or email

The National Trust’s annual brochure, What’s On: Northern Ireland, lists nature walks and other events.

Further reading:
The Macmillan Field Guide to Bird Identification

Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.