STRANGE BEHAVIOURS — NATURALISTS AND NATURE STUDIES IN THE GLENS OF ANTRIM by Philip S Watson

This article first appeared in The Glynns 37, 2009

Introduction

Naturalists poking about and peering at things sometimes engender suspicion in country dwellers. Robert Lloyd Praeger was leading a group in the Irish countryside many years ago when two locals who were watching their activities were heard to say:

‘Where d’you think they’ve come from?’

‘Och, they’re from the asylum. That one [pointing at Praeger] is their keeper:1

Robert Lloyd Praeger by Sarah Cecilia Harrison (National Museums N.I)

The Glens of Antrim have been widely praised in song and folklore and more recently as a tourist destination. Their inhabitants were described as ‘shrewd, friendly and hospitable’ by the great Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger2 (1865-1953). Miners have dug their ores, farmers harvested their fields, estate owners and foresters planted their trees, turf-cutters sliced their bogs, fishermen searched their seas, anglers stalked the rivers and poachers and smugglers have had their times, too. Historians have dug as deep as archaeologists and writers and poets have come and gone.

Today there is a growing literature on local history, with many excellent studies from the Glens of Antrim and nearby areas. These provide a background to the landscape and its people over several centuries, but they record little about nature, as you might expect of historical work. Therefore, what of nature, of natural history? Who has studied these over the centuries and what have they found?

This article lakes you into the realms of the other past and present inhabitants of The Glens; from long-lost wolves (scientific names have been appended below) to vanished corncrakes, from the Welsh poppy to the golden eagle and the wily fox, and the naturalists, residents and visitors, who include  weather-beaten geologists, bent-over botanists, sky-staring ornithologists and intrepid photographers.

The area referred to in this article is that delineated by the Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), designated by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland in 19883. In summary, this includes Rathlin Island, the coastline from just west of Ballycastle to a little north of Larne at Drains Bay and taking in all nine glens, with an inland boundary along the base of the west side of the Antrim plateau. Information has been included on coastal waters, which are, so far, not part of the AONB designation. The sea shore and the surrounding waters contain or otherwise support a fascinating array of plants and animals and marine resources have been exploited since humans first arrived here over 9,000 years ago. Salt laden sea winds influence the landscape, not least making much of the coastline a hostile environment for many types of trees and affecting the growing season and hence agricultural activities.

The findings — and this must be seen as a preliminary exercise — are set out chronologically, starting with a brief look at what archaeology and palaeoecology (the study of ancient environments) can reveal about the natural history of this area. Then we enter the period of recorded history, progressing through Early Christian times to the 17th century, with sparse information to draw upon. There is more to discover in each of the 18th and 19th centuries till we find a rapid evolution of studies through the 20th century and on to the present day. To break a little from this plan, some brief accounts of selected species are given, as well as a few equally short biographies of the more eminent naturalists, and mention of some of the lesser spotted. Dates when some of these people lived, or were active, have been included.

Pre-history

Evidence from rocks and fossils reveals clues to landscapes and plants and animals of Ireland during millions of years prior to the last ice age, a country at various times of humid swamps, of windy and arid deserts, of warm shallow seas and of violent volcanic activity. A country in two parts, drifting across the face of the globe on tectonic plates to be finally welded together almost 500 million years ago between what are now Clogher Head (Co Louth) and Galway Bay.4

 

The carboniferous limestone, mudstones, Lias clays and layers of chalk contain fossils that, in north-east and east Antrim, range from a toothed marine plesiosaur to bullet-like belemnites (remnants of ancestral squids), sand dollars (types of sea urchin) and dark curved bivalve shells known as ‘devil’s toenails’. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the times of dinosaurs and other pre-ice age fauna, but evidence is accumulating as research techniques become more sophisticated.

Ice was one of the architects of the Glens landscape, along with fire (volcanic activity) and erosion by running water and the sea. The great Ice ages locked up the area and most of Ireland for many millennia, but on the retreat of the last ice sheets about 12,000 -10,000 years ago (it is not worth trying to be too precise about such events), a naked landscape was ready for clothing by lichens, mosses, flowering plants and invasion by animals, including us. Erosion by the ice left steep slopes in the Glens and along the coast, still susceptible to land slips and mud flows. Following a period of sparse, tundra-like conditions with some hardy pioneering trees like birch and willow, woodland gradually developed5.

It is difficult to imagine, looking at today’s Glens landscape of moorlands, farms and river valleys, a place once heavily forested (ignoring present day conifer plantations) and populated by strange beasts. Nevertheless, species now extinct altogether, or no longer present in Ireland, that long ago roamed the country’s open lands and woodlands included mammoth, giant Irish deer, reindeer, brown bear, wild boar, wolf and lynx.6 How many of these species lived in the Glens area is still being established.

A good hunter knows his prey. The first naturalists of the north-east of Ireland were the Mesolithic shore and river dwellers searching for shellfish, migrating salmon and other game. Then Neolithic settlers arrived, sometimes living seasonally by the shore to exploit seafood resources, and clearing woodland to begin farming. They have left evidence of the foods they ate, of hunting and trapping and domestication of some wild animals in the remains of their settlements and camps, in caves and elsewhere over the period from first arrival between around 9,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago. Later, growing peat bogs swallowed or otherwise stored a great deal of evidence of past landscapes, human activities and wildlife, whether as layers of pollen grains or well preserved other remains of plants, animals, humans and their artefacts. Thus we can deduct that this part of north-east Ireland, from the River Bann to Larne, supplied early humans with shellfish, wild pig, hare, probably deer, various game birds, salmon, sea bass, eel and various flatfish and of course nuts, berries and other gathered food.7  We must continue to rely on archaeology and related disciplines to provide clues to ancient natural history up to the first written records.

Early Christian period to 17th century

The earliest naturalists8 who recorded their observations in Ireland were, in the light of today’s knowledge, not always accurate. Nevertheless, they left us with the first records of plants and animals, some now extinct in Ireland. They wrote of places visited, of landscape and nature, but were rarely inclined to linger in one place and report in detail. Augustin, an Irishman, wrote on nature in Ireland in AD 655, Gerald of Wales produced Topographia Hiberinae in the 12th century and Roderic O’Flaherty explored and recorded much about Connaught in the late 17th century, in more detail than the former two authors. The Glens of Antrim would have been remote and difficult to access for these early and rather general explorers, had they been in the mind to travel much in the north-east.

Probably the first person to describe the Glens of Antrim and their coastline — with an eye for natural features and nature – was Richard Dobbs in 1683.9 He was on a wider itinerary, and much of his findings are reproduced in Hill’s The MacDonnells of Antrim.10

The abundance of raths and cashels in the Irish landscape, and there is no shortage of these in the Glens area, remind us of a people wary of attack by rivals and just as nervous of losing livestock to wolves11, for it was into these havens they retreated with their domesticated animals for the night or in times of threat.

The Wolf

The clearance of forests and persecution brought the wolf to extinction in Ireland in the 18th century. Many districts claimed the killing of Ireland’s last wolf but discerning recorders distilled the more likely from the brew of fable, and the eminent Irish naturalist William Thompson listed Glenarm as one of three areas in Ireland commemorated with such an event, said to have been at Nappan Mountain in 1712. 12 This is also mentioned by McKillop. 13 The wolf has always been a feared animal — not necessarily rationally according to modern studies of the animal — and it must indeed have been perceived as a threat by vulnerable communities of Glens settlers with cattle and other stock that would have been easy prey to these powerful hunters.

18th century

Landscape, scenery, and the interest of the Romantics in the sublime and ‘nature’s architecture’ dominated many of the accounts of 18th century travellers in Ireland.

The Giant’s Causeway, ‘discovered’ in 1692, was attracting a lot of attention in the mid to late 1700’s as debates raged about the origins of basalt. Visitors to this site occasionally made it further east to the Glens, while others travelled north by the coast and the edges of the Glens to the Causeway.

One account stands out for its detail on landscape and natural history.  This is the description written by Dean William Henry about I74014. It draws on the work of Dobbs, quoted above, and gives information on woodlands and other vegetation, fish and fisheries and game birds. The following is a relevant quote, referring to the Glens and hills inland from Garron Point:

.. there being the greatest variety of herbs, where a botanist might be most agreeably entertained and instructed…’

And subsequently, botanists were delighted by what they found.

Bishop Richard Pococke made a circuit of Ireland’s coastline in 1752.15

Richard Pococke 1704 – 1765

On 30th June of that year he travelled north from Larne and explored the coast, Glenarm, Cushendall, Red Bay and Cushendun then made his way over the mountain to Ballycastle and on to the Giant’s Causeway. He recorded belemnites (fossils of early squid-like sea creatures) in the chalk rocks by the shore, saw ‘echini’ (possibly sea urchins) and remarked on the unusual conglomerate of the caves at Cushendun. He even examined the wood-boring marine worms that had caused Hugh Boyd’s pier at Ballycastle partly to collapse.

In 1784, amateur geologist, Revd William Hamilton, was exploring the north Antrim coast, riding his horse along cliff tops. He is probably best known for his correct interpretation of the origin of north Antrim’s basalts, published in 1786,16 recognising their fiery birth as magma cooling to form volcanic rocks but also commenting on the contrasting vivid white chalk. He made some precise observations on the rock layers of Fair Head but did not penetrate the Glens.

The French Royalist, Le Chevalier de la Tocnaye,17 unwelcome in his home country after the Revolution, travelled around Ireland on foot and by horse in 1796-97. Curious, but not a naturalist, he also noted the varieties of rocks at Fair Head, and wrote:

‘I had the fancy to enter this coal mine, and I went through it to the very end; it is a little amusement which, like marriage, one may try once, but I shall not indulge in it again. ‘

He commented at Cushendun on the nearness of Scotland and observed how the basalt capped the chalk on his route down towards Glenarm.

The first true naturalist to study the Glens area was John Templeton of Belfast (1766-1825). Templeton was someone who knew geology, botany in particular, a good deal about birds, and more. Many records18 from him exist relating to Rathlin Island, Ballycastle area and the Glens of Antrim, as described below. In 1794 he found seakale, a rare seashore plant, in Mr Gage’s garden on Rathlin Island, transplanted there from Rathlin’s stony shores and recorded by Mrs Gage as growing in Church Bay but possible now extinct as a wild plant in Co Antrim.19

19th century

In this century several eminent naturalists contributed a great deal to the knowledge of geology, botany and zoology of the Glens of Antrim and surrounding areas. In the mid-19th century, field clubs and societies flourished and a wave of amateur naturalists added to the work of the experts. By the end of the 1800s, natural history was a flourishing activity throughout Northern Ireland.

John Templeton continued to be active. Imagine the thrill he must have felt when, scrambling down the Grey Man’s Path at Fair Head, he found, in 1814, the beautiful yellow-flowered Welsh poppy. It is still there, quite rare as an Irish wild flower, although much cultivated and garden escapes turn up on roadside verges and other places.

The following four profiles20 have been included not because any one of these naturalists was greater or lesser in achievements than their contemporaries, but rather because they recorded much material for the north and east Antrim area.

John Templeton (1766-1825)

John Templeton’s Naturalist Journals National Museums NI

This name crops up time and time again in the literature of botany and zoology of his time. Douglas Deane devotes a chapter to him in his book The Ulster Countryside (1983),21 describing him as Ulster’s first naturalist. He died aged 60 after a busy life in the pursuit of natural history throughout Northern Ireland. Never blessed with good health, he almost died as a child — he had sufficient means to manage and ample leisure time. He was an expert botanist, and took a great interest in zoology, being involved in very early dredging surveys of sea bed life. He lived at Malone in south Belfast, the house being named Orange Grove following the event when King William took shelter there in June 1690 on his way to the Battle of the Boyne.  Templeton’s contribution to the Flora of North-East Ireland was considerable and a browse through the third edition (1992)22 reveals his initials following many records from the Glens area.

The above-mentioned Flora which describes the distribution of plants in counties Down, Antrim and Londonderry was first published by Samuel Alexander Stewart and James Corry in 1888. Through its three editions (1888, 1938 and 1992) it has been known as Stewart and Corry’s Flora of North-East Ireland, but sadly the co-author Thomas Hughes Corry (1860-1883) was drowned in a boating accident on lough Gill in Sligo in 1883. It is a major source – if the mass of information within is diligently searched -of information on plants in the Glens area.

Samuel Alexander Stewart (1826-1910)

Another Belfast man, a trunk maker most of his life, Stewart was one of a group of 19th century naturalists who were all contemporaries in local studies and differed mainly in those who were gentlemen of leisure and those like Stewart who worked for a living. They included clergymen, a shipwright, two linen merchants, a solicitor, a commercial traveller, an inspector of works, a photographer, an insurance agent and others. They studied plants, birds, rocks and minerals, snails, mammals; indeed anything was of interest to these energetic naturalists. Stewart branched into zoology and geology, contributed many notes on Glens flora and fauna to various journals and became a mentor to another great naturalist who roamed through the Glens and indeed all over Ireland, Robert Lloyd Praeger. 23

Robert John Welch (18591936)

 

RJ Welch

RJ Welch was a photographer of landscapes, human activities, geological features, ancient monuments and items related to folklore, his work spanning over forty years from the 1880s into the 1930s, Welch’s photographs (now held by the Ulster Museum24) include about 500 geological, 460 botanical and 250 zoological, with at least 1,000 relating to topography and history. He was also a talented naturalist, knowledgeable on flowers, birds and marine life but especially snails —land molluscs in particular. One of his favourite haunts was Murlough Bay25, and he often organised visits to this site and other local spots for English naturalists, usually arranging for them to stay in the ‘Antrim Arms’ in Ballycastle. He contributed numerous notes on geology / geomorphology, botany, molluscs and other zoological material, mostly in the Irish Naturalist and Irish Naturalists Journal up to 1930, many relating to north-east and east Antrim.

Robert Lloyd Praeger (18651953)

RL Praeger

In his various books on Ireland’s natural history, Praeger does not devote many pages to the Glens of Antrim. Born at Holywood in Co Down, he lived at various times in both Belfast and Dublin. Nevertheless, any search of the scientific literature of the period will reveal Praeger’s name after numerous botanical records for The Glens and area. In particular his masterpiece, Irish Topographical Botany (1901)26, reveals an enormous amount about local botany (by a system of vice-counties) and those who provided the information. Praeger also studied birds on Rathlin and elsewhere and was a noted geologist and antiquarian27.

Who were the lesser-spotted naturalists? The following are some to be found either in the published literature on Glens natural history28 or acknowledged by experts in compiling more substantial  data. 29,30 

Miss Hannah Hincks (1798-1891) of Ballycastle was a noted botanist who contributed many records to the Glens flora lists. The clergy continued to be active in recording natural history. The Revd Samuel Arthur Brenan (1837-1908), based at Cushendun, penned numerous notes on local nature to the journal Irish Naturalist. These included regular observations on the arrivals of summer migrant birds, seasonal notes on nature, even a comment on a plague of rats at Cushendun in 1897.

Islands have always held a fascination for naturalists, none perhaps more famous than Charles Darwin whose visits to the Galapagos Islands set in motion his thoughts on evolution. Rathlin was no exception; it was purchased from the Earl of Antrim in 1746 by the Revd John Gage and his family remained the island’s owners through several generations. John Gage petitioned the Irish parliament in 175831  to promote Rathlin as worthy of public works and mentioned:

‘that all the herrings that enter St. George’s Channel must pass by this island; and there are numbers of herring-hogs or porpoises constantly tumbling in the bay and in the north of the island.’

Robert Gage (died 1891), great-grandson of the purchaser, published a list of the island’s birds 32 and Catherine Gage33 (died 1892) recorded for the island 220 species of plants, four mammals and, allowing for some confusion over names and species, ninety- five types of birds as well as porpoise, killer whale and a larger species of whale.

Others contributing to Rathlin’s natural history included Dr JD Marshall, 183734 (statistics and natural history), Robert Patterson’s list of birds, 189235, botanising by SA Stewart36 and dredging for marine molluscs in Ballycastle Bay and around Rathlin by GW Chaster37 and others in 1897.

In the last two decades of the 19th century the migrations of birds were attracting the attention of some naturalists. Richard Mapliffe Barrington (1849 — 1915) gathered a great body of information from keepers of lighthouses and lightships around the entire coast of Ireland.38 Night-migrating birds use stars, amongst other cues, for keeping on course in their spring and autumn movements across the globe. When skies are heavily clouded, or fog prevails, they are attracted to, and disoriented by, lighthouses, especially those with slowly revolving or fixed flashing powerful white lights. Rathlin Island’s East Lighthouse at Altacarry and the Maidens Lighthouse just north of Larne both attract many migrant birds (and moths). Studies at these two sites in the early to mid-20th century are included below.

Eagles

Eagles and wildness go together. Two species bred in Ireland up to the middle of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, most ornithologists agreed that eagles were extinct as breeding birds in Ireland. The white-tailed eagle, also known as the sea eagle, bred on Rathlin Island but it was gone by about 1850. The golden eagle had vanished as a breeding species in Ireland by about 1910, but it is a reminder of the isolation and wildness of the Glens of Antrim that a single bird inhabited the hills between Armoy and Ballycastle from 1926 to 1930 and in 1929 two were seen in the area.39 A pair nested on cliffs at Fair Head from 1953 to 1960, and the late Douglas Deane found the remains of the Scottish race of hare in the nest,40 so there was eagle traffic at this time between north Antrim and south-west Scotland. Scottish golden eagles have recently been imported to Donegal as part of a re-introduction programme. When these new birds begin to disperse, as some are already doing, they may be spotted in Northern Ireland, while others, perhaps wanderers from Scotland, have been seen over Rathlin Island and in other parts of Co Antrim.

20th century

Some of the Victorian energy of the 19th century naturalists was carried forward well into the 20th century by the bigger names such as Stewart and Praeger. As the decades passed an evolution of natural history interest developed as more research, both amateur and professional, led to various comprehensive surveys of landscape and wildlife, which in turn became the foundations for modern nature conservation and related activities. The account of this century is split into two halves, 1900 -1949 and 1950-1999, but before proceeding there is one species that is worth profiling for the twentieth century as a whole. This is the corncrake, and its decline and eventual loss as a breeding bird in Northern Ireland is a story of change in our countryside.

The Corncrake

There will be many Glens people who remember the call of the corncrake. In the recent history41 of the clachan settlements throughout the Glens, Malachy McSparran described a 19th century farmed landscape that we now realise was ideally suited to this rarely seen but often heard summer visitor. Small fields of hay and oats were cut by scythe and no doubt provided plenty of early cover for newly arrived birds, as did growing nettles and clumps of yellow flag iris. Eileen McAuley in the same publication described the corncrake in more modern times and noted its loss. The latter is well documented. The Atlas of Breeding Birds (1976)42 was a result of fieldwork done over the years 1968-1972 and showed that the corncrake was still quite widespread throughout north-east Antrim. A 1988 survey43 produced only one calling bird in the Glens area. As late cut hay and oats crops declined and silage swards took over, with several summer cuts by mowing machines, the corncrake was pushed into smaller and smaller patches. It is presently confined to wetlands and areas of un-intensive agriculture, notably the Shannon Callows and parts of west and north­west Ireland. The corncrake is now extinct as a breeding bird in Northern Ireland, although habitat is maintained on places like Rathlin Island, in the hope that birds passing through the province — and occasionally heard in the Glens yet but never lingering long — might be tempted to stay and breed once again.

19001949

The Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club continued to thrive and its members joined regular excursions to north and north-east Antrim, recorded in the Club’s ‘Annual Proceedings’. Other field clubs developed, such as the Route Naturalists’ Field Club and the mid-Antrim Field Club, so gradually attention to the natural history of the counties of Derry and Antrim increased, including the Glens of Antrim, and Rathlin continued to be a popular place to visit.

Dean CF D’Arcy44 contributed some notes on Glens nature. He stayed at Parkmore in Glenariffe on a botanical trip in 1901 and on the grassy plateau discovered moonwort — a now scarcely distributed plant — to be ‘very abundant’ and found the unusual adder’s tongue at one site. He also stayed overnight on Rathlin45 and wrote:

‘How well I recall our ramble in the fading light along the bleak cliffs of the north side of the island, where, as night fell, we watched the sea birds flashing through the beams of the light.’

The Revd William Patrick Cormody, appointed Deacon of Layde in 1892, published a booklet on Cushendall and its neighbourhood in 190446 in which he appended a long list of wild plants. Edward Allworthy Armstrong (1900-1978) recorded his early days in Northern Ireland in a delightful book, Birds of the Grey Wind (1940),47 devoting two chapters to his exploits on Rathlin Island, where he watched a flock of fifteen choughs and climbed the fearsome western sea stacks for close views of the nesting seabirds. His other best known works include a classic study of the wren and an important investigation into birds in folklore.

Barrington’s 19th century work on birds at lighthouses (above) was followed up by others in the 20th century. Bird migration in Rathlin was investigated by Best and Havilland 191448, and both Rathlin and the Maidens were studied by JAS Stendall and CJ Patten from about 1915 to the 1930s, as shown by reports in the Irish Naturalists Journal.49

In the 1920s and through to the 1940s new discoveries were being made as more individuals explored the area. Naturalists who began to popularise natural history studies, using the press and radio, were Douglas Deane of the Ulster Museum and Arnold Benington. At this time, some bird species were expanding their breeding range on the north coast of Co Antrim, notably the eider duck, the fulmar and the chough. By the outbreak of the Second World War, many more naturalists were contributing to the geology, botany and zoology of north and east Antrim. Old hands like Welch and Praeger were still visiting the Glens area and recording their finds into the 1930s. Nora Fisher a protégé of RJ Welch, was also adding to information on marine life and botany.

1950-1999

It becomes impractical to continue listing many individual names at this point, as a rapid evolution of natural history work took place within this period. Bird migration studies were continued at Rathlin Island and the Maidens in 1960 and 1961 with the establishment of the temporary Rathlin Island Bird Observatory.50,51 At this time, it was still possible to see up to thirty choughs in a flock on Rathlin. On the night of 30 August 1960, Northern Ireland’s first recorded wryneck — an extraordinary bird — was caught at Rathlin’s east lighthouse and safely released.

Fisheries studies on salmon and their local movements around the coast included work at Carnlough and Torr Head in 196952. The relocation of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Research laboratory from Belfast to Coleraine in 1970 led to studies of fish and shell-fish around the north and east coasts of Derry and Antrim. During work on lobster, crab and queen scallop stocks, some interesting species of marine life were found, notably Yarrell’s blenny at Rathlin and fan mussels off the north-east coast. Then there was, too, the sighting of long-finned pilot whales off Garron Point and a northern bottle-nosed whale leaping out of the deep water on the north side of Rathlin, as well as new studies on the distribution of seabirds in local coastal waters.53, 54, 5556

In the mid-1960s, zoologist James Fairley was given the task by the Ministry of Agriculture to study the fox in north-east Antrim over three years and he included some fascinating comments on the animal’s natural history in An Irish Beast Book (1975).57

The Fox

If one sought something constant in the history of our countryside, the fox would come to mind. Judging by remains found in Neolithic times around 5000 years ago, the fox has been with us for a long time, not always welcome but celebrated in folklore for its cunning, and admired, even by some of its human persecutors, for its ability to survive despite prolonged attempts at eradication. Yet there was a time, from about the 1870s to the 1920s, when foxes almost vanished from Co Antrim. Pressures from shooting and trapping and other methods of destruction by gamekeepers, shepherds and others with stock to protect were the most likely cause of the fox’s scarcity.

In contrast, Fairley records that in the 18th century Manor of Glenarm, an area of about 336 square kilometres (130 square miles) extending north from Lame to Glendun, two shillings (10p) a head was paid for foxes, and between 1765 and 1812, a total of 1,462 such bounties paid out seemed to have had little effect on the animal’s numbers.

Trapped, shot, poisoned, hunted, dug-out and killed, the fox is still with us and has found our cities and suburbs worthy of invasion, to scavenge human food waste. A noted predator (along with some crows) of ground nesting birds, the fox has been part of a detailed study in recent years (2002-2007)58 into the decline of birds such as curlew and lapwing, covering an area of hill and lowland farms from Slemish Mountain south to the Glenwherry valley. Similar work is in continuing in Glenarm and area in relation to red grouse survival.

Information from old shooting log-books can give clues to the former abundance of wildlife. At a time when heather covered the hills much more than today, it is interesting to look at records from shoots on Tiftarney Mountain and area near Carnalbanagh for the years 1923­-1949.59 Almost 12,000 red grouse, over 3,000 hares, 10,700 snipe, 1,100 jack snipe, over 1,400 golden plover and 780 woodcock were bagged (amongst other species) during this twenty-seven year period, and yet by the 1940s the average returns for this area were showing declines.

In 1977 and 1978, The National Trust60 commissioned detailed surveys of breeding birds along the north coast from Cushendall to Castlerock and also carried out biological surveys of its properties or sites under its management at Fair Head, Murlough Bay, small glens at Torr and Coolranny in 1985 and 1992, and of Cushleake Muntain and Craigagh Wood in 1992.61 These provided valuable records of birds now declining in the area, notably the chough, and created records of many unusual plants, molluscs, insects and other species.

As mentioned in the ‘Introduction’, in 1988 the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland designated an area of 106 square kilometres (41 square miles) of north-east Antrim as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).62 Leading up to this declaration, detailed studies within the Glens and wider areas were commissioned In 1987 and 1988 that included a landscape ecology survey, a tree survey, peatland surveys, breeding wader (birds) surveys, a coastal erosion study, surveys of seashore life and underwater marine life in coastal waters. Some of these studies have continued and new ones begun, as discussed below, but the recognition of parts of the Glens of Antrim  and Rathlin Island as important areas worthy of protective designations (some originating in European legislation) has led to a number of National Nature Reserves (NNR), Special Protection Areas (SPA), Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA) and others being declared.

With the help of many volunteers in the field, mainly since the 1970s, various Atlas-based surveys have mapped the distribution of plants, birds, mammals, dragonflies, moths and butterflies nationally, (United Kingdom and Ireland), and regionally, (Northern Ireland), and these give valuable information on a scale of ten km squares (3.9 square miles), or in some cases in tetrads, which are four kilometre squares (1.5 square miles). An example of a local interest is the Glens’ Red Squirrel Group.

An artistic presentation and a lyrical account of landscape and nature in the Glens of Antrim were combined in the work of Roy Gaston and the late Olly McGilloway in 199463

Add all these to cultural and historical studies and it can be said that, by the end of the 20th century, the Glens of Antrim were receiving the attention they deserved since the pioneers like Templeton, Praeger and others began to discover their natural wonders.

21st century and the future

There are new and innovative approaches to the study of habitats and wildlife, many being applied in this area. Scientists are employing sophisticated methods of research and survey, from remote sensing using satellite technology to detailed sonar scanning of seabed topography. The latter is producing discoveries of previously unknown sea-mounts, basins and shipwrecks around our coastal waters.64,65 Such work is assisting maritime archaeologists who are also paying attention to the Glens shores and sea beds.

Changes taking place in the seas and oceans, probably connected to global warming, may be affecting our nearby marine life, as suggested by recent declines in the huge breeding colonies of seabirds at Rathlin. Small fish, essential as food for these birds and their young, seem to be disappearing, or arriving in the surrounding waters too late in the season. An increasing awareness of whales, dolphins and porpoise in our coastal and offshore waters has been driven by activities of the Irish Whale and Dolpin Group.66

Geologists, zoologists and botanists, amateur and professional, are not always confined in a laboratory or sat in front of a computer —many get out and about and, although they will continue to attract the attention of observant locals, they are less likely now to be classified as asylum residents on an excursion.

In addition to scientists and other professionals, there are many more amateur naturalists these days, and there is a growing data base at the Ulster Museum67 recording their findings. A modern account of the landscapes of the Glens of Antrim, including some information on natural history, was published in 2005.68 In this work, Alan Turner covers the same period as this review, and his book is as good a general account as can be found in the recent literature on this area. The AONB now has a detailed Management Plan.69 This document acknowledges the role of the voluntary organisations such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Ulster Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust who, between them, own or manage over 2,000 hectares (over 4,942 acres) of important nature conservation sites within the Antrim Coast and Glens AONB. In addition, the Forest Service manages a number of Forest Nature Reserves and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development runs agri-environments schemes to help landowners protect various habitats and wildlife.

Despite all these activities, it is a reminder that we should not become complacent about nature when we see that many species are still declining. In terms of habitats throughout the AONB, improved grassland which is poor in species makes up 52% while species rich grassland comprises a mere 5% and broadleaf woodland covers only 4% compared with conifer plantations at 20% (these figures are quoted from the above plan). Under-resourcing, including a need for more funding, is identified as a challenge to the successful implementation of the Management Plan. It should also be emphasised that it is local farmers, gamekeepers, anglers and others, who are out on the land —often their own land — all the year round who hold the key to the really intimate knowledge of the Glens of Antrim.

Conclusions

We should accept that nature and culture are linked. John Wilson Foster, editor of Nature in Ireland,70 observed that nature and culture have been seen as opposites but that the study of nature bridged the two. In his revised and monumental History of Natural History (2008)71, Gavin Bridson commented that by the end of the 19th century natural history as a study might have seen to be threatened by the rise of scientific specialisation, but concluded that by the middle of the 20th century the subject was still very much alive and, crossing over into the new Millennium, it had been revived with vigour.

Our occupation of the Glens of Antrim, their coast and Rathlin Island for close to 10,000 years, and our interest in nature — whether practical, cultural or scientific, or all three — has been reviewed here. We must continue to study nature with precision and pursue culture with passion, but most of all we should harvest the joys of both.

 

REFERENCES

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  64. M Viney and E Viney, Ireland’s Ocean, A Natural History (The Collins Press, Cork, 2008)
  65. Environment and Heritage Service, EHS Coast, Issue Number 3 (2008)
  66. Irish Whale and Dolphin Group 
  67. Ulster Museum, Centre for Environmental Data and Recording (CEDAR) 
  68. A Turner, The Glens of Antrim, Landscape of the Glens — Evolution and Development (Appletree Press, Belfast, 2005
  69. Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, Antrim Coast and Glens Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Management Plan (Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, Armoy, Co. Antrim, 2008)
  70. JW Foster (ed), Nature in Ireland, A Scientific and Cultural History (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1997), pp ix-xi
  71. G Bridson, The History of Natural History, an annotated bibliography, second edition (The Linnean Society, London, 2008), pp xvii-xxii                                                                                                                                                   Acknowledgements

    In the passing of fifty years of investigating nature around Northern Ireland, the author has accumulated many debts, for information, for hospitality, for friendship. It is impossible to thank every individual and organisation here, but those who helped, directly or indirectly, in compiling this article and to whom I am especially grateful are: Patrick and Ann Casement, Jenny Campbell, Clare Goyer, Paul Hackney, Alison Hurst, Giles Knight, Anne-Marie McDevitt, Liam McFaul, Paddy McNeill, William Mills, Andy Scullion, David Smyth, Revd Alec Stewart, Jackie and Frances Wilson, farmers and landowners throughout the Slemish to Glenwherry area and in the Glens, Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust, staff of the Linenhall Library in Belfast, the National Trust in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, RSPB Northern Ireland.

    Appendix

    Scientific names of species mentioned in order of occurrence in text. Wolf Canis lupus, corncrake Crex crex, Welsh poppy Mecanopsis cambrica, golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, fox Vulpes vulpes, birch species Betula spp., willow species Salix spp., mammoth Mammathus primigenius, giant Irish deer Megaceros giganteus, reindeer Rangifer tarandus, brown bear Ursus arctos, wild boar/wild pig Sus scrofa, lynx Felix lynx, hare Lepus timidus, deer [possibly red deer Cervus elaphus], salmon Salmo salar, sea bass Dicentrarchus labrax, eel Anguilla anguilla, flatfish (either plaice Pleuronectes platessa or flounder Platichthys flesus), seakale Crambe maritima, rats (brown rat Rattus norvegicus), porpoise Phocaena phocaena, killer whale Orcinus orca, white-tailed / sea eagle liaeetus albicilla, nettle Urtica dioica, yellow flag iris Iris pseudocarus, moonwort Botrychium lunaria, adder’s tongue Ophioglossum vulgatum, chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, wren Troglodytes troglodytes, eider Somateria mollissima, fulmar Fulmaris glacialis, wryneck Inyx torquilla, lobster Homarus gammarus, edible crab Cancer pagurus, queen scallop Chlamys opercularis, Yarrell’s blenny Chirolophis ascanii, fan mussel Atrina fragilis, long-finned pilot whale Globiocephala melaena, northern bottle-nosed whale Hyperoodon ampullatus, crows Corvidae, notably hooded crow Corvus corone cornix, curlew Numenius arquata, lapwing Vanellus vanellus, red grouse Lagopus lagopus, snipe Gallinago gallinago, jack snipe Limnocryptes minimus, golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, woodcock Scolopax rusticola, cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins). Haliaeetus albicilla, nettle Urtica dioica, yellow flag iris Iris pseudocarus, moonwort Botrychium lunaria, adder’s tongue Ophioglossum vulgatum, chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, wren Troglodytes troglodytes, eider Somateria mollissima, fulmar Fulmaris glacialis, wryneck Inyx torquilla, lobster Homarus gammarus, edible crab Cancer pagurus, queen scallop Chlamys opercularis, Yarrell’s blenny Chirolophis ascanii, fan mussel Atrina fragilis, long-finned pilot whale Globiocephala melaena, northern bottle-nosed whale Hyperoodon ampullatus, crows Corvidae, notably hooded crow Corvus corone cornix, curlew Numenius arquata, lapwing Vanellus vanellus, red grouse Lagopus lagopus, snipe Gallinago gallinago, jack snipe Limnocryptes minimus, golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, woodcock Scolopax rusticola, cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins).

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