These videos concentrate on the species that have lived in Northern Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. You’ll learn about seabirds in enormous numbers, the changing appearance of the landscape as plant species changed with the changing temperatures and a relict fish that’s being conserved by local volunteers.
DARRYL GRIMASON: Rathlin Island is a 40 minute trip from Ballycastle. It offers a unique blend of niches and habitats to specialised bird colonies. When you visit, you see up close why island life is so appealing.
This viewpoint at the West Lighthouse is easily the best place to get right up close to nature in the wild, but don’t forget your binoculars.
Keeping a watchful eye on this bird sanctuary is warden Alison McFaul. She’s married to an islander and knows every nook and cranny on this cliff face.
Alison, this is quite frankly stunning. I have never seen so many birds in one place.
ALISON MCFAUL: No, it’s truly fantastic, isn’t it? They are here just for breeding but what’s special about this place is that it’s just in the right spot for them coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. For the rest of their life they’re entirely out on the ocean.
DARRYL GRIMASON: How many birds do we have here?
ALISON MCFAUL: We have about a quarter of a million. We’ve got about 100,000 guillemots and they come in and nest on the large open ledges, like the top of the stack here, and they like to gather in large groups to defend their eggs and young. And then we’ve got puffins. Puffins are burrowing birds and nest down below on the grassy bank here, where they can burrow into the earth.
DARRYL GRIMASON: See the lovely wee orange legs on them.
ALISON MCFAUL: Lots of them down there. There’s one or two further up the cliff as well. Anywhere where there’s a bit of an earthy bank that they can burrow into. And then we have kittiwakes that like to nest on the sheer rock faces here. Little tiny ledges that they’ll build small nests from bits of mud and vegetation that they can pick up from the bank below. And then in amongst them all are pairs of razorbills, looking like little penguins. And then along the top on the grassy levels at the top of the cliff we’ve got a fulmar.
DARRYL GRIMASON: Is this place only for people who are serious ornithologists?
ALISON MCFAUL: Not at all, no. It’s for anybody. Anybody who doesn’t even know that they like birds will come out here and be impressed with what we’ve got.
Video with transcript
The post glacial history of Ireland is a matter of much research and theorising. Until recently it was thought that Ireland and the rest of the British Isles had been linked by a land bridge which was submerged as sea levels rose. Very recent research suggests that this bridge did not exist and this has implications for Ireland’s biodiversity – if there was no land bridge, how did species arrive after the last Ice Age? For whatever reason, there are no snakes in Ireland, no toads or weasels or moles. Scientific research is constantly changing what we understand.
However there are pollen records from sediments and peat to show the species that were present as the temperatures waxed and waned in the last 10,000 years and conditions favoured some species over others. The great Irish Elk mentioned in the video was a deer with antlers up to 2.7m across. It was an Arctic species which didn’t survive the post glacial warming.
Rathlin’s West light is unusual in having the light (a red one) at the base of the tower but the focus of the video is the abundant bird life which, in spring and early summer exploit nest sites ranging from burrows in the soil (puffins) to tiny ledges on sheer cliffs (kittiwakes).
DAVID IRWIN: The Dollaghan are unique to this area. As the ice retreated, they got left behind. Now, if they’re like the sea trout that they would still have ran up and down to the sea, but they got left behind in what became Lough Neagh. And they became a species perfectly adapted to living in these conditions and with time became totally unique. However, as soon as man started to develop, as soon as agriculture started to develop, we started to get pollution in the rivers, and that started to affect the fish.
They became almost extinct. They were almost wiped out completely. And that’s where the visionaries in the hatchery here started to do something about it. They saw the problem, they recognised that they could do something about it, so they cropped their own local populations, and they took if you like the eggs from them and they grew their own trout. Now trout’s specific to this area. These fish are relics if you like of the end of the Ice Age. These are so precious, we must look after them.
Video with transcript
Brown trout migrate - some to the open sea and some in the rivers and lakes where they live. The Dollaghan, a genetically isolated trout was cut off from the sea after the last Ice Age and now migrates between Lough Neagh and the surrounding rivers. The Ballinderry hatchery works to protect and conserve stocks of this unique fish in the habitat to which it has adapted.
Strangford Lough’s many islands and the fast-flowing tidal Narrows are worth a visit and nearby, the Northern Ireland Aquarium, Exploris, in Portaferry, though closed for refurbishment till 2016, allows close-up views of underwater creatures few folk ever see. The islands of Strangford Lough can be explored by boat from Portaferry or by canoe or kayak on the Canoe Trail. Community-built St Ayles skiffs are another excellent way to keep healthy by rowing round the Lough.