The Murlough Nature Trail is approximately 2.5 miles long and starts and finishes in the National Trust car park. The trail initially follows the main visitor walkway, Slidderyford Path, to Murlough Beach. After a short walk along the beach one enters the Central Reserve via the Archaeology Path. From here the trail loops back to the car park by way of the Back Track. The trail is marked with yellow-topped posts and has a number of points of interest along it.
Please keep to the paths to avoid disturbance to wildlife and note there may be some access restrictions at certain times of year.
Murlough lies just off the A2, the main Belfast to Newcastle Road, near Dundrum Village grid ref J 410 350 OS 1:50,000 Sheet 4.
Point of interest:Ancient sand dune system, range of habitats, birdlife, seal
OS map:Sheet 29
Route:Follow the numbered yellow topped posts.
STOP 1: INFORMATION CENTRE
Welcome to Murlough National Nature Reserve, a fragile 6000 year old sand dune system owned by the National Trust and managed as Ireland’s first Nature Reserve since 1967. The range and extent of habitats found at Murlough include a succession from bare sand to ancient dunes. Found within these are heathland, species-rich grassland, lichen-rich hollows, gorse and bracken scrub, and woodland.
STOP 2: MEETING OF THE BOARDWALKS
Murlough Beach is one of the most popular destinations in Northern Ireland and to prevent erosion from the high visitor numbers a boardwalk system is in place. This involves the laying of thousands of treated Douglas Fir timbers directly onto the sand, creating a durable walking surface, thus protecting the fragile dune system from trampling and wind erosion.
Murlough is the best example of dune heathland in Ireland, and the ‘meeting of the boardwalks’ offers an excellent opportunity to view both the height and the structure of the dune system itself. Wildlife around this part of the reserve includes stonechats and reed buntings. In summer, listen out for the call of the cuckoo and the song of the skylark. Wildflowers abound along the sides of the path with carpets of bird’s-foot trefoil, wild pansies and wild thyme providing opportunities for wildlife including bees, butterflies, moths.
STOP 3: PERCY FRENCH
A gap in the dunes to the south allows a great vista of Where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the Sea, fabled words of songwriter Percy French. Slieve Donard at 850m (2796ft) dominates the landscape and is Northern Ireland’s highest mountain. Both Slieve Donard and Slieve Commedagh have been owned and managed by the National Trust since 1990.
At this site rare lichen heath vegetation can be seen on the right just inside the fenced area. Also, the clear differences in vegetation structure and height between the fenced and non-fenced zones are obvious due to trampling pressure.
Inside the fenceline, conditions are ideal for ground nesting birds such as skylarks and meadow pipits. Listen for the endless song of the skylark, delivered while hovering at a great height and in spring listen out for the cuckoo which is regularly seen in this area.
STOP 4: DUNDRUM BAY
The view from Murlough Beach takes in an impressive shingle storm beach and four miles of magnificent strand set against the backdrop of the Mourne Mountains. Out to sea, stretching from St. John’s Point lighthouse to the foot of the Mournes, is Dundrum Bay where on a clear day it is possible to see the Isle of Man.
The bay is an important feeding area for summer seabirds such as gannets, manx shearwaters, terns and auks and in winter supports internationally important numbers of wildfowl such as common scoter. The area is also a haul-out site for common and grey seals. During summer months several species of birds use the beach and dunes for nesting; ringed plover nest on the shingle beach itself and sandmartins nest in burrows made into the face of the dunes.
To find STOP 5, go onto the beach and turn left. Continue to walk along the beach and after passing a black beach marker post, enter the dunes at the next yellow post.
STOP 5: MARRAM GRASSLAND
This is classic dune grassland on young calcareous soils and marram grass is dominant with associated dune flower specialists. In this hostile environment, with blowing sand, salt-laden winds and temperature extremes, plants such as marram grasses are highly adapted to withstand buffeting and desiccation.
This dry slack area is ablaze with colourful flowers in early summer such as birdsfoot trefoil, rest harrow, wild thyme, viper’s bugloss and pyramidal orchids. In turn this marvellous array of plant life supports a wide range of invertebrates including rare species and communities. The reserve is home to solitary bees, most of which burrow making small tunnels in the sand. One of the 22 butterfly species at Murlough, the marsh fritillary, is of European importance. Over 300 species of moths have been recorded as well as several rare and uncommon beetles. Look out for common blue, small copper, dark green fritillary, grayling, small heath and meadow brown.
For all this wildlife to coexist, the grazing management needs to be just right, a combination of rabbits, ponies and cattle. The regime maintains a varied sward, rich in wildflowers and keeps rank grasses in check. Other heathland management includes large-scale reduction of sea buckthorn, an alien shrub. Here the buckthorn is above you on the left and in autumn the buckthorn plants are laden with striking orange berries.
STOP 6: POT-BOILER HOLLOW
At this site, on the aptly named Archaeology Path, the dunes are rich in archaeological remains. Some of them called pot-boilers were used by Neolithic Man for heating water in the days before stainless steel saucepans. People have been using the dunes for millennia, from these earliest hunter gatherers to the soldiers stationed here during the Second World War.
This seemingly bare sand habitat, contains a rich array of mosses and lichens and is ideal for the delicate winter annuals, some of which are extremely rare. Keep a look out for the vivid black and red day-flying six spot burnet moths of summer.
STOP 7: FRITILLARY COLONY
This area is home to colonies of the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly. It is on the wing in late May and June and spends the winter as a caterpillar. The caterpillar feeds on devil’s bit scabious, a tall purple flowered plant in full bloom in late August and September. Here some of the best areas of food plant are protected by careful grazing management using electric fence enclosures. Devil’s bit scabious also provides a very valuable nectar source for other butterflies, particularly in late summer when migrant red admiral, peacock and painted lady can be abundant.
STOP 8: TOMORROW’S HEATHLAND HERITAGE
August is the month to appreciate the Murlough heathland in its full glory. Look for the two species of heather; bell heather and common heather or ling. Bell heather’s flower heads are purple and flower slightly earlier than the pink ling heather, making for an attractive contrast. Thousands of years of rain have washed out the calcium from the sand allowing for more acid loving plants to flourish. Bell and ling heather both grow on the older dunes and this unusual dune heathland is a priority habitat under the E.C. habitats directive.
Important management work must be carried out to conserve this rare habitat. The work involves scrub management, pine and sycamore clearance, conservation grazing and bracken control, all necessary to maintain and enhance the condition of the heathland found on the reserve. Keep an eye out for common lizards, a rare treat, they are very difficult to see as they move quickly through the vegetation and can be well camouflaged.
STOP 9: AERODROME
Good views of Dundrum Castle can be had from here. The castle dates from the late twelfth century and was a Norman fortress build by John de Courcy. The Normans introduced rabbits to Ireland, which were subsequently farmed for centuries at Murlough for meat and fur. Many local people still refer to Murlough as The Warren. Hundreds of years of rabbit grazing have created this treeless landscape with a short turf rich in wildflowers. In more recent times, due to the disease myxomatosis, rabbit numbers have fluctuated resulting in ranker vegetation. Grazing by the semi-wild herd of Exmoor ponies helps to keep the vegetation down to a level that is ideal for rabbits. Essentially the Exmoor herd help and complement rabbit grazing on the reserve.
Now glance over the very long, flat wide expanse of agricultural land in front of you, in fact, perfect for an airfield. Sixty years ago this farmland was a satellite landing ground for<
Facilities:Carparking area, picnic tables.
Accessible terrain:Wide gates, boardwalk suitable for wheelchairs.
Getting to the start by public transport:Murlough lies just off the A2, the main Belfast to Newcastle Road, near Dundrum Village. Look out for the signs.