Monday, May 29, 2023


SAND, sea and smart technology have seamlessly combined to produce a new interactive experience at Murlough Nature Reserve. Unveiled yesterday, the trail showcases research and advice on protected coastal marine species and habitat at the site, which remains one of the most popular attractions Northern Ireland has to offer, with its spectacular location at the edge of Dundrum Bay and the Mourne Mountains. Aimed at showcasing and exploring the reserve’s marine and coastal treasures, visitors to the site can now experience the work carried out by the Marine Protected Area Management and Monitoring project (MarPAMM) via videos accessible from smart devices, using the QR codes featured, and information boards posted along the special walking route.

The films, presented by the BBC NI TV and radio broadcaster Joe Lindsay, detail research carried out by those involved with the MarPAMM project at the site, which is looked after by the National Trust.  This work includes how researchers from Ulster University modelled the movement of sand and substrate, its underlying layer, on the Dundrum and Ballykinler beaches; the importance of conserving salt marsh and sand eel habitat; how to identify grey versus harbour seals, and what coastal birds may be found on the walk.

This €6.4m project began in 2018 and has been funded by the EU’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes body, to develop crossborder capacity for the monitoring and management of marine protected areas and species. Led by the Agri Foods and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), which is based in Belfast, the scheme partnered with Ulster University, University of College Cork and BirdWatch Ireland, and, across the water, Marine Scotland, the Scottish Association of Marine Science and NatureScot. Founded in 1967 as Ireland’s first nature reserve, Murlough is within a Special Area of Conservation.

This status aims to protect the sand dunes, a fragile 6,000 year-old system, along with the salt marsh, for which the area is famous, as well as important species including the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and harbour seals and birds such as the Ringed Plover, Great Crested Grebe and Light bellied Brent geese which are also frequently sighted nearby. Over the past few years, Murlough has been the focus of MarPAMM research; with those involved looking at coastal erosion as well as developing a management plan in conjunction with those who live in the area, use the nature reserve or operate a business in its vicinity. Guests at yesterday’s launch event heard from a number of special speakers including local woman Jo Whatmough, the reserve’s first warden, back in 1967, and who continues to volunteer with the conservation charity to this day. She gave a talk charting the many decades of change at the reserve, while fellow local Melina Quinn, a Nature Conservation Adviser for the National Trust, and MarPAMM’s David Stevenson both explained more about the initiative and the legacy which now exists between this special piece of land and coastline.

During the launch it was also outlined as to how this new form of engagement with the public – using smart technology – provides scientists and organisations working on protected species and habitats with an innovative way to share the most up-to-date knowledge and advice on issues with local cultural and environmental significance. This, in turn, broadens communication and interaction opportunities between researchers, policy makers and local communities, allowing closer working towards more effective management and sustainable use of our marine resources and providing a secure future for species and features increasingly susceptible to climate change.

The scheme is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland for MarPAMM and, according to Melina Quinn, the Murlough initiative has provided a wealth of “fantastic information and data” as to how the coast within Dundrum Bay has evolved over the past two centuries and how it may change in the future, due to rising sea levels and increased storms.  “The new QR trail is an innovative way of highlighting the important coastal habitats and species within this Special Area of Conservation. Visitors can now get an insight to the coastal and marine treasures within this important sand dune system,” she explained. Dr Alex Callaway, who is the MarPAMM project co-ordinator, said the local initiative is “a great example of multidisciplinary scientific work and stakeholder engagement.” He explained that representatives of the management plan steering group, including National Trust staff, a number of residents and committee members from Royal County Down Golf Club, have created a guidance document to assist preservation of this marine area. Dr Callaway added that the work confirmed “just how dynamic the coastline and nearshore area is” and added that AFBI “has a long standing scientific interest in Murlough and we are thrilled that the area was so beneficial to the project.” If you would like to learn more about MarPAMM, visit the website.

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