Learning about Nature on our Doorstep

As we get used to broadening our horizons, it’s worth noting some of the natural experiences we can take in while walking around the county. In Strandhill recently, we caught up with Michael Bell, whose website NatureLearn.com, has been responsible for much of the information we see about flora and fauna on signage all around the county. As part of Trailgazers, a new initiative aimed at creating broader awareness of our walks, we asked Michael to highlight some of the main sights and sounds we can encounter on the Killaspugbrone Looped Trail.

Knocknarea Mountain from the Killaspugbrone Looped Trail – photo SligoWalks.ie

This trail starts at the cannon in Strandhill, heading north past the caravan park, on through the dunes that hug the coastline, and the ruins of Killaspugbrone Church. From there, it’s past a beautiful crescent shaped beach, then through the woods towards Dorrins Strand, skirting the airport runway before returning to the starting point via the main road.

Michael says that, even on this short looped walk, there is plenty for nature enthusiasts to take in at different times of the year. And rather than thinking of walking solely as an exercise, we might consider the plant and animal life that inhabit this area, and, according to Michael, this might heighten our sense of the importance and vulnerability of our environment.

“There is a lot of variety to the wildlife as well as the flora along this walk,” he says. “All along that coastline, which is very dynamic in terms of changing landscapes, nature has had to adapt over many years, and the physical changes have also led to the creatures living here having to adapt to survive.”

Michael Bell of Nature Learn – photo SligoWalks.ie

All along this exposed coastline, the dune system is continually changing. “Back in the 19th century, marram grass was planted extensively here to help maintain the dunes. But even though people might see big changes in the dune system, this is something that is always happening. So, while coastal erosion is linked with climate change, here in Strandhill, the changes are probably happening all of the time.

As many people know, Killaspugbrone Church is one of the most striking locations on this walk. Many years ago, this area accounted for a small village, but with the changes of the dunes system, the inhabitants eventually moved further up the coast or inland, so a changing dune system is nothing new here.

Michael is Chair of the Sligo branch of Birdwatch Ireland, and while the activities of the group have been curtailed due to the pandemic, he hopes that they will be able to arrange field trips in the Summer. He says that there is plenty of bird life in the area, and that at this time of year, special attention must be paid to nesting birds.

“Some birds like meadow pipets and skylarks are ground nesting, and will commonly nest just a short distance from the paths on this trail. So it’s important if you hear a bird in distress, that you understand that you may be close to a nest. It’s also really important for people to keep their dogs on a lead and not to let them roam, especially around nesting time,” he says.

Light bellied brent geese are a common sight in Strandhill, although they will shortly begin a long journey away from these shores. “They migrate here in the Autumn, but will head off to the high Arctic Tundra in the next while, a great journey that will bring them all the way to Canada,” Michael says.

As we skirt the end of the airport runway, the path veers right towards Killaspugbrone Church, where a meadow of wild flowers is a common and beautiful sight every Summer. “It’s still a bit early to see these, but in June and July, you should be able to see flowers like pyramidal or bee orchids, an amazing spectacle,” he says. However he adds that while these floral displays are there for everyone to enjoy, you should look and not pick. “The orchids in particular won’t grow back if they’re picked,” he adds, saying that “these flowers are also rare, so by picking them it may actually take years before we see them again. I also would encourage people to get down on their hands and knees to look at the flowers from closeup. The pyramidal orchid is purple and flowers in the shape of a pyramid, the flower of the bee orchid resembles a bee, and they are so intricate, you really need to look at them closely to get the full picture.”

In the past number of months, our ability to explore the county has been restricted, but now many more people will begin to stretch their legs into different parts of the county. This will undoubtedly put pressure on popular areas like the Killaspugbrone Looped Trail. A series of pamphlets will shortly be issued by Trailgazers to highlight the many diverse aspects of the habitats in the area, and Michael hopes that people will be able to learn more about their environment, but in a way that is manageable and sustainable.

“I think there’s great work going on in schools, especially at primary level,” he says. But there’s still a lot we can do in terms of education. If we teach young people about our environment, we will create more awareness and a willingness among them to do right by nature. These will be the custodians of our environments, so it’s important we – parents as well as teachers – introduce children to our walks and that we develop a strong relationship with our environment.”

For directions and our short video on the Killaspugbrone Looped Trail, visit https://sligowalks.ie/walks/killaspugbrone-loop/