–AREAS OF OUTSTANDING NATURAL BEAUTY–
Antrim Coast and Glens
Stretching along the Northern Ireland coast from Ballycastle to Larne, this relatively unspoiled area of deep valleys and spectacular cliffs shares a rich cultural legacy with nearby Scotland. It’s also home to the odd bird or two, writes Olivia Edward
;C AUSE WAY
’m trying to stop myself falling off the back of a quad bike. It isn’t easy, as we’re careering along a pockmarked country road and I’m perched on the back of the parcel shelf with a travelling companion who has made it quite clear that if I get any closer, he’ll bite me.
Skipper, a bristly white Jack Russell, and I are being driven by Skipper’s owner, Liam McFaul, the local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) warden. We’re off to see the famous bird colony on Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island, Rathlin, a small ‘craggy, storm-scrubbed’ boot-shaped isle adrift in the raging currents that race through the 20-kilometre gap between Ireland and Scotland.
B I RDS I N THE HAND Around these parts are some of the largest whirlpools on the planet and winter waves so big they sometimes sweep right over the top of one of the island’s lighthouses. But today, in the early spring sunshine, it’s cows rather than waves that are McFaul’s primary concern. He has some hungry ones, and we need to take a detour to feed them. McFaul, like many islanders, has two jobs, and while he distributes some feed to his herd, and I try to keep the quad bike between me and a bull the size of a small van, he explains how his two roles recently dovetailed to help bring back a rare bird.
Northern Ireland’s small chough population has declined rapidly since 1950, but last year, for the first time in two decades, a pair of these redlegged, red-beaked crows nested on the island and went on to produce the only chicks in Northern Ireland. ‘Now it might just be coincidence,’
says McFaul, ‘but just the year before, I had turned my farm organic, partly because of what I had learned while working for the RSPB, and as the chough likes to eat the insects found in cattle dung, I can’t help feeling this had something to do with their return.’
The choughs aren’t the only birds who see the island as a good place to bring up their young. About 250,000 birds nest on Rathlin each year, many returning to the 70-metre cliffs by the West Lighthouse, where the RSPB has an observatory. We head down there as the sun is setting, driving a couple of McFaul’s sheep away from the cliff edge as we go. ‘We lose a couple off the top every year, but they like the grass up here the best,’ McFaul says.
It’s too early in the year for the main bird show, when puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes fill the air and line the cliffs, but a couple of fulmars are already wheeling around, reserving their spaces on the jagged basalt. About 15,000 visitors come to see the birds each year, but the island’s economy has been linked to them for a long time.
‘The islanders would abseil down the cliffs to collect the eggs,’ McFaul explains. ‘My grandfather was one of them. He knew so much about bird behaviour – he could tell when a bird was going to lay an egg just from the way it was acting. One of the reasons I got the job as warden was because he passed a lot of what he knew on to me.’
R ARE HARE Rathlin’s isolation and lack of predators don’t just support bird life. Hares also prosper on the island, including a unique Rathlin type, known as the golden hare. Far rarer than the Irish hare – whose oversized ears we see silhouetted against the darkening
18 www.geographical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010
RIGHT: Ess-na-Larach (‘the Mare’s Fall’) in the 1,185-hectare Glenariﬀ Forest Park. Glenariﬀ is one of Antrim’s nine glens; BELOW, FROM LEFT: the Black Arch is a short tunnel through the basalt cliﬀs north of Larne. It marks the start of the scenic Antrim Coast Road; the largest area of intact blanket bog in Northern Ireland, Garron Plateau is a RAMSAR site that supports important peatland flora and fauna; ten kilometres oﬀ the Antrim coast, Rathlin Island is the northernmost point of the AONB. As well as being a seabird colony, the island is surrounded by shipwrecks, making it popular with divers