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Take on Nature: Russian invaders among West Belfast's tombstones

Belfast City Cemetery tour guides Aidan Crean and Dara Barrett Picture by Mal McCann

THERE was a Russian invasion in west Belfast a few years ago. You might think that is 'fake news', but Aidan Crean caught dozens of them among the tombstones of Belfast City Cemetery.

The visitors were great tits and using a network of bird enthusiasts across northern Europe, Aidan was able to track their migration from the huge swathes of taiga forest – also known as the snow forest – in northern Russia to the cemetery's yew trees.

"I caught 55 and tagged them and hopefully at some point some of these will be caught back in Russia and identified from these tags," he says.

"Chasing after them came sparrow hawks which hunt the great tits and follow their migration."

For a place which most people associate with death and mourning, Belfast City Cemetery is a thriving hub of nature and wildlife.

Located on the Falls Road the cemetery rises upwards along lower slopes of Slieve Dubh – the Black Mountain, the iconic backdrop to Belfast.

Aidan gestures to the trees and shrubs which flourish among the tombstones, statues of angels and a surprising number of obelisks.

"You can see, holly and yew, oak and laurel cover. In the autumn, redwing and fieldfare come in over the Black Mountain, sweep down and strip the berries of the yew and holly," he says.

"Waxwings, swifts, bats and long eared owls have also been logged – over the years we have identified 45 species of bird – and on the ground foxes and stoats have been spotted foraging among the headstones and tombs."

Aidan and his fellow tour guide Dara Barrett is on a mission to educate the public on the rich heritage in the heart of west Belfast.

While Aidan is the naturalist, Dara is the historian of an infectious double act, the two of them bouncing anecdotes and obscure facts off one another as they take visitors around the cemetery.

"Belfast City Cemetery is a 100-acre site and there are 26 miles of paths through it, so you could run a marathon here," says Dara.

"There are 230,000 people buried here, industrialists, politicians, soldiers who died in the two world wars, on the Titanic and ordinary men women and children."

Dara says that for many years the cemetery, despite its Falls Road location, was known as a "Protestant cemetery".

"The first burial took place in 1869 but the Catholic bishop at the time, Patrick Dorrian, insisted that the consecrated ground in which Catholics were buried should be separated from other denominations," says Dara.

Gesturing to a strip of grass running between the graves, he continues: "We all know about the peace walls in Belfast which divide Catholic and Protestant communities – well, underground here, there is a wall to divide their graves as well."

Despite this historical anomaly, the City Cemetery is a multi-denominational resting place: it includes a Jewish Cemetery close to the Whiterock Road entrance and, close by, the former paupers' graveyard, where thousands are buried in unmarked graves.

As well as organising walking tours around the cemetery Aidan and Dara have been working to tackle the well-documented anti-social behaviour and vandalism which has plagued the City Cemetery and nearby Milltown Cemetery.

"Around 900 young people come in here to drink at the weekends," says Dara.

"Belfast City Council has put up CCTV cameras and is working hard with the police to tackle that, but we are going into the schools as part of an education programme to point out the damage that some are doing.

"What we have here is a microcosm of Belfast and its history and its people as well as a wildlife resource. This is a hidden sanctuary in the heart of our city."

:: To join one of Aidan and Dara's walking tours and to find out more information about their work to tackle anti-social behaviour visit their Belfast Cemetery Tours Facebook page.

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