Life

Anne Hailes: Young Dara McAnulty's an expert naturalist, Joe Mahon's a busy man

Young naturalist Dara McAnulty and his favourite King of Trees, the mighty oak

SUNDAY morning. Down the M2 to Fermanagh. Watched a buzzard dive bombed by a crow, spectacular aerial display. Every onward, I had a date with a young man in a forest park at Castle Archdale.

Dara McAnulty is a schoolboy naturalist who has captivated the world with his blogs, won prizes and awards and is currently in discussion with a publisher for his book Diary of A Young Naturalist. Dara is autistic and finds he can talk to his computer in a more relaxed way rather than in conversations with people. However, we got on well; he's a 14-year-old delight who told me so many things I didn’t know as we made our way through the centuries-old trees, their leaves shielding us from the rain.

He began blogging two years ago.

“I sometimes wonder if everyone who has said a kind word or shared knowledge or shone light on my darkness or put even a figurative hand on my shoulder… I wonder if people realise the positive impact and the impression they have made.

"I get emotional when I ponder on those elements. I hope you all know how much joy you have brought me. How my self-esteem has grown. I feel like I have grown up so much and my voice, both written and vocal, have grown more confident and constantly challenged.”

Family affair

As his family – mum, dad, Lorcan (12) and eight-year-old Bláthnaid, strolled on ahead, we stopped to examine insects, flowers, grasses. Dara identified birdsong and we stood beside the lake to watch the mallard ducks on their Sunday outing.

Our first sighting was a newt. Out came the notebook and the camera; that was to be the pattern of our time together. Dara recently saw an osprey, wants very much to see a bee orchid but we had to make do with the common wild variety. We stopped for a photograph under a giant oak tree because his name means oak, the king of trees, and we marvelled at the tiny saplings beneath, grown from little acorns.

We didn’t see any red squirrels although you could sense they were watching us from nearby. No rabbits either – apparently they are ‘boom or bust’ and they are not booming this year, nor are swallows, decimated by a storm in north Africa.

His favourite bird is the hen harrier and of course his chosen tree is the oak. There were plenty of ferns on our walk and Dara showed me how the eggs cling on the underside of the leaves, then scatter around and about, hence the great clumps we admired.

A frog hopper, polypore fungi – a wealth of material for his regular blog which goes all over the world and has drawn attention to this young man so steeped in the natural world around him.

Runner-up in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Blogger, winner of Birdwatch Magazine Local Hero and last year BBC Spring Watch Unsprung Wildlife Hero Award! And that’s only a few of the accolades he has gathered.

Thanks Dara for a great morning. See youngfermanaghnaturalist.com

Inspiring programmes

Broadcaster Joe Mahon, right, with Frankie Conlan of the Lough Neagh Eel Fishermen's Cooperative release glass eels into the waters of the lough to replenish the stocks

JOE Mahon’s inspiration is David Attenborough. Certainly he displays the same knowledge of his subject and delightful enthusiasm. And he’s in demand, with three separate titles for UTV all under the banner of his company Westway Productions.

First, Ulster Giants, eight programmes celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Institution of Civil Engineers, men and women who are shaping our world.

Locally they’ve given us vital structures: the Newry Canal; Derry’s Walls; waste management at Giant’s Park on the north foreshore of Belfast Lough where Joe talks to Cathy Reynolds (chartered surveyor) and Theresa Slevin (civil engineer); the Lagan Weir, which has transformed the city, the effects rippling out beyond Belfast.

Prior to 1990s it was office blocks and hotels but the river was an eyesore, filthy dirty and unpleasant to be near. Civil engineers got busy, the weir was built, the river cleaned up and now even salmon are happy and the seals pop their heads up on a regular basis.

Joe brings the continuing story of civil engineering up to date at Queen’s University where engineers in the research centre use modern methods to improve the world’s infrastructure. There he’ll be talking to Dr Myra Lydon about the development of new technology to measure stress on structures and bridges.

When you think of it, civil engineering touches all our lives all the time. Inside the house, on the highways and byways, under our feet and above our heads, these professionals are making our lives better and, let’s face it, we tend to take it all for granted – although hopefully not after these fascinating programmes are transmitted from July 23.

Water, water everywhere

The second series from Westway, next September, sees Joe on Lough Neagh discovering that all our water is treated to the same level although only 5 per cent is actually consumed by us – the rest of it goes to other purposes.

His journey in Lough Neagh takes him from water-treatment plants to the work of Northern Ireland Water and the biggest user of water, Northern Ireland Electricity; interesting that he discovered we have the capacity to get 65 per cent of our electricity from green energy sources.

The third programme, City of Derry International Choir Festival will be transmitted at the end of August.

“We’re no strangers to hard work,” Joe assured me with a laugh. “A good team, and fortunate that people trust us and aren’t afraid to come forward with ideas.”

And he loves his job. “I was a teacher and there’s a link – now my pupils are the public but I still want to pass on information in an accurate and entertaining way. I’m Joe Public, I represent the viewer and if I don’t understand then I ask daft questions so I’m used to people raising an eyebrow and thinking, 'How stupid is he?'”

Stupid? That’s one thing Joe Mahon isn’t.

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