Take On Nature: Small oases of wildlife flourish within Belfast's city boundaries
JUST over a fortnight ago, for the first time in my life, I walked around the Giant’s Ring on the outskirts of Belfast.
Although I spend a lot of spare time rambling up hills and mountains, along beaches and rocky coastlines and poking around ancient ruins, I have always somehow neglected this place.
But living in south Down with the Mourne Mountains and miles of coastal scenery and ancient woodlands within easy reach, Belfast, is for me, a place to go and work rather than to explore its natural environs.
Not that I am parochial; I’ve climbed Croagh Patrick in Mayo, Brandon Hill in Co Kilkenny, over much of the McGillycuddy Reeks (though I still have not reached the summit of Carrauntoohil), walked across the Burren and perched on clifftops on islands off the coasts of Donegal, Kerry and Connemara.
I have wrecked the suspension on several cars driving down potholed laneways throughout Ireland to find a standing stone or souterrain, ripped the backside out of trousers on barbed wire fences trying to get to a holy well and risen at ungodly hours to sit in 5,000-year-old pagan burial mounds to watch the sun rise.
Yet, despite driving past Shaws Bridge two or three times a week I always managed to put off visiting the Giant’s Ring.
It is set close to the Lagan, just before it becomes a city river, the surrounding countryside clustered with copses of beech and oak. The ring itself is neolithic, pre-dating the Celts by several thousand years; the earthwork henge is around 180 metres in diameter and has a passage tomb at its centre.
As a city Belfast is fortunate and even among some its most densely populated areas there are small oases where wildlife thrives. One the most unlikely is of course the Bog Meadows, nestled between Milltown Cemetery, the urban sprawl that is west Belfast and the M1 – along which tens of thousands of cars flash past into and out of the city each day.
This wetlands area is a reminder of the flood plane on which Belfast is built and how the landscape would have looked long before it was settled and drained by humans. Reed beds, brackish pools, shrubs and native woodlands provide shelter for frogs, lizards, newts and sticklebacks, snipe, reed bunting and pipits.
Another sanctuary is in one of Belfast’s most industrialised areas and close to where much of its former wealth was generated, making it into a regional capital.
Moorhens, arctic terns, teal and godwits can been seen from the RSPB hides on the shores of the lough, while ferries, cargo ships and small-town-sized cruise ships sail past.
Even in the city streets, nature is never too far away and the birdsong of of one our most common species can still be heard among the rumble of traffic and background hum of half a million people.
One of the oldest poems in Ireland, that has come down to us over more than 12 centuries, is An Lon Dubh (The Blackbird).
It has been translated numerous times into modern Irish and English by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Ciaran Carson, Frank O’Connor, Thomas Kinsella and John Montague.
Written in old Irish it reads:
Int én bec
ro léic feit
do rind guip
os Loch Laíg
lon do craíb
This rendering into English comes from David Greene and Frank O'Connor, contained in An Leabhar Mór (The Great Book of Gaelic):
"The little bird has whistled from the tip of his bright yellow beak; the blackbird from a bough laden with yellow blossom has tossed a cry over Belfast Lough.”