Northern Ireland

Mullaghglass landfill site – from environmental hazard to wildlife haven

The recently-decommissioned Mullaghglass landfill site on the edge of west Belfast has been labelled an environmental hazard but as John Manley discovered the area around the former dump is thriving with wildlife...

Sian McManus releases a freshly-ringed blackbird at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow
Sian McManus releases a freshly-ringed blackbird at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow Sian McManus releases a freshly-ringed blackbird at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow

The Mullaghglass landfill site on the edge of west Belfast has been described as many things over the course of nearly two decades but few would've thought to call it a "little green oasis".

Yet as the facility is wound down after a controversial 16 years in operation, the sprawling 50 hectare site regarded by many as an environmental hazard is quickly gaining a reputation as an unrivalled haven for a range of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. 

Its development into an area that would match any designated nature reserve in the north has partially been by design but also by virtue of the site's restricted access, and particularly the absence of dog walkers and other unwelcome human activity, habitats have flourished and a thriving ecology developed in the area surrounding the former quarry where two million cubic metres of municipal waste is buried.

In pictures: Savouring and recording the variety of wildlife at Mullaghglass

The site's substantial environmental value was identified by Aidan Crean, a lifelong environmentalist and bird enthusiast whose decades of campaigning was key to the development of the Bog Meadows nature reserve in west Belfast and the opening up of swathes of land above the city to public access.

In the 1990s, Aidan was an opponent of quarrying at the site on Boomer's Hill that would later become Mullaghglass landfill site. Along with Terry Enright, he formed Black Mountain Environmental Group, which picketed, marched and used every available resource to oppose extraction in the hills above his native west Belfast. Despite his negative associations with Mullaghglass, Aidan accepted an invitation two years ago from site operator Breedon to do a bird survey.

Chair of the Belfast & Down Ringing Group and a trainer with the British Trust for Ornithology, Aidan was amazed by what he found at Mullaghglass in an area three times greater than the actual landfill site packed with ponds, farmland, hedgerows and trees.

"I honestly didn't anticipate many birds at a landfill site but I was truly gobsmacked by what I discovered – it's a little green oasis," he recalls. 

"I couldn't get over the variety and volume of birds all around the site – we have breeding teal, whitethroat, five or six different species of migrating warbler, barn owls, sparrow hawks and kestrels. Even in winter it's full of finches, linnets and skylarks – the first time I ever saw red kite in Belfast was at Mullaghglass.

"There were also badgers, stoats, pine martens, foxes and newts in a series of ponds and lagoons, then that summer in mid-July the dragon flies of Ireland – eight different species – emerged in front of our eyes."

In the time since the initial bird survey, Aidan has been running projects with community groups, using mist netting techniques and training a new generation of local bird ringers. 

In pictures: Savouring and recording the variety of wildlife at Mullaghglass

A pair of long tailed tits ready for release after ringing at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow
A pair of long tailed tits ready for release after ringing at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow A pair of long tailed tits ready for release after ringing at Mullaghglass. Picture by Mark Marlow

Russell Drew of Breedon, the site's environment and estates manager, says the habitat creation at Mullaghglass is part of the company's "commitment to prioritising sustainability and biodiversity". He says it's been accelerating in recent years in preparation for closure.

It's a strategy complemented by work with schools and colleges, who use the site for training and other educational purposes. Even though Mullaghglass stopped taking municipal waste late last year, environmental and community initiatives will continue.

"This is a commitment which is core to our purpose of making a material difference to the lives of our colleagues and local communities," says Russell. 

"We want to be able to use the unique habitats that we have created to assist in training the environmental professionals of the future. It's our intention to continue with and expand these training programmes further with additional partnerships even after the site has closed."

Aidan regards Mullaghglass as "very special" due to the habitats development and the fact that it's been fenced off for the best part 20 years.

"It's an area that's safe and secure and therefore better than most designated nature reserves – and it just gets better and better thanks to the continued positive work of the site's owners," he says.

The veteran campaigner and conservationist says he's all too aware that companies will employ 'greenwashing' techniques to burnish their reputation but believes that Breedon are sincere in their endeavour and that the results speak for themselves.

Mullaghglass landfill has closed after operating for 16 years
Mullaghglass landfill has closed after operating for 16 years Mullaghglass landfill has closed after operating for 16 years

"Every household and business has a bin and landfill is a reality but at Mullaghglass I've seen how we can mitigate the impact on the environment and let nature thrive," he said.  

He believes the site at the southern end of the Belfast hills can in future provide a "gateway" to the uplands where he spent much of his youth.

"After years of exploitation, the Belfast Hills are slowly being returned to their original state and recent land purchases by a range of conservation groups means you have what I call a string of pearls stretching from Mullaghglass, across Divis and Black Mountain, all the way to Carnmoney," says Aidan.

"This area can be a great resource for people and nature, and I think Mullaghglass is an important element in that vision."

While the landfill site is now closed to municipal waste, residents who have fought long to have Mullaghglass closed down still have concerns. They cite the extraction of methane from the site, which is used to generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of around 4,500 homes.

"Though the news that Mullaghglass landfill will no longer be accepting municipal black bin waste is welcomed by the residents for whom we act, they understand that substantive gas extraction works continue across the site," a statement issued on residents' behalf by Phoenix Law said. 

"In light of this important fact, their concerns about the odorous emissions which have been attributed to works carried out on site remain."

Lisburn SDLP councillor Pat Catney welcomed the closure of the site and said residents had long complained about associated odours.

SDLP Lagan Valley MLA Pat Catney. Picture by Mal McCann
SDLP Lagan Valley MLA Pat Catney. Picture by Mal McCann SDLP Lagan Valley MLA Pat Catney. Picture by Mal McCann

"This closure provides us with a unique opportunity to turn this site into a green space providing habitats for animals and to encourage biodiversity which will help us address the ongoing crisis in that area which has left many species, animals and plants at risk of extinction," he said. 

"We have a real chance to turn what was a nightmare for people living in this area into a real positive and we can’t afford to waste it."