Conservation group goes back to its grass roots for 40th anniversary

A conservation group who have been maintaining sites across Northern Ireland for 40 years will return to the scene of their first ‘makeover’ this Sunday.

Thursday, 14th November 2019, 2:52 pm
Members of Grass Roots taking part in a beach clean at Ballyhornan in Downpatrick

Milford Cutting, a nature reserve in Armagh, was the first location visited by volunteer group Grass Roots in November 1979.

The group was set up to be the volunteer arm of the Ulster Trust for Nature Conservation, which later became Ulster Wildlife (UW).

Task organiser Ken Orr explained the importance of Milford Cutting in terms of conservation: “The nature reserve is in a derelict railway cutting that used to run from Cavan to Armagh.

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Drystone walling in Inishowen

“It’s a quite a special place. There are orchids there that are unique and over 15 species of butterfly have been recorded there – that’s maybe the biggest in Northern Ireland.

“That was our very first task, so we thought it was appropriate to go back there for the 40th anniversary.”

Milford Cutting’s impressive variety of orchids include common twayblade, fragrant orchid, common-spotted orchid and the rare marsh helleborine.

Also hidden within the woodland are several rare Irish whitebeam trees – the largest colony of this species in Northern Ireland.

Over the years Grass Roots has worked at well known locations such as Minnowburn Beeches and Delamont Country Park, as well as many lesser known spots, clearing away invasive species, planting trees, maintaining woodland and drystone walling.

In recent years the relationship between Grass Roots and Ulster Wildlife has been rekindled, with the group regularly working at UW sites such as Bog Meadows and Slievenacloy in the Belfast Hills.

Ken, 65, has been with the group for 33 years, though he’s not the longest serving member with some volunteers like Dr Anne Hardcastle having been active for the 40 years duration.

Ken said: “We go out once a fortnight, only at weekends, usually Sundays. We like to think that what we do is quite important. We’re doing work that council can’t do.

“We’ve got 25 signed-up members and we’ve also got people who join us on a temporary basis, for example students.

“We’ve also reached out to asylum seekers to get them involved. It allows them to see different parts of Northern Ireland.”

He added: “Recently there has been a definite change in attitude to conservation.

“People understand the amount of pressure the countryside is under.

“At the same time there’s no doubt the problem is getting worse. Farming has got more intensive. There’s less and less room for wildflowers. There’s pressure on wildlife too, particularly birdlife.”