Dara McAnulty: Nature can heal the heart during the bleakest of times

A slow wind murmuring, the river cascading, what could be more joy-inducing?

Red Squirrels are a relatively rare sight here in the UK and Ireland. Photograph: iStock

Winter has well and truly arrived at the Mourne Coast, with wind and waves surging, as we rush to tie everything moveable down and weight bin lids with large pieces of granite. Our front windows are salt-stained as sea spray has travelled with the gusts.

The willow tree now bare, splayed branches let in new light and a fresh window to the sea. The cordyline or New Zealand Cabbage tree in our garden has set to seed and a hoard of starlings are frequently nuzzled against the branches feasting on the new food source. At first I thought the tree was “just” an alien species, which wouldn’t contribute to any hopes we had for a wild garden. But in summer it flowered and like a magnet attracted hundreds of bees and hoverflies.

Each day, our smaller garden birds have been in and out like jack-in-the-boxes, seeking shelter against the ferocious winds, a rest spot between bird feeder and open skies. It acts as a landmark for visitors, taller than our house, and it’s the first thing I see as I wait to alight the bus after a long day at school. It’s certainly not a sentinel oak, but it’s a part of our new life and our home; comforting and now, familiar.

Many people dislike jays, often seen as pests, they are actually one of our most important birds

Although the coast is teeming with life, the harsh winds are hard to bear on every walk, so we have sought the shelter of woodlands. Even among the bareness of winter woodland, the canopy spreads out like a coverlet and all the birds emerge like shadow puppets. Tollymore Forest in Bryansford, near Newcastle, calls loudly to us at this time of year, when the crowds have somewhat abated.

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The glorious gold of autumn is still resonating underfoot, the spindly tree-lined paths provide a haven against the elements, and the bountiful wildlife we see every time we slowly take the longest routes is such a soul tonic during the colder months. Immediately upon hearing the gushing of the Shimna river, my heart beats slower, anxious thoughts are drowned out by water flow and, with every step, waves of worry about school, deadlines and the world itself begin to refract, pleasantly engulfed by bark and birdsong.

We strike up easy conversation among the five of us, and Rosie our rescue greyhound trots along beside us. Her muzzle is now silver and although she’s not as sparkling as she once was, she’s only left behind for long mountain walks. Her sniffing spots are always wonderful opportunities to stop and look around.

I’ve left my binoculars in the car, but when your whole senses are tuned, you can see and hear so much more. Garrulous, grizzly garglings erupt from the treetops and two jays converse in spirited tones. Flickering blue amongst copper plumage, feathers flash from branch to branch until they helter-skelter around the trunk to emerge on the riverbank, to snuffle amongst the leaf litter.

Many people dislike jays; often seen as pests, they are actually one of our most important birds. They are natural engineers, orchestrating the natural regeneration of oak tree populations by caching acorns in just the right spot for seedlings to thrive. Jays can grow a forest, and alongside thrushes, who plant seeds of hawthorn and brambles to protect the growing oak seedlings, can create entire ecosystems for many a bird, insect and mammal to flourish in.

Eurasian Jay perching in Autumn sunshine. Photograph: iStock

Not a human hand is needed, no plastic tree guards, little or no disease from imported plants and all of it cost-free. I have honestly no idea why natural regeneration isn’t more common, in particular near existing woodlands. Perhaps profit from tree planting is a clue?

Jays are just so beautiful to observe. The most colourful of corvids, they transfix us for a glorious long while. A slow wind murmuring, the river cascading, what could be more joy-inducing?

At the “Meeting of the Waters”, the magic moment when the Shimna and Spinkwee rivers join, a dipper bobs, three short sharp curtseys before flitting off, leaving us breathless. Our eyes are super sharp today.

The resurgence of red squirrel is one of the most exciting and optimistic conservation success stories

With barely time to process this moment, suddenly we hear loud chattering from the canopy as branches slightly shake, and russet forms take shape. Two red squirrels! Chasing and sprinting overhead, they spark giggling and amusement below. What a commotion, what a walk.

At this time of year, red squirrels are preparing for the breeding season. Courting begins in December with charged canopy prancing, and kittens are born around February to March. What a sight they make, barely visible unless you are awakened to the small gestures of the natural world. People are looking at us, we seem to be staring at the invisible, if only everyone could see.

The resurgence of red squirrel is one of the most exciting and optimistic conservation success stories. Their population has steadily increased from the brink of extinction with the help of dedicated volunteer projects such as the Tollymore Red Squirrel Group – and, of course, with the assistance of their ecological ally, the pine marten.

Predators of the invasive American grey squirrels that have threatened to completely decimate the native reds, the recolonisation of pine martens across the island appear to be assisting the rise of our iconic red squirrels. Invasive species are disastrous for nature, especially in native woodlands. What is almost lost, can be saved, but we must always remain vigilant and engaged.

Back home, still filled with the warmth of a wildlife walk, below vast granite skies as seagulls swerve and swirl, I am writing my last column for a while. A caesura, to catch my breath, focus on my school studies and once again, hone my skills as a young naturalist out in the field. Nature will always continue to inspire and comfort; I hope that you too find as much deep solace from our trees, rivers and wildlife as I do.

It has been such a privilege to share my world and that of my family with you during these past seven months. Spilling my churning thoughts out onto the page has allowed expression to heal my heart during the bleakest and most wondrous of times. I’ll be back later in the year though, refreshed and full of stories to share.

Wishing you all a wonderful start to 2022.