Award-winning Asperger blogger raising funds to tag raptors

‘I like the way I can talk to the natural world and it doesn’t talk back,’ says Dara McAnulty

Dara McAnulty with his mother Róisín and sister Bláthnaid. “Nature is like the heart of the house,” says Róisín. “It’s how we live our lives.” Photograph: Freya McClements

Dara McAnulty with his mother Róisín and sister Bláthnaid. “Nature is like the heart of the house,” says Róisín. “It’s how we live our lives.” Photograph: Freya McClements

 

As we drive through the snow-covered mountains of Co Fermanagh, a large bird of prey swoops in front of us.

The car stops, and 13-year-old Dara McAnulty leaps out, camera in hand. He runs back up the road to where the bird has perched on a bare treetop.

“It’s a buzzard,” he shouts, as he edges closer, camera clicking, trying to take the perfect shot.

It’s all material for his award-winning blog – Young Fermanagh Naturalist – where he shares his love for nature and explains how it connects him to a world which, as a teenager with Asperger syndrome, can often feel overwhelming.

“I like the way I can talk to the natural world and it doesn’t talk back,” explains Dara.

“I can be myself. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t hold any grudges.

“It doesn’t scrutinise you, it doesn’t criticise you, it just lets you be yourself.”

As Dara returns with his photographs, the rest of the family pile out of the car – mum and dad Róisín and Paul, and Dara’s siblings Lorcan (10) and Bláthnaid (8).

We are headed for a mountain-top about a kilometre’s walk away, part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark and one of the McAnultys’ favourite spots.

All three of the children are on the autistic spectrum. Dara and Lorcan have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and Bláthnaid with autism.

‘Slightly beautiful wiring’

Róisín says, “Autism gives you a lot of focus and motivation to pursue what you’re interested in. [It is] this slightly beautiful wiring that’s just part of life.”

The family moved to Fermanagh, Róisín’s home county, from Belfast when Dara was 10 because they found city life too constraining.

“We would be in the park, for instance,” says Róisín, “and I don’t know how many times I was chastised by other mothers because my kids were climbing trees or going too high on the climbing frame.”

“I remember a girl of about four who found a pine cone and brought it over to her mummy and asked what it was, and she was told to throw it away, it’s dirty,” adds Paul, a conservation scientist with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. “That was a real missed opportunity to learn.”

“When we moved here everything changed, the whole dynamic of our family changed,” says Róisín. “It felt like being on holiday all the time.”

“Nature is like the heart of the house,” says Róisín. “It’s how we live our lives.”

Dara set up his blog last year because he wanted to get more people interested in the natural world.

“With the natural world I can be free, so when I hear things about people destroying it I get cross,” he explains.

“Then I write a blog and then I’ll try and get that issue solved, and if it isn’t solved I’ll just try again and again and again.”

His blog has just been named runner-up in the Local Patch Reporters category of BBC Wildlife magazine’s blogger awards.

Last year he won the youth category in the Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign, and was A Focus on Nature’s best blog of 2016.

He volunteers with his local red squirrel group, monitors hen harriers with the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group, and helps his father with the rescue bats he brings home. Dara also organises wildlife awareness displays for schools and other organisations.

Proud moment

A proud moment was when he was awarded the BBC Springwatch Unsprung Wildlife Hero Award. It was presented by the naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham – who also has Asperger syndrome.

“He said I was his hero, and I only really realised when we were playing it back and I said, wait, he really said that? It wasn’t a dream? It was amazing,” says Dara.

Dara’s latest project is a 45km sponsored walk along the Cuilcagh Way at the end of January, to raise money to satellite-tag raptors.

“It was Dara’s idea,” says Róisín. “He said, if I raise the money, will you satellite tag the birds because there are no satellite-tagged birds in Northern Ireland.”

“This means you can see where they’re going,” says Dara, “and, sadly, where they’re being shot.

“Once the tag goes down an alert goes out, so you know where to go to find them – it’s minute by minute and accurate to two millimetres.”

He has already surpassed his sponsorship total of £4,000.

“I need nature, I wouldn’t be able to live without it, and that makes me even more want to try and protect it.”

Dara McAnulty blogs at youngfermanaghnaturalist.com