I have always lived close to the coast and I am sure there must be some salt water in my veins. My father taught me the skills of rowing, sailing, swimming and fishing and he also gave me a love of the salt sea air and the freedom that comes with it.

ver since I was a child I have been sailing in all sorts of boats, and I get a sense of exhilaration and anticipation when casting off from any harbour. Out on the waves I leave behind the cares and complications of everyday life, focusing just on the weather, the tide, the boat and my companions.

But I am always drawn back to the coastline where the land meets the sea. I love to walk along the tideline on a beach, searching the flotsam and jetsam of the oceans for unusual shells, seaweeds and the bleached white bones of dolphins. The coast is my place to find wild nature and to restore my energy.

My first proper job, when I emerged into the sunlight after four years studying natural sciences at university, was on a nature reserve in Northern Ireland, where I was appointed as one of the wardens.

The place is called Murlough – a wonderful area of sand dunes in south Co Down with a stunning backdrop of the Mourne Mountains sweeping down to the sea.

The accommodation was fairly spartan. I spent the first summer in an abandoned cottage with no electricity or running water, using rainwater that drained from the roof into a barrel.


Richard Nairn is enamoured with Ireland's coastline

Richard Nairn is enamoured with Ireland's coastline

Richard Nairn is enamoured with Ireland’s coastline

Richard Nairn is enamoured with Ireland’s coastline

It was right on the edge of the estuary and I could hear the curlews and oystercatchers calling from the shoreline through the night. Early one morning, when I looked out through a cracked windowpane, I saw an otter loping along the edge of the tide, stopping occasionally to leave its mark.

In August that year when an unusually high tide started to lap at the door of the cottage I decided it was time to move on. I packed my rucksack and cycled over the sand dunes to the big house near the beach.

In an old stableyard nearby lived an elderly couple who had worked for the estate in its heyday. They kindly offered me an upstairs room in the stables as a temporary home.

With winter coming on I made myself as comfortable as possible. I found an old rusting iron bed in a shed, borrowed a mattress and a kettle and started to cut up some firewood to keep the place warm. Although I didn’t know it then, this stable was to be my home for the next five years.

Despite the lack of home comforts it was an inspiring place for a young naturalist to begin his first real job – living in the centre of a nature reserve just a hundred metres from the beach.

From the draughty windows I could hear the waves on the shore and, when the south wind blew, the calls of seals hauled out on the beach were plainly audible. This plaintive sound could be easily mistaken for mermaids singing to attract humans to their watery home.

There were many other unfamiliar sounds as well. Herons roosted in the pine trees around the house and their night-time squawks would waken me from sleep.

I heard the evocative calls of curlews and wild geese flying overhead. As the winter progressed the trees filled with flocks of thrushes, many of them migrants from Scandinavia or Iceland, and the calls of these birds going to roost at night will stay with me for ever.


The Saltee Islands. Photo: George Munday

The Saltee Islands. Photo: George Munday

The Saltee Islands. Photo: George Munday

The Saltee Islands. Photo: George Munday

While I was a warden at Murlough I was lucky to take part in several expeditions to study seabirds. One of these was to the Saltee Islands off Wexford where we stayed in an old ramshackle farmhouse, collecting water in buckets from the well.

Health and safety were minor considerations here as the team of enthusiastic young ornithologists scrambled along the cliff ledges counting fulmars, gannets and puffins. This was a formative time and it gave me a clear direction for my life.

Recently I went back again to the Saltees after 50 years. The small ferry run by Declan Bates from the picturesque Wexford village of Kilmore Quay took me across the short stretch of sea to the larger of the two Saltee Islands.

As we approached, the number of seabirds around the boat increased, with kittiwakes, guillemots and gannets all diving for fish in the sparkling sea. A small pod of dolphins passed us heading west.

Going ashore meant transferring to a small inflatable boat which landed on the little beach amid seaweed-covered rocks. Here a pair of oystercatchers piped loudly, warning us they had a family among the rocks.

At the top of the beach a sign announces that the island is privately owned, and when the family is in residence, visiting is only between 11.30am-4.30pm. The only intact building on the island is the repaired farmhouse where my companions and I stayed all those years ago.

The island is owned by the family of the late Michael Neale, who declared himself ‘Prince of the Saltees’ and built an impressive throne on the top of the island.

Close by, I sat for a while to watch puffins ‘chatting’ on the slopes above the sea. The climax of my visit was seeing how the nesting gannets had spread right around the steep cliffs, where the noise and smell of the sea bird colony is overwhelming.


A guillemot keeps watch. Photo: Menno Schaefer

A guillemot keeps watch. Photo: Menno Schaefer

A guillemot keeps watch. Photo: Menno Schaefer

A guillemot keeps watch. Photo: Menno Schaefer

I went back to visit Murlough too, half a century after I had lived there. I wanted to see if it had changed much so the present National Trust warden, Patrick Lynch, took me on a tour of the dunes in early summer.

One striking change since my time there is the openness of the dune vegetation. Large areas have been cleared of invasive sea buckthorn and the sycamore woodland that followed it has also been felled and removed.

A herd of Exmoor ponies was brought here in the 1990s from a local rare-breeds farm. They have had dramatic effects in reducing the height of the grassy vegetation, controlling the spread of bracken and preventing gorse scrub from overrunning the dunes.

Together we walked across the dunes to the beach with its iconic view of the Mourne Mountains. It felt familiar as my feet sank in the soft sand along the channel and a group of curious seals watched me from the opposite shore.

The sea has brought dramatic changes to the front line of dunes above the beach, with massive erosion causing slumping and then re-vegetation of the sand by marram grass.

But, as Patrick explained, this has freed up the sand to move naturally between the beach and dunes, allowing a much more natural evolution of the system.

The Irish coastline is filled with such wonderful wild placess, some of which feature in my new book Wild Shores. The author and mapmaker Tim Robinson wrote that the coast is “a rope of closely interwoven strands flung down in twists and coils across an otherwise bare surface”.

Indeed, the Irish coastline is so intricate that if every island, bay and rock were straightened out, it would stretch for 7,500km – from Ireland to the Pacific Ocean.

‘Wild Shores: The Magic of Ireland’s Coastline’ by Richard Nairn, published by Gill Books, €14.99, is out now

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