Community Champion: Jo Boylan

Jo Boylan
Belfast, Northern Ireland

How are you using OPAL to make a difference in the community?

I am the Youth Outreach Officer for the Belfast Hills Partnership. My project is about encouraging young people to discover and explore the wild places right on their doorstep and empowering them to lead environmental change in their community. The OPAL resources are a fun and engaging way to introduce environmental research without being overwhelming and I regularly use them as part of my outreach tool kit.

I am currently delivering the John Muir Award in partnership with Belfast City Council. Young people are encouraged to discover, explore and conserve the Belfast Hills and their rivers and tributaries. These rivers and streams have a unique mix of plants, insects, amphibians, fish, birds and mammals. They are also visited by otters, looking for salmon and trout, which rely for survival on the clean waters flowing down from the hills. Many of these rivers suffer from pollution, presence of invasive species and culverting etc. so are in poor condition, their presence is often undervalued. Hence this project aims to reconnect young people with their local rivers, helping young people to look after them and value them.  It also aims to help young people see the connections between their local rivers and the Belfast Hills where they find their source, right down to where the river finally flows. The OPAL water survey is an excellent resource for introducing young people to this wonderful world of freshwater ecosystems, while giving them a platform to carry out meaningful survey work and identification.

How did you first discover / get involved with OPAL?

I first got involved with OPAL via the free training sessions with Belfast City Parks. I attended two training days, at Ormeau Park and the Half Moon Lake in Belfast. During these sessions, Gretta McCarron introduced me to the resources and demonstrated how easy they are to incorporate into environmental education programmes.

Which is your favourite OPAL survey and why?

I really like the biodiversity survey because it can be completed almost anywhere!

Where is your favourite place to enjoy nature and why? Who/what inspired you to work in your community?

One of my favourite places in the world is Colin Glen Forest, a beautiful wooded river glen situated in the heart of Belfast. The woodland follows the line of the Colin River, which begins its life as a tiny trickle on Divis Mountain. It flows over upland bog and farmland, and then cascades over a waterfall into the Rumbling Hole Quarry, before entering the Upper Colin Glen. For me, this is where the magic begins. In springtime the beautiful broadleaved woodland is brimming with wildflowers such as bluebells, wood anemone and wild garlic.  The river winds through chalk and limestone, cutting its way through the landscape to form the valley. I love all the river birds that make this place their home, from the herons and cheeky little dippers, to the tree creepers and chiffchaffs. I love how the ferns unfold with quiet drama and the forests burst into life. As you travel downstream, the river widens and continues to meander through the trees passing remnants of Belfast’s famous industrial past. The forest is full of fairy tales and folklore that inspire and entertain all who come to visit. The river is also famous for fossils, there have been many interesting discoveries, including plesiosaur and ichthyosaur vertebrae from the Jurassic era. The final stretch of river flows alongside the city before entering the mighty Lagan, where it flows into Belfast Lough and reaches its journeys end.

I love this little glen so much because I got my first job in conservation here in 2005. I spent nearly three years looking after the woodland and educating kids and volunteers about biodiversity and rivers. I worked with amazing people whose passion and enthusiasm for wildlife taught me more than anything I ever could read in books.

What is the most interesting/unusual/beautiful plant or animal you’ve ever seen?

I was on a foray, at Murlough Nature Reserve, Co. Down, with the Northern Ireland Fungus Group, when we came across a strange, red starfish like object on the ground. Closer examination revealed it to be some sort of fungus with a very strong smell like a stinkhorn, and a light, foamy structure.  We even observed a fly landing on it, attracted by the terrible smell.  A little investigation revealed to be Devil’s Fingers Clathrus archeri and this was the first recorded sighting in Northern Ireland.

What advice would you give to people who want to encourage their communities to get involved in science and nature?

Get involved with a local conservation organisation like the Belfast Hills Partnership. They are always looking help and you don’t have to have any prior expertise to make a huge difference. Most organisations with help you gain new skills and knowledge and will offer training to help you learn all about local biodiversity. You will usually find a lovely bunch of like-minded people who are enthusiastic about nature and fun to spend time with.

About OPAL Community Champions

The OPAL Community Champions scheme aims to acknowledge the contribution made by individuals to the OPAL network, to thank people for their efforts, and to act as an inspiration for others.

Over the next few weeks and months we'll be profiling our Community Champions who are nominated by OPAL's team of Community Scientists from across the UK.