Autism Initiatives Newcastle and the Trees for Mourne project
Louise Ruffel (Mourne Heritage Trust volunteer)
A grey and drizzly day in Belfast, and my Mum and I were silently questioning why on earth we had embarked on our journey south to plant trees on the slopes of the Mountains of Mourne. I had visions of digging holes in the muddy earth, rain lashing down, windswept and cold. But we had given our word, so we steeled our resolve, and off we went.
By the time we arrived at Silent Valley, the sun was shining, and we felt smug at having left our city friends in the rain. All I knew about the day was that a group of volunteers were coming, and when Emma (Volunteer Coordinator for Mourne Heritage Trust) told me that they group with learning difficulties, I felt curious and didn’t know what to expect.
Before the group arrived, we loaded clumps of oak saplings into the jeep, no taller than two feet each. I learned that they had been gathered as acorns from a local woodland, selected as a local breed, hopefully well adapted to the rigours of their future homes in the Mourne area. As part of the Trees for Mourne project, these acorns were grown and nurtured at the Silent Valley nursery. Space was at a premium for these growing saplings, and so our plan for the day was to replant them at Dunnywater. I asked how many we had to plant, the answer, ‘a couple of hundred’. It sounded daunting.
En route to the Rangers office, I had noticed an impressive set of gateposts, and to my delight it was through this entrance that we drove with our precious cargo of trees, along with an arsenal of spades and barrows. This was Dunnywater, where the M.H.T. loan an area of land from N.I. Water, our workplace for the day. The saplings will stay at Dunnywater for a few years to grow, before being relocated to their final homes, the exact location undecided as yet.
Soon our workmates for the day arrived along with their carers. At first things seemed chaotic, as we transported tools and trees to the planting area and sorted out who would do what. Soon, though, everyone had found their niche, and Alan showed us how to plant the saplings, by slicing a T shape into the soil, and fitting the roots into the sliced earth, rather than laboriously digging a hole for each plant. Most of us worked together to dig and fit in the little oaks, while other members of the group carefully pruned the roots ready for planting. Some busied themselves transporting saplings around the site.
Dunnywater is a beautiful spot, mown grass ready to be planted, although Alan said that only a few weeks earlier it had been a jungle of overgrown grass and brambles. As everyone applied themselves to the task at hand, voices quietened and I listened to the wind blowing the tall trees that surrounded the plot, hoping that some of the saplings that we planted might one day grow to that size. New rows of were neatly inserted and the stash of oaks diminished quicker than I had imagined it would, everyone working together efficiently. I couldn’t believe it when lunchtime was called.
Over lunch, I learned that Autism Initiatives Newcastle come to work with the M.H.T. every two weeks, helping with a variety of tasks. Autism Initiatives provides daycare for adults as well as a residential centre, catering for those with autism as well as learning difficulties. Their leader, Julian, told me that his group certainly benefits from their outings greatly, “Conservation work encourages responsibility and independence, as well as having fantastic health benefits”. It is a great outlet for those who have a lot of energy to really focus on a task. There were ages from 20 to 58 present, encompassing a wide range of capability, but there was something for everyone to do, and everyone was certainly enjoying themselves.
John, who has Downs Syndrome, told me that his favourite thing about working with the M.H.T. is being outdoors, working at the Silent Valley nursery, and being able to grow potatoes and strawberries to take home. That, and the free tea of course!
To find out more about Autism Initiatives N.I., visit www.ai-ni.co.uk, and be sure to check out the artwork of the very talented Colm. If you wish to volunteer with Mourne Heritage Trust call Emma, Alan or Darren on 02941 769825 or email email@example.com.