Wild woods, captivating coastlines and mighty mountains; Northern Ireland is not lacking when it comes to natural beauty. This variety of habitats supports plenty of fascinating wildlife, ranging from delicate wildflowers to gigantic whales. Here are eight of the best spots where you can get out, stretch your legs and enjoy what the country has to offer.
See plentiful wildlife set against a backdrop of breathtaking views across Belfast with a walk to the top of Carnmoney Hill. This mixture of semi-natural ancient woodland, wetland and grassland is owned by the Woodland Trust in partnership with Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
A walk to the top of the hill is worthwhile for the view alone and a circular route will bring you back along the shore of Belfast Lough. Keep your eyes peeled and you may spot Irish hare, a distinct subspecies of the mountain hare found only in Ireland, while a visit in spring will reward you with bluebells and orchids aplenty.
Distance & difficulty: 8.5 miles, moderate with steep sections.
Arguably Northern Ireland’s most-famed attraction, this UNESCO World Heritage site also provides some great wildlife watching opportunities. A colourful collection of lichens grow on the sea-splashed rocks, while seabirds such as fulmars and kittiwakes fly overhead. If you’re lucky, you may see whales or dolphins emerging from the water out at sea.
Distance & difficulty: A variety of trails can be walked to the Causeway ranging from easy to moderate in difficulty and 1 to 2 miles in length.
Wander among ancient ash woodland on this trail through the Marble Arch National Nature Reserve in southern County Fermanagh. A remnant of the ashwoods that once covered much of Ireland, the glen blooms with bluebells, primroses, celandines and more each spring and summer. Keep your eyes on the trees and you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a red squirrel or even a pine marten, while dippers hunt for their prey in the glen’s waterways.
Distance & difficulty: A 1.6 mile trail of moderate difficulty will take you through the glen, with the opportunity to visit the Marble Arch Caves that give the national park its name.
Lose yourself in one of the few remaining fragments of a great forest that once covered much of mid-Ulster. As well as centuries-old ancient woodland, this Woodland Trust site just outside Maghera contains meadows and wetland and supports a vast array of wildlife.
Wildflowers thrive in spring and summer, feeding a plethora of invertebrates, including the stunning orange tip butterfly. Irish hare graze in the meadows, while in summer hobbies soar overhead catching dragonflies on the wing.
Distance & difficulty: There are three circular trails through the wood, which are 0.6, 1 and 3 miles long respectively. One 400 metre (450 yard) section of the Woodland Trail is suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs. The wood is also part of the 11-mile Carntogher History Trail.
Rathlin is a bird watcher’s paradise. The most-northerly point in Northern Ireland, this small island is home to thousands of breeding seabirds in summer, including puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets. Some rare species can also be found here, including corncrake and Northern Ireland’s only breeding pair of choughs. It’s not just birds though; whales, dolphins and seals can be seen out at sea and the island’s hares have a unique ‘golden’ coloration.
Distance & difficulty: The island is roughly 5 miles long east-west, and 3.5 miles long north-south. There are several walking routes of varying length and difficulty.
Some of Ireland’s most iconic mammals thrive among the woods, meadows and parkland of the Crom Estate in southern County Fermanagh. Pine martens, otters and red squirrels can all be found here, as well as fallow deer, Irish hare, foxes, stoats and more. Butterflies also flourish in the estate, with numerous species present, including silver washed fritillary and the purple hairstreak.
Distance & difficulty: An easy 3.5 mile walk will take you through some of the best wildlife habitats the estate has to offer.
Murlough National Nature Reserve
This nature reserve on the County Down coast is home to a 6,000 year-old sand dune system that supports a wide variety of wildlife. Common and grey seals haul out on the beach, while the reserve is of international importance for wintering waterfowl and waders, with the likes of brent geese and dunlin flocking here in large numbers. More than 20 species of butterfly have been recorded in the reserve, feeding on the swathes of beautiful wildflowers that bloom in spring and summer.
Distance & difficulty: Two circular trails can be followed, both around 3 miles long and of moderate difficulty.
New woodland is meeting old in this 80-square-mile valley that runs from the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains along the beautiful River Faughan to the outskirts of Derry-Londonderry. Red squirrels and plentiful birdlife can be found in the pockets of ancient woodland that line the valley, while otters, salmon and trout call the river home. The Woodland Trust is currently investing £1 million to plant new trees and connect existing woodland in the valley, while improving access to open up miles of stunning wood and riverside walks.
Distance & difficulty: There are numerous parts of the valley to explore, including the ancient remnants of Killaloo Wood and the newly-planted Brackfield Wood, which is our First World War Centenary Wood for Northern Ireland. Difficulty varies from easy to moderate.