Discovering the shores of Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland
Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland covers 160 square miles and is the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles. Legend says that the lake was created when the Irish giant Finn McCool scooped out a piece of land to throw at a Scottish rival who was fleeing over the Giant’s Causeway (the land was said to have fallen into the Irish Sea to become the Isle of Man). Lough Neagh is home to a large wetland wilderness and a diverse variety of wildlife. It is a designated Ramsar Site, a Special Protected Area and Area of Special Scientific Interest.
When we arrive at Oxford Island Nature Reserve, the ducks sitting on the bank of the pond get up and waddle over to greet us, quacking away loudly. These friendly mallards are just one of the duck species at this nature reserve on Lough Neagh, and a friendly mute swan also rushes over to give us the once-over.
The Lough Neagh Discovery Centre at Oxford Island Nature Reserve is a great starting point for exploring and its café has panoramic views over the lake. From here we watch some more mallards dive-bombing the pond, they seem so much more energetic than local park ducks. Oxford Island has walking trails, bird hides, wildflower meadows, ponds, reedbeds and woodlands as well as bird and animal habitats to discover.
Once an island, it became a peninsula when the lake’s water level was lowered in the 1850s. Our two guides, Sandra and Stephen, show us around, taking us to see the colony of nests that the house martins have built under the discovery centre’s eaves. House martins start arriving at the nature reserve from Africa at the end of March to breed, staying on until September. There are also one or two swallow’s nests, all the birds kept well fed by the lake’s thousands of flies. We walk along the path to the Loughside Wildlife Garden and see the ‘mini-beast hotel’. This multi-layered wooden shelter provides accommodation for anything from earwigs, slugs and woodlice to solitary bees and hoverflies. The garden also has a butterfly-attracting plant bed and a living willow dome.
A little further along the path, we pass the Kinnego Meadows, low lying wet meadows exposed after lowerings of lake water levels and rich with plant life and nesting birds. Beyond the meadows are fields of australis phragmites or common reed, an important sewage drainer for the lake, processing and purifying dirty water. The path narrows through some woods and the noise of the wind rushing through the willow, ash and oak trees grows louder. There are bushes of hawthorn in bloom and the alder trees have dropped tiny cones along the path. Between gusts of wind, the air is filled with birdsong – the descending scales of a willow warbler, the tack-tack call of a blackcap. We see a reed bunting bird being chased by a willow warbler, while smells of wild garlic waft through the air. It is a feast for all of the senses.
Of the reserve’s five bird-watching hides, the largest is the Kinnego Bay Hide. I was expecting to have to crouch behind reeds in the mud, but this hide is a spacious wooden and glass hut and it even has chairs. Through a telescope and binoculars we spy on bluebills and pochard ducks with their distinctive red heads, loafing around the lake, probably after a night of diving for food. A gang of male tufted tucks sweeps along the outskirts, their spiky head feathers giving them an edgy attitude, like a gang of cool teenagers at the mall. Suddenly they all dive under water one by one.
The number of wintering wildfowl on Lough Neagh has reduced over the years – estimates say it has gone from 40,000 thirty years ago to as low as 8,000 a year. Eutrophication may be to blame – a build up of phosphorous and nitrates in the lake water which affects food sources for the birds – or climate change. However the lake attracts lots of birds year-round, summer visitors include ospreys, kestrel, sparrow hawks and buzzards as well as rare ferruginous and ring-necked ducks.
From the bird hide, it’s a short walk to Kinnego Marina from where boat trips depart during summer. There is a campsite and caravan park and the marina runs sailing courses and bushcraft survival course on two nearby islands such as Coney Island, which has been inhabited since around 8,000 BC and has lots of interesting walking trails. Boat trips run to Coney from nearby Maghery Country Park during summer.
The Loughshore Trail, a 128-km cycling trail around the lake, also passes by here and another popular walk or cycle is along the Newry Canal towpath, which runs from near the town of Portadown. The canal is no longer navigable, however for more than 200 years it was the most efficient (and eco-friendly) way of transporting everything from coal and timber to maize and wheat. We stop at Moneypenny’s Lockhouse on the towpath, where a tiny museum tells of the life of the lockkeeper and those who worked on the canals. The stables, which housed the horses used to pull the canal barges, and the bothy, where the men stayed overnight, both date from 1804 and the lockhouse itself is still lived in today.
After a morning exploring the nature reserve and the towpath, there’s just enough time for a bowl of winter-warming stew at Ballydougan Pottery, a charming pottery and restaurant located in some restored 18th century farm buildings, before we hop back on the train.
For more information, see www.discovercraigavon.com
Lough Neagh Discovery Centre Oxford Island National Nature Reserve Craigavon, Co Armagh BT66 6NJ Tel 028 3832 2205
Moneypenny’s Lockhouse Craigavon Museum Services Waterside House, Oxford Island, Craigavon, Co Armagh BT66 6NJ Tel: 028 3834 1635
Kinnego Marina Oxford Island, Craigavon, Co Armagh, BT66 6NJ Tel 028 3832 7573
Ballydougan Pottery Bloomvale House, 171 Plantation Road, Gilford, Craigavon, Co Armagh BT63 5NN Tel: 028 3834 2201 www.ballydouganpottery.co.uk