AN extremely rare and ancient wildlife haven is to be opened to the public for the
first time in over 500 years.
Mourne Park, outside Kilkeel, is home to ancient woodland which is so rare it covers just 0.04 per cent of our landscape in Northern Ireland.
In 2021 the Woodland Trust bought 156 hectares (ha) of the 212 ha estate thanks to funding from NIEA DAERA (£972,000), Garfield Weston (£500,000) and gifts in wills and, on Friday, the UK’s largest woodland conservation
charity launched a campaign to acquire an additional 46ha within the estate and to continue carrying out vital work to improve access for people and nature recovery.
The Trust aims to reinstate historic walking paths and increase access on the wider estate. In these times, when people are calling for more green space, access to the countryside has never been more important.
The estate is situated on the edge of the Mourne Mountains in an area of outstanding natural beauty. As the Mournes already attract a huge number of visitors
from across the island of Ireland and from overseas, it is envisaged opening up the Woodland Trust’s estate within Mourne Park means increasing access for people within the local landscape.
Ian McCurley, Director of Woodland Trust Northern Ireland, described Mourne Park as “one of the most important areas of natural beauty in the whole of Northern Ireland with 73 hectares of precious ancient woodland so incredibly rare to find.”
He continued: “This ancient woodland in Mourne Park is really special, and under our care, we can restore this vast landscape back to its former glory.
“With some of the ancient woodland restoration we’ve already carried out, we’ve seen fauna and flora return; red squirrels nest in the tree canopy above and ‘fields’ of bluebells have bloomed on the forest floor.”
Added Ian: “We want to open Mourne Park up in a sensitive way, to allow the public to enjoy it in all its glory.”
Until the Woodland Trust acquired the 156ha in 2021 from private ownership, the estate was closed to the public behind walls and access was only granted via an annual subscription. By acquiring this further 46ha, the Trust will be able to open up over 200ha of green space to the public for free with 365 days access.
The Trust aims to improve access and walking trails through Mourne Park to connect with the surrounding areas, by offering a range of trails for a wide range of visitors: a walk in the park for families, dog walkers, hikers, day trippers, hill walkers, a daily walk to count your steps by, or a different type of walking experience in the Mournes through the largest ancient woodland freely open to visitors.
As well as opening the site up, the Woodland Trust’s key focus will be to protect this extensive area of precious habitat through restoration work and the ongoing removal of invasive species such as rhododendron and laurel and other work. The Whitewater River which flows through the estate is protected as an Area of Special Scientific Interest along its length because of its physical features, its associated flora and fauna, and how the river enhances the landscape within this unique and magical estate.
Dave Scott, Estate Manager for the Woodland Trust, explained that the ancient woodland restoration project in Mourne Park has been going on for three years now.
“We were working with the previous owners to start restoring the woodlands and then when 156 hectares of Mourne Park came into our ownership, we’ve continued that good work. This year we’ve cleared another five hectares of rhododendron and laurel from this woodland, and we have more yet to do,” he said.
“The restoration work that we’re doing is to clear the invasive species so that more light can reach the forest floor, so that plants like bluebell, wood anemone can survive, and also allow the trees to regenerate naturally. Without this restoration work, eventually this woodland would slowly die.
“We’re uncovering views that haven’t been seen for decades, and finding old pathways that have been enveloped by this invasive species for even longer. So when people come to visit Mourne Park when we have finished our work, they will see it in a completely new light.”
With woodland cover in Northern Ireland sitting at 8.7 per cent, the lowest of any region in Europe, the Woodland Trust plans to plant over 90,000 trees on the 46ha extension, to further protect the ancient woodland, reinstate wildlife corridors and help increase tree cover in Northern Ireland.
Ian McCurley concluded: “To be able to protect woodlands on this landscape scale means more for nature, more for people and more for climate change. We need help to acquire the additional 46 hectares, complete restoration in this precious ancient landscape and improve access for people and create more havens for wildlife.”
To support the campaign, visit the www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/support- us/give/appeals webpage.