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7 places to go wildlife spotting in Northern Ireland

Summer is upon us and Northern Ireland’s countryside and coastlines are teeming with wildlife.

This is the perfect time of year to see cute seal pups, bees buzzing, and young birds making their first venture into the outside world - so dig out the binoculars and take your little nature detectives on a safari close to home.

1. Castle Espie, Co Down

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Downy ducklings Castle Espie.

The only wildlife and wetland centre in Ireland, Castle Espie is definitely geared up for the kids.

Pick up a bag of seeds at reception and you’ll have some of the many species of rare and endangered ducks and geese eating from the palm of your hand.

Throughout June and July, it becomes home to a huge number of cute ducklings, goslings and cygnets.

There are special behind the scenes tours every weekend in June to see the indoor duckery, where the ducklings hatch and spend the first three weeks of their life. 

Den building is also a must at the wildwood natural play area.

2. Ness Country Park, Co Londonderry

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Ness Country Park.

Ness Country Park comes alive with birdsong from willow warblers, black caps and chiff chaffs as well as resident tits and thrushes.

The Burntollet River runs through the park - a great place to watch dippers bobbing away or spot signs of secretive otters and traces of badgers.

Go on a hunt for the unusual Purple Hairstreak butterfly and make sure you visit Ness waterfall – believed to be the highest in Northern Ireland.

3. Rathlin Island, Co Antrim

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Rathlin Island puffin.

A haven for wildlife, the Rathlin adventure begins with a ferry ride from Ballycastle where you can spot gannets, gulls, dolphins and seals basking on the rocks.

The four-mile Rathlin Trail (one of six walk trails) will take you to the RSPB seabird centre where volunteers will be on hand to help spot the comical antics of puffins and seabird chicks perched precariously on the cliff edges as well as guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills.

Connected to the centre you can also explore a real working lighthouse. Home to many Irish hares, see if you can spot the unusual "Golden Hare" native to the island.

4. Oxford Island, Co Armagh

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Lough Neagh Discovery Centre.

Oxford Island is a fantastic family day out on the shores of Lough Neagh, with four miles of walking trails passing woodland, ponds, wildflower meadows and picnic and play areas.

Bounded on three sides by water, there are plenty of ducks and swans hoping to be fed. Explore the five bird hides and see if you can spot Mute Swans, Mallards or Grey Herrons.

Watch out for Sparrowhawks or Buzzards performing soaring display flights over the treetops from the closet hide.

You can also take a browse in the craft shop and have a bite at the Loughside Cafe at the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre with panoramic views of the Lough or head down to the Kinnego Marina for a boat trip.

5. Ely Lodge Forest, Co Fermanagh

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Ely Lodge Forest.

The Ely Lodge Forest is alive with wildlife and steeped in history. 

Located six miles north-west of Enniskillen on the shores of Lower Lough Erne and part of the Marble Arch Caves Geopark, it’s home to an intricate network of waymarked walking routes.

Some are pushchair accessible so even the youngest explorers can enjoy this scenic woodland.

Have a rest at one of the picnic areas on the lough shore and see who can spot great crested crebe, mute swans and a variety of ducks.

Visit the Carrickreagh viewpoint for panoramic views over Lower Lough Erne.  Round off the day with a visit to the famous Marble Arch Caves, less than 30 minutes drive away.

6. Mount Stewart, Co Down

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Mount Stewart.

Listed in the top ten gardens of the world, Mount Stewart is a treasure trove of wildlife. 

From bees buzzing in the brightly coloured blooms to ducks, swans and tadpoles starting life on the lake, the network of walk trails will keep your little ones fascinated. 

The formal garden around the house is themed using an exotic choice of plants from around the world.

Keep your eyes peeled for red squirrels – and visit The Lookout, a wildlife interpretation centre overlooking Strangford Lough, to spot seals and birds.

Staff are on hand to answer questions and provide telescopes and a remote camera so budding nature detectives can get a close up view of nesting seabirds.

7. Exploris Aquarium, Co Down

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Exploris Aquarium.

Take a diver’s view of marine life at the amazing Exploris aquarium.

Explore everything from the native fish of Strangford Lough to the colourful coral reefs of the tropical oceans – and brave the touch-tank to see if you can tantalise a tentacle or two.

This is a busy time of year for the seal sanctuary at Exploris, with cute common seal pups being born during June and July.

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