Why you really ought to head out to a hazel wood
Perched in the southwest corner of Co Fermanagh is Cuilcagh Mountain — a dramatic, visually striking feature of the landscape and at 665m the highest point in the county.
This mountain overlooks the rolling Marlbank hills, with their species-rich calcareous grassland and exposed rocky outcrops of limestone with patches of hazel scrub.
This walk is a short trek around the fields that are now managed by Northern Ireland Environment Agency as a Nature Reserve rich in limestone pavement.
You can add to the experience by visiting the Marble Arch Forest, beside the Marble Arch Show caves, and the Hanging Rock Nature Reserve on the Blacklion to Florencecourt road.
Follow the brown road signs to the Marble Arch Caves and on the Marlbank Scenic Loop you will pick up signs for Killykeeghan. The site is situated one mile west of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark Visitors Centre on the scenic loop road.
The walk starts at the Killykeeghan car park. Here, an interpretative panel provides an overview of the site and things to look out for on the walk.
A gate to the right of the interpretation panel is where the walk begins. Stroll up the hill for views of the west Fermanagh landscape. Follow the path to McGrath’s Cottage, a small, two-roomed dwelling that was refurbished by NIEA in 2006. There are toilet facilities available here and interpretation panels inside the cottage. For information on opening times contact Castle Archdale Park, tel: 028 6862 1588.
Heading north from McGrath's Cottage on a laneway you will see the expanse of Crossmurrin ahead, and limestone pavement on the right-hand side of the laneway. This rare and threatened habitat is of particular note, as Fermanagh contains Northern Ireland's entire resource of the habitat.
Turn left off the farm lane and onto a grass pathway for a view of the different habitats in this reserve. On the hollows between the grassy knolls of calcareous grassland, peat has accumulated to a deeper level forming blanket bog with specialist plants such as heathers, cottongrass and a diverse array of mosses that grow in the wet peaty soils.
On the right-hand side, an old early Christian cashel is present, which can be seen as a circular stone feature.
Further along the path, glacial erratics are scattered to the right side — large boulders that have been deposited as a result of glacial action thousands of years ago. The path goes through a field where old cultivation ridges are still visible, having been used many years ago for subsistence farming. Hazel scrub becomes particularly frequent at this part of the reserve.
A past management practice known as coppicing took place in the woodland and this gives rise to many thin lengths of hazel on the one tree, as opposed to one thick trunk. The coppiced hazel served many uses such as firewood, basketry or fencing.
As you leave the woodland on the right-hand side, adjacent to the road is a Bronze Age decorated stone, with distinctive ‘cup and ring’ markings. The path will then lead back to the carpark, marking the end of the walk.
At Killykeeghan you can see the characteristic features of limestone pavement known as clints (the flat pavement-like blocks) and grykes (the deep fissures between the clints). There is a special microclimate in the grykes, which provide shelter from winds and shade from the sun. This woodland type climate allows species such as herb-robert, wood sorrel and hart's-tongue fern to grow.
In spring, the calcareous grassland becomes a blaze of colour. Look out for the early purple orchid and the yellow flowers of the bird's-foot trefoil. The creamy white flowers of the wind-pruned hawthorn trees also provide a colourful backdrop to the landscape.
In the summertime, the heather comes into flower with its pink/purple flowers, and high in the air meadow pipits and skylarks can be heard with their melodic birdsong. Harebells also come into season with their sky-blue bell-shaped flowers, which last into the early autumn months.
The small hazel woodland festooned with long yellow catkins in spring develops hazelnuts in the autumn, providing a valuable food source to birds and small mammals such as mice. Stoats can be seen darting along the limestone walls that divide the grassy knolls of the site.
Walk Name: Killykeeghan
Area: Marlbank National Nature Reserve
Nearest big town to start point: Enniskillen
Distance: 1 mile
Terrain: Off-road grassy paths
Access Restrictions: Please note that grazing animals are used to maintain the biodiversity of the habitats on this reserve, so dogs are not encouraged.
Walk Developed By: Northern Ireland Environment Agency
Ordnance Survey Map: Sheet 26: Lough Allen.