A magical mix of wide estuary views, tidal lagoons, woodlands, salt marshes and reed beds makes Castle Espie a paradise for native and exotic water-birds.
The wildlife haven lies on the shores of Strangford Lough near Comber, Co Down and is the first Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre in Ireland.
The centre’s buildings are a visitor attraction in their own right because of their history and the numerous eco-friendly features they incorporate, including reclaimed and recycled materials, a wildlife garden and energy systems fuelled by the sun and wind.
By car — the centre is located 2.5 miles from Comber on the Ballydrain Road, off the A22 Comber/Killyleagh Road. From Belfast follow the A22 towards Comber until you reach the roundabout. Turn right on to the A22 Comber/Killyleagh/Downpatrick road, then turn first left at the Ballydrain Road.
On leaving the visitor centre follow the path to the Plumbs before making your way through two sets of gates over a small bridge to the Brent Hide in the distance to your left. Here you can enjoy panoramic views of Strangford Lough.
From the hide follow the path round to the left toward the thatched round house and crannog. Keep an eye out for activity on your left in the Freshwater Lagoon. Moving on from the crannog, follow the path round to your left, venturing into Woodhenge for a closer view of Strangford Lough. Keep left and follow the path on round towards the Limekiln Observatory.
On leaving the observatory take the left path which leads to a newly restored salt marsh where Ringed Plover can be seen in the spring and summer months.
Follow the path round to the limestone grassland and you will find yourself in the remains of Castle Espie’s old brickworks. Learn of the history of the brickworks through interpretation panels which are located next to the chimney.
Follow the path round to the left and enter the limestone pavilion which has an interactive learning zone indoors and a climbing wall on one of the exterior walls.
On leaving the Pavilion follow the path round to the right and up the hill which will bring you into the woodlands, taking a left signposted for the swamp walk at the top of the hill. Follow the signs round into the swamp and follow the path along the boardwalk for about five minutes and back into Stoat Town — a perfect place for kids to explore.
Following the signs, go down the hill to the duckery before heading back to the visitor centre to enjoy some refreshments in the Loughshore Café.
Try spotting the Nene, red breasted goose, goldeneye and rosybill up close. A winter highlight is the arrival of many hundreds of migrant birds, among them virtually the world’s entire population of light-bellied brent geese. Many of these birds will nibble grain directly from your hand. Other wildlife attractions include bats and otters.
The recent restoration of Castle Espie Wetland Centre was the most significant habitat improvement of its kind in Ireland and extended to creating saline lagoons, limestone grassland, salt marshes, reed beds and grassland for herbivorous wildfowl.
The Limekiln Observatory is a modern take on an old building which once housed the kiln when the site was a brick and lime works at the end of the Victorian era. Now the state-of-the-art building, which boasts glass on three sides and incorporates a composting toilet, is the venue for birdwatching and weddings alike.
The outdoor duckery at Castle Espie is open all year round for visitors. The duckery has two functions: in winter, many young birds are kept within the duckery so that they can stay healthy in the very cold conditions.
This is known as the over-wintering period and you will see species such as northern shoveler, baikal teal, eider, bufflehead, mandarin and rosybill as you walk through the duckery.
Throughout June and July, the duckery becomes home to a huge number of ducklings, goslings and cygnets. Staff hand rear many endangered species of duck from the waterfowl collection in order to ensure their survival.
The visitor centre is the central area to get all the information you need for your day out. For further information, visit wwt.org.uk/castleepsie or tel: 028 9187 4146.
For further information on walking or any other outdoor activity, please visit walkni.com. Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) in association with Belfast Telegraph have provided this information. Every care has been taken to ensure accuracy of the information. CAAN and Belfast Telegraph, however, cannot accept responsibility for errors or omissions but where such are brought to our attention, the information for future publications will be amended accordingly.
Walk Name: Castle Espie Woodland Trail.
Area: Strangford Lough.
Nearest big town to start point: Comber.
Distance: 1 mile.
Terrain: Coastal, lakeland and woodland trails.
Facilities: Visitor centre, shop (wheelchair accessible), Loughshore Cafe, art gallery, disabled parking, disabled toilets, mobility scooters.
Walk Developed By: The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
Map: Sheet 21 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discovery Series, available from the LPSNI Map Shop (lpsni.gov.uk).