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Walk of the Week: Quoile River

By Linda Stewart

Cargo ships once plied the Quoile Pondage, but these days it’s a sanctuary for wildlife. The estuary on the outskirts of Downpatrick is one of a national series of nature reserves chosen from the best to represent our natural habitats and wildlife sites.

The right bank of the Quoile River between the Old Floodgates and Steamboat Quay is now managed as an attractive amenity area with scenic walks, while the remainder is a haven for wildlife — best viewed from the riverside paths and the Castle Island Hide.


The starting point is the road bridge on the A7 (Downpatick to Belfast Rd). When facing Downpatrick, the path is to the left hand side at the Downpatick end of the bridge. This is only a few 100 metres outside the town.

This walk follows the Quoile River along most of its length. From the car park/ layby, follow the path down to the river bank. The path only goes in one direction — to the north east.

Follow this path through the fields, crossing through several wooden gates for about 1km.

Taking a walk along this route today, it is difficult to imagine that before 1957, the Quoile was tidal downriver of the Old Quoile Bridge and before 1745 the sea extended a further three miles upriver to Ballydugan.

An important transport and trading route, the Quoile Estuary was used by many ships coming in and out of port with cargoes of coal, timber and slate. Once the path reaches the main road (A22 to Killyleagh) turn and retrace your steps to the start.

The nearby Quoile Visitor Centre contains a wealth of information on the 'Quoile Pondage'. This was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1970.


The Quoile Estuary was once an important transport route. Quoile Quay, built in 1717 was a busy port for more than 200 years and in the 1830s a paddle steamer service to Liverpool operated from Steamboat Quay.

The Quoile Estuary is strongly associated with legends of St Patrick who landed in the area. Two old quays and the timbers of a sailing ship remind us that the Quoile was once a busy port serving the town of Downpatrick. Up until 1957, the area that is now Quoile Pondage National Nature Reserve was a tidal estuary — part of Strangford Lough. A new tidal barrier was built in 1957 downstream at Hare Island, creating the Quoile Pondage — an area where floodwaters can safely gather before being discharged into Strangford Lough at low tide.

The Quoile Countryside Centre is set in very picturesque grounds next to the reserve — just off the Strangford road, on Quay road. The Centre features seasonal displays on the Quoile and other nature reserves as well as environmental information.

The nature reserve exhibits a rich mosaic of habitats from marsh plants that grow along the river fringes to reed beds, rushy grassland and willow scrub. Fresh water habitats are rich in insect life, providing food for fish such as rudd and eels which in turn feed grey herons, cormonants and grebes. In summer colourful wildflowers such as wild roses, willowherbs, clovers and vetches attract butterflies and other insects, while warblers and tits forage among the trees.

The riverbank between the Old Floodgates and Steamboat Quay is managed as an attractive amenity area with scenic walks, while the remainder is a sanctuary for the wildlife — best viewed from the riverside paths and the Castle Island Hide.

It is an excellent site for birdwatching and an important site for migrating waders in spring and autumn including many interesting rarities.

In summer many breeding birds can be seen as can large numbers of mute swans which gather to moult. It is the winter, however, when wildfowl are most numerous, particularly wigeon, tufted duck, teal, goldeneye and shoveler. Otters are seen regularly from the riverside path.


For further information on walking or any other outdoor activity, please contact Countryside Access and Activities Network at, tel: 028 9030 3930 or

Countryside Access and Activities Network (CAAN) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency 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: Quoile River and Jane’s Shore.

Area: Strangford Lough Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Nearest big town: Downpatrick.

Distance: 2 miles.

Time: Approximately 45 minutes.

Suitability: This walk is on flat off-road paths — however there is a steep section down to the river.

Access Restrictions: Please adhere to the Nature Reserve Bye-Laws and ensure that all dogs are kept on a leash.

Refreshments/Facilities: Toilets and numerous cafes in Downpatrick.There are also toilets available in Quoile Visitor Centre which is signed off the Downpatrick to Strangford Road.

Publications: Quoile guide, available from Northern Ireland Environment Agency properties as well as Tourist Information Centres.

Map: Sheet 21 of Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Discoverer Series, available from Land & Property Services Map Shop (

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