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Brig over troubled waters: Marooned Strangford Lough cattle on the move again with launch of their own ferry

It's hard to believe that farmers once moved cattle between islands in Strangford Lough by making them swim.

Cattle can still be seen wading knee-deep in wildflowers as they graze the distinctive green drumlin islands of the lough, though these days they travel by boat.

But some of the animals were marooned a couple of years ago when the National Trust's ageing barge was inspected and declared no longer fit for purpose after decades of service .

Not only was the trust unable to bring cattle onto its islands to maintain its orchid-filled wildflower meadows, but livestock belonging to some farmers who had used the barge was left stranded.

But this morning the trust's new £130,000 Cuan Brig barge was set to undergo a traditional naming ceremony at Strangford Lough Yacht Club featuring the breaking of a sacrificial bottle of Echlinville Whiskey, in keeping with local boat naming tradition.

Coast and countryside manager Andrew Upton says traditional cattle breeds such as Galloway help to maintain the rich wildflower sward on the 20 or so islands served by the barge.

This in turn creates nesting space for rare terns and habitat for butterflies such as meadow browns.

"If we didn't have grazing by cattle and sheep on the islands, over time we'd get scrub and trees coming in and the whole landscape would completely change," Mr Upton said.

"National Trust works closely with the local community as custodians for Strangford Lough – we manage 25 islands as well as a very large portion of the foreshore."

The trust was left without a barge for 18 months while it tasked a marine architect with designing a bespoke vessel suitable for conditions on Strangford Lough. The £130,000 project was funded by internal and external sources, including money from the plastic bag levy.

"The barge needed to be able to operate within quite shallow waters but powerful enough to operate in quite treacherous conditions," Mr Upton said.

"We didn't have a vessel for 18 months and we've had quite a backlog of grazing to catch up with this summer.

"A number of the local farmers also had livestock stuck on the islands which they wanted to get off, so it has been getting a lot of use."

Cattle pens can be removed if machinery needs to be taken to the islands and the barge can take up to 12 volunteers.

The barge has been christened Cuan Brig. During the Middle Ages the lough was better known by its Irish name Loch Cuan 'sea-inlet of bays/havens', which is documented as early as the year 830. Brig means 'bridge' and is thought to have originated from the Old Norse word briggja. It's also a term that is used in Ulster-Scots for bridge.

Belfast Telegraph