Active Autumn: This lough marks the spot for hidden wildlife treasure

Anywhere but Northern Ireland and this place would be overrun by tourists, says Mark Rowe

The oysters, according to my colleagues, were delicious, served with lemon and black pepper, and I could vouch for the giant fish pie as we gazed at the gannets and Arctic terns diving into the almost still waters.

It was just another dreamy day in Northern Ireland's unexpectedly idyllic rural hinterland.

Those oysters were served on the terrace at Daft Eddy's, a pub on Sketrick Island, by the western shore of Strangford Lough. They'd made the short journey from the Cuan Oysters farm next door, where 400 tons of them are grown on the bed of the lough every year. Another neighbour is the teetering ruin of 15th-century Sketrick castle, brought to its knees by a storm in 1896 and now mantled in ivy and lichens. It was all impossibly scenic.

Strangford Lough is a mightily impressive stretch of water, which, in any other part of the country, would be overrun by visitors. The lough begins just south of Belfast and runs for an extraordinary 20 miles due south, where it pours through fast-flowing narrows (so fast that a tidal power scheme has been built here) into the Irish Sea. More than 100 islands and islets are dotted around the lough, some substantial, marooned hillocks, while others, flat and low-lying, known as pladdies, seem almost ephemeral. Cormorants line up along sand or gravel banks exposed only at low tide, drying their feathers in the light winds. Now and then a minke whale or a basking shark finds its way into the lough.

The best way to explore is on foot or by bicycle, following the winding narrow lanes on its western shore. There's little traffic and much to see. Navigate around a bend and you could surprise a heron poised to pounce on unwary fry in the seaweed. Tiny creeks squeeze into land and are wonderful places to pause and explore.

You'll soon come to Nendrum Monastery, located on one of the lough's islands and dating from the fifth century. It enjoys a remarkable elevated setting, encircled by trees and comprising three concentric rings. Early Christian materials were found here, including brooches and dress fasteners, along with a graveyard. Just below the monastery, low tide reveals the remains of a seventh-century tidal mill.

There are reckoned to be 140 shipwrecks at the bottom of the lough, and divers, seemingly happy to pick their way through centuries of goose poo, pull up the occasional medieval treasure or curiosity. The lough has been worked for centuries by man, though perhaps its most surreal moment came in the 1970s when it was used as a base for a runway and the Bay City Rollers were among those to arrive by air. Further afield lies the picturesque village of Strangford, while you'll find Cistercian remains in the village of Grey Abbey, along with a clutch of antique shops.

The best way to get a handle on the natural riches of the lough – it is the most important wildlife site in Ireland – is to visit Castle Espie, a wildlife reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust for the past 20 years. A recent £3m restoration project has enhanced freshwater and inter-tidal habitats with the aim of attracting yet more marine and birdlife. There's a small exhibition recalling how the lough was briefly used as a centre for quarrying and brick making, and children will adore Stoat Town, a woodland play area with equipment made from trunks and branches. Among the 40 species of resident birds are the threatened white-headed duck and the whistling or tree duck.

Usually, it's the grounds of such places that are the eye-opener, but in the case of Castle Espie, the visitor centre is worth nosing around, too. It has been voted Northern Ireland's sustainable building of the year and embraces "slow" architecture, sourcing local materials and installing compost toilets, a biomass boiler, rainwater recycling and solar panels.

The jewel in the reserve's crown is the autumn arrival of squadrons of Brent geese from the Canadian Arctic. The spectacle of these birds, up to 35,000 of them, feeding on the tide line is one of the UK's great wildlife experiences. Elsewhere, as you stroll around the grounds and shoreline paths of the 60-acre site, you'll come across idyllic ponds and woodlands, observation hides, and even a reconstruction of a crannog, or traditional Irish dwelling, home to swallow nests.

"This landscape is so important," said Kerry Mackie, Castle Espie's biodiversity ranger, whose father was involved with conservation around the lough in the decades before WWT took over. "We're at the end of the flyway for many birds. You have diverse habitats, and you can get very close to the wading birds. If people like my father and the National Trust had not got involved, then God knows what would have happened. The geese were getting clobbered [by wildfowlers] and it was pretty much a free for all."

Generally, you read about wetlands only in the context of their devastation. Castle Espie could easily have been ruined by developers. But, for once, this is a wildlife story and experience that takes a more optimistic turn.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Mark Rowe stayed at Rayanne House (028-9042 5859; rayannehouse.com), which offers double rooms from £90 per night.

Further information

Strangford Lough (discovernorthern ireland.com); Castle Espie (wwt.org.uk/visit-us/castle-espie).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?