About a mile south of Kircubbin, on the Ards Peninsula, the National Trust owns a large area of rugged coastline, some agricultural fields and the adjoining Horse Island. The car park is not signed so it is easily missed but this stretch of coast is definitely worth a visit.
At low tide, there is a great walk, out across the sand to Horse Island and south to Gransha Point. Horse Island is surrounded by some of the best saltmarsh habitat within Strangford Lough and is a popular feeding area for a large variety of seabirds. The National Trust allows public access around this whole site so you are free to go and explore.
The coastal grassland in this area is characterised by rugged, rocky outcrops and thin, nutrient-poor soils. This creates the perfect conditions for a great diversity of specialised plants and invertebrates that would not survive further inland. This is a rare and valuable habitat that we are keen to protect and improve.
The main threat to this grassland is the encroachment of scrubby species such as bramble, gorse and blackthorn. So our challenge this week was to reduce the amount of scrub by cutting and burning it, allowing the grassland species to thrive.
There was still the odd spot of snow on the ground, and the air temperature was very cold. So we were keen to get a fire going to warm ourselves up. Before long, we had a couple of roaring fires, and thoughts of the cold weather were soon forgotten about.
As the fires burned away, we also turned our attention to other tasks.
There was an old, rotten footbridge across the stream that has been unusable for many years. Not only was this an ugly eyesore, it was also a potential hazard if anyone did dare to try to use it. Crowbars, sledge hammers and a bit of brute force soon removed the problem altogether.
Every few years, this small stream silts up and the edges overgrow with vegetation. This can restrict the flow of water and can cause flooding up-stream. So we spent a bit of time digging out the channel and removing obstructions. Hopefully the water will flow much more freely for a few more years. We also made sure to construct a section where it would be easy to cross the stream, to replace the need for the footbridge.
Over the last few years, the National Trust has removed several acres of scrub from this site. If we did nothing further to it, the scrub would simply grow back and the species-rich grassland would be lost. The challenge of controlling this regrowing scrub would be too much for our volunteer group if we didn’t employ the services of some very hungry helpers in the form of livestock. The cattle have been nibbling away at the young shoots and slowing the growth of the scrub and ensuring a short and open sward. Occasionally, we also borrow a herd of Konik ponies which the RSPB had been using to graze their reserve at Portmore Lough.
The Konik is a breed of horse which originated in Poland in an attempt to recreate the primitive characteristics of the now extinct Tarpan (the original European wild horse). They are very hardy and can thrive on poor quality forage and will happily munch away on rushes, brambles, thorns and nettles which other breeds of livestock would avoid.
Not only have they done a great job, but there is something very appropriate about seeing a herd of ponies happily roaming free over Horse Island.