Schoolhouse Garden Restoration

On Saturday, the volunteer group met at the Old Schoolhouse on the Portaferry Road.  This had originally been built to educate the children of the staff who worked on the Mount Stewart Estate.  In more recent years, it had been used as accommodation for Mount Stewart’s previous Head Gardener and his family.  Since then, it has been the office for the team of National Trust Wardens who manage the countryside sites around Strangford Lough, with volunteer accommodation at the other end.


There is a small garden at the back of the schoolhouse.  This must have been full of colourful and exotic plants while the Head Gardener lived there. But unfortunately, since he moved out, it has been abandoned and allowed to overgrow.  Although this garden is not open to the public, it is a shame to see it so neglected and full of weeds.

So we decided to spend a day working in the garden, to see if we could make some basic improvements.


The shrubs and bushes were cut down in size and brambles and ivy removed.  This really opened up the garden and revealed paths, walls and other features that had long been obscured from sight.  At times, we felt like archaeologists, cutting back the overgrown jungle to uncover evidence of a long-lost civilisation.

clearing path

The beds were so overgrown that we decided it would be best to dig everything out.  The soil was then thoroughly dug over and we removed as many roots and weeds as we could.

digging garden

There were many salvageable plants, which we were able to divide and replant.  However, working out exactly what they were was definitely the most challenging part of the day.


Although the garden will never come close to being returned to its former glory, we hope that our efforts have certainly made worthwhile improvements.  This will be an ongoing project and we’re looking forward to the challenge of trying to keep the garden under control.  And we’re anticipating exciting new discoveries as everything starts to grow and flower in the coming seasons.

As we packed up at the end of the day, we were treated to a spectacular sunset over the lough.

schoolhouse sunset

We all remarked on what a wonderful place this must have been to live and work.  Perhaps even going to school wasn’t always that bad either.

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Darragh Island

This week, our volunteer group went to Darragh Island.  This National Trust owned island is on the western side of Strangford Lough, not far from Killinchy and Whiterock.

Darragh Island

Darragh Island

Darragh is a great example of how the correct management can produce species-rich grassland with superb displays of wild flowers and insects.  The National Trust uses a purpose-built barge to bring cattle out to this island every year.  This ensures that the grass is grazed to the optimum height to maximize biodiversity.

In the summer, the island is carpeted in colourful meadows – a rare sight in the countryside these days.

A flower-rich meadow on Darragh

A flower-rich meadow on Darragh

But the cattle still need our help to reduce the amount of unpalatable bramble, gorse and blackthorn that have taken over several areas of the island.  Armed with saws and loppers, we soon left a trail of destruction in our wake.

gorse stumps

With the scrubby species gone, the grassland should flourish.


Yet again, we managed to find the perfect setting for lunch.  The sun was shimmering over the water and there were fantastic views across the lough.  We sheltered out of the wind behind an old Kelp House.

Darragh lunch spot

This simple stone building was built at the end of the 18th century and similar structures would have been common on many of Strangford’s islands.  Back then, many local farmers supplemented their income by harvesting seaweed from the shore and burning it in stone kilns.  The residue that was left after burning (called Kelp) was an important source of sodium carbonate, which was used in industrial processes such as the production of glass and soap.  It was also used as a bleaching agent in the linen industry.  The Kelp was stored in the Kelp Houses until it was sold and transported to the various factories and mills.

The remains of a Kelp Kiln is found just a short distance from the Kelp House.

An 18th century Kelp Kiln

An 18th century Kelp Kiln

There are other Kelp Kilns on the National Trust islands of Taggart, Chapel and South Islands.  Interestingly, they are all built to slightly different designs.  You are welcome to visit any of these islands so why not go and explore and see if you can find them for yourself?

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Green-winged Teal

Strangford Lough is one of the best locations in the whole of the UK and Ireland for bird watching.  The lough has been designated as a Special Protection Area under the European Birds Directive and also as a Ramsar wetland site.  Different species come and go throughout the year but the winter months definitely see the biggest influx of waders and wildfowl which arrive here from more northerly climes.  Our mild weather, sheltered shores and rich feeding resources, make Strangford the perfect winter stop over, for literally thousands of birds.

Ducks, geese and waders at Strangford Lough

Ducks, geese and waders at Strangford Lough


Recently, there have been a number of reports of a rather rare visitor at Bar Hall Bay, at the southern tip of the Ards Peninsula.  A Green-winged Teal has joined a flock of the more common European Teal and seems to have decided to stay for a while.  Normally, Green–winged Teal would be found in North America, but this one must have strayed a bit off course.


Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

It looks very similar to our more common European Teal and will probably be within their flock so tricky to single it out.

European Teal

European Teal

The Green-winged Teal has the vertical white stripe on the side of its breast and is lacking the horizontal white scapular stripe on its wing.  It is also lacking the thin buff coloured lines that separate the brown and green parts on the head of the European Teal.

If you go to Bar Hall today, you may be lucky enough to spot it.  And if you don’t see the rare American visitor, you will certainly see our resident species which is just as worthy of our attention.  They are our smallest dabbling duck and fly with very rapid wing beats.  None breed in Ireland, although a few breed in the moors of northern England and Scotland.

Most of the Teal in Strangford Lough today will shortly be returning to northern Europe to breed.  So if you want to see them for yourself, you’ll have to get out there soon.


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Nugent’s Wood

Today, our volunteer group went to Nugent’s Wood, on the edge of Portaferry, on the Ards Peninsula.  This strip of mixed woodland was once part of the Nugent’s Estate but is now owned by the National Trust and is a short but interesting walk.

Nugents Wood

The land here was given to an Anglo-Norman knight called Savage who came to Ireland in 1177 with John de Courcy.  A grand house was built within the walled estate and a large woodland planted.  The name changed to Nugent after marrying into that family and the descendants of the Savage family still live in Portaferry today.

There are excellent views across the Strangford Narrows to Audley's Castle and Castleward.

There are excellent views across the Strangford Narrows to Audley’s Castle and Castleward.

In addition to the great views across Strangford Lough, there is plenty of wildlife to see at Nugent’s Wood.  Some of the big, old, hollow trees are very important for roosting bats.  We try to leave as much dead wood as possible which provides habitats for a great diversity of fungi and invertebrates.  There are also Red squirrels, badgers and lots of different birds.  In the Spring, there is a good display of bluebells and other woodland flowers.

However, all is not well in the woods.  The aggressively growing rhododendron is spreading throughout the woodland.  This evergreen shrub blocks out all the light, competes for nutrients and water, and even alters the soil chemistry in such a way that it prevents anything else from growing.  If left unchecked, it will quickly take over the entire wood.  Rhododendron is also a host for the plant pathogen; Phytophthora ramorum.  This deadly disease is spreading across the country and once established in Rhododendron, it can quickly infect other tree species near by.

So our task today was to clear some of this rhododendron away.

Clearing Rhododendron

Once it was cut, we gathered up all the branches and leaves into large piles which will rot away, over time.  As we did this, we uncovered many bluebell shoots which will hopefully now find it much easier to thrive.

Bluebell shoots

We also found all sorts of interesting fungi such as these Scarlet elf-caps.

Scarlet Elf-cup

To prevent it from regrowing, the rhododendron stumps were painted with a herbicide which will get drawn down into the roots and hopefully kill the plant, without harming anything else around it.

stump treatment

Unfortunately, we only had time to clear a small section of the woods today.  There are masses more rhododendron which will require many more visits.  But we are determined to persist and are looking forward to seeing the diversity of wildlife steadily increasing over the coming years.

If you’re ever passing Portaferry, we would definitely recommend a stroll around Nugent’s Wood.

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Konik Ponies at Ballyquintin

In our article on 26th January, we mentioned the Konik ponies at Horse Island. (See that article for details about these interesting horses).

Konik pony

The ponies would normally be grazing the RSPB reserve at Portmore Lough, but during the winter months, the area floods and the ponies are kept elsewhere. During previous years, we have borrowed them to graze the National Trust sites at Horse Island and Cullintraw.  They are great at eating rushes, brambles and stripping the leaves off regrowing scrub.

Konik horses

If you would like to see them for yourself, they are currently at the Ballyquintin National Nature Reserve at the very southern tip of the Ards Peninsula.

Konik foal

If you park in the National Trust car park and walk out to the Second World War lookout hut, you should see them grazing on the grassland below.  But be quick, because they may not be kept there for very long.

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Blustery Knockinelder

This week’s plans to go to Nugent’s Wood had to be changed, because we didn’t fancy the idea of working under trees during such windy weather.  So we went to Knockinelder instead, just south of Kearney Village, near the southern end of the Ards Peninsula.  This must be one of the most wind-swept parts of our coastline and the few trees that survive, remain stunted and short.  They certainly don’t pose any risk from falling limbs during high winds.

Knockinelder lunch

We always manage to find a good lunch spot.  The rough weather had whipped up the waves and they were crashing onto the shingle beach.  Although it was a blustery day, there was some pleasant sunshine.

Some of the fencing in one of the fields has deteriorated over the years, and is no longer adequate at holding cattle.

old fence

So our task today was to remove the remnants of this old and unsightly fence.

wire removal

Once the staples were pulled out, the wire was coiled up and the rotten fence posts removed.

removing posts

We then carried it all across the field and packed it into the trailer.

old posts

Some of the posts will be good enough for reusing but most of the wire and old posts will be recycled.

old wire

We now plan to erect a new fence which will allow us to put cattle into this field once again.  Over time, grazing will encourage a greater diversity of plants and invertebrates than cutting silage.

We would definitely recommend a walk along this scenic stretch of coastline.  On a clear day, you get great views across the Irish Sea to Scotland and the Isle of Man.  But nothing beats the invigorating experience on a wild and stormy day, when the wind is howling and the waves are crashing in.

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Horse Island

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.

Although very basic, this cottage was lived in until only a couple of decades ago.

Although very basic, this cottage was lived in until only a couple of decades ago.

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.

In the summer, you will discover an abundance of wild flowers such as Bird's-foot-trefoil

In the summer, you will discover an abundance of wild flowers such as Bird’s-foot-trefoil

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.

fire at Horse Island

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.

Alan made short work of removing the remains of this bridge

Alan made short work of removing the remains of this bridge

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.

Ron, Alan, Nick and Emma; hard at work clearing the stream

Ron, Alan, Nick and Emma; hard at work clearing the stream

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.

Konik ponies at Horse Island

Konik ponies at Horse Island

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.

Although supposed to be a semi-feral breed, these Koniks were very friendly.

Although supposed to be a semi-feral breed, these Koniks were very friendly.

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.

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Red Squirrels at Mount Stewart

One of our properties Mount Stewart is a great place to catch a glimpse of the elusive red squirrel. You are most likely to see them hopping across the front lawn of the house or foraging at the bases of the trees. Early mornings are the best time to see them or when the areas are quiet.

The following are some photos that Emma took.  She lives on the Mount Stewart estate and has squirrels coming to a feeder which is only a few meters from her back door.  What fantastic views!

From Elf Images on

The squirrels take advantage of the specially designed squirrel feeders which are topped up with peanuts. Some individuals have learned they don’t have to sit out in the rain and even climb into the feeders!


Red squirrels as a species are considered vulnerable in Britain and Ireland. Isolated populations can be found in Wales and Northern England but are still considered widespread, but declining, in Scotland and Ireland.

From Elf Images on

The National Trust are contributing to the protection of red squirrels by carrying out population surveys at Mount Stewart, managing their woodland habitat and excluding grey squirrels from the estate.

Ards Red Squirrel Group                                                               

 The Ards Red Squirrel Group held its fourth meeting on 24th January 2013. The group has been set up to actively protect red squirrel populations on the ArdsPeninsula. We are seeking your support in this vital and urgent conservation work!

The core representatives on the group are the National Trust (Lead Organisation), Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership (SLLP) and the ‘Action for Biodiversity’ project.

The ArdsPeninsula is one of the last strongholds of the red squirrel in Northern Ireland. This iconic species is critically endangered and may vanish within the next decade without urgent action. The most significant threat is from the introduced grey squirrel, which passes the ‘squirrel pox virus’ to the reds – this is invariably lethal to red squirrels and spreads rapidly. The pox virus has recently appeared at TollymoreForest and in the Glens of Antrim, leaving the ArdsPeninsula as one of the healthiest remaining population of red squirrels east of the Bann.

The main aims of the Ards Red Squirrel Group are to:

  • Collect sightings of live and dead red and grey squirrels across the ArdsPeninsula and North Down. Please report any sightings to
  • Liaise with estate owners/managers across the ArdsPeninsula to encourage red squirrel conservation
  • Establish a buffer zone south of Newtownards and Donaghadee down to known red squirrel hotspots at MountStewart and Carrowdore. This involves preventing colonisation by grey squirrels, through working in partnership with landowners

If you are interested in getting involved in the work of the Ards Red Squirrel Group, please contact us by Email:

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Mud Island

This week, our volunteer group visited Mid Island, in Greyabbey Bay. Mid Island is partially wooded and has an old cottage (the cottage is not open to the public). On a bright day, the island is very picturesque and makes an interesting walk.

Mid Island

However, the conditions were not so appealing during our visit.  It was raining, cold and very muddy. Round the back of the island, too much scrub has been growing and it has been taking over areas of grassland which should be rich with wildflowers, insects and other wildlife. The encroaching scrub has also reduced the access to the top field to a single, narrow strip and the cattle and farm machinery have turned this into a muddy quagmire.

muddy track

So our task for the week was to cut some of this scrub back which will widen the path and provide additional access routes so the cattle can get around the island more easily and prevent them from poaching the ground. By reducing the size of the large blocks of scrub, we will also improve the floristic interest in the grassland.

As we cut the scrub, we burnt it on a couple of bonfires.

fire on mud

Lighting a fire on top of wet mud, while it is raining, is not the easiest of challenges. But we persevered and got there in the end. There is nothing better than a roaring fire to warm you up and we soon forgot about the freezing conditions.

muddy conditions

We nearly got the job finished on Wednesday, but had to leave the island to avoid being stranded by the rising tide. Thursday morning was another cold, wet and windy day but a few of us decided to brave the elements and returned to Mid Island to finish it off. Amazingly, despite the continuous rain, there were still glowing embers at the fire site so we managed to get the fires going again and get the remainder of the cut material burnt and cleared away.

By the time we finished, we were all exhausted, wet through and very filthy.

muddy legs

Although this project may have seemed like a test of endurance, we actually enjoyed getting stuck in. It is always very satisfying to see the results of our hard work. Due to our efforts, the habitat will now improve and access around the island will be much easier. Knowing that we have made a positive difference makes it all worthwhile.

The National Trust allows free public access to Mid Island and the neighbouring South Island, so you are welcome to go for a visit and explore. At low tide, you can walk across the sand from the National Trust car park in Greyabbey. The sand is quite firm in this area, so there is no risk of getting stuck. But there are often deep puddles so Wellington boots are recommended. Visitors should be aware that cattle are often grazing these islands so we would ask you to close the gates, respect the livestock and keep your dogs under control.

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Killynether Revisited

Our volunteer group had another busy and enjoyable day at Killynether today. We finished off coppicing the section of hazel trees that we started in December (see the first article in this blog on 1st December 2012).

Volunteers sit down for lunch

A well-earned lunch break

As passionate conservationists, it seems intrinsically wrong to cut trees down as ruthlessly as this.

a coppiced stool

a coppiced stool

So it is extremely satisfying to see the vigorous regrowth from the stumps left behind after previous years’ cutting. It proves just how successful the practice of coppicing is in reinvigorating the trees and ensuring the woodland survives as a thriving habitat for many years longer than if we had just left them alone. In parts of England there are areas of woodland that have been continually managed in this way for over 1000 years. A hazel tree wouldn’t normally live for anything like this long, so it’s incredible to think that many of these trees are actually the very same individuals that were growing such a long time ago. Each time they are coppiced, they re-sprout multiple stems from their roots, with rejuvenated vigour and youth – never getting old.

after coppicing, many vigorous new shoots, burst from the stump

after coppicing, many vigorous new shoots, burst from the stump

For the first few years after cutting, a greater amount of sunlight reaches this part of the forest floor; providing the conditions needed for a greater diversity of woodland flowers and insects. Each year we will cut another section (coupe) and continue this coppice rotation so that there will always be areas which are freshly cut and areas at differing stages of regrowth, thus providing a mosaic of conditions and habitats. The hazel quickly grows back, creating a much denser growth than before. From the following photos, you can see the difference in the habitat from when we first cut the trees down, a few years ago. The regrowth in the background is fantastic.

January 2007

January 2007


The same area in January 2013

The same area in January 2013

Traditionally, coppicing was practiced because the regrowing stems were long and straight and of great value for all sorts of uses.

Several years after coppicing, the stems have grown long and straight.

Several years after coppicing, the stems have grown long and straight.

We can still make use of these straight poles today. This year, we have harvested about 80 such poles, which we will use as posts in a hedge laying project we plan to do over the next couple of months. And we bagged up and removed as many fire wood logs as we could physically carry down the hill.

Killynether 2013

We also made sure to leave several piles of logs to rot away slowly, creating important habitats for all sorts of fungi, beetles and other invertebrates.

Rotting logs make great habitat piles

Rotting logs make great habitat piles

These piles of logs also make great refuges for small mammals. Hazel seeds, with the characteristic gnaw marks from wood mice, can be found in little caches all over this site.

Hazel nuts gnawed by wood mice

Hazel nuts gnawed by wood mice

Although today was hard work, we all enjoyed ourselves and are very satisfied with the results of our labour.  Killynether is a wonderful site. We would highly recommend a walk here, to enjoy the birds and other wildlife. In the Spring, the ground is carpeted in a fantastic display of bluebells and other woodland flowers.  And although it is steep, it is definitely worth following the path up the hill for the superb views out over County Down.

Killynether view


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