In an upcoming series, we’ll be exploring the National Parks of Great Britain. But since we have recently celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, it seems only right to start by drawing attention to the one part of the UK that does not currently have any National Parks – Northern Ireland.
Although the Republic of Ireland is home to 6 National Parks, this part of the isle has none, and that is an issue that has been causing a great deal of controversy.
Back in 2002, the Mourne Mountains were first suggested as a potential National Park site. Fifteen years later, and the debate is still raging. On the one side are environmentalists who argue that becoming a National Park would offer a much needed boost in infrastructure. The 220 square mile area attracts some 1.4 million visitors each year, but there is only one forest ranger, hardly enough to deal with the issues created by so many visitors – litter, traffic congestion, erosion, to name just a few. Being a National Park would provide more support both financially and in terms of feet on the ground maintaining the area.
On the other side are some local residents and farmers, and this is what differentiates the Mournes from many British National Parks. Whereas areas like the North York Moors or the Peak District are fairly sparsely populated, this region is home to 50,000 people. They fear that becoming a National Park will cause property prices to rise, thereby pushing them out of the area. At the same time, farmers worry that the added bureaucracy will make it harder for them to access their land, and to farm in a way that remains viable and profitable in the 21st century.
If you do decide to visit the Mournes while you are in Northern Ireland, you have a variety of choices when it comes to walks, bike rides, and spots to visit. A great deal of information, as well as maps and details of where to stay in the area, can be found at Discover Northern Ireland.
If you have a couple of days to spare and want to spend some quality time hiking the countryside, the Ring of Gullian Way is a 38 mile (61km) walk around a caldera created by a volcanic explosion 60 million years ago. The route takes you through forest, across hills, past neolithic monuments, and by the impressive Craigmore Viaduct. A short detour from the trail also allows you to take in Moyry Castle, built in 1601.
If time is limited, consider stopping off at the village of Kilkeel, located by the edge of the sea at the foot of the mountains. In addition to exploring the harbour – home to the largest fishing fleet in Northern Ireland – there are a number of historic buildings, including churches, the old workhouse, and a schoolhouse, that are worth a visit.