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In Praise of Heather

Posted on August 27, 2013 @ 11:38 AM in Walking

Mountaineering Ireland's Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer, Helen Lawless tells us all about heather and why we should be protecting it in the hills...

Walking in the Sperrins last week, on a day when mist cheated us out of the views, the varied shades of heather splashed across the hills gave the day a lift. Heather seems to have been prolific this summer with colourful displays on most hill and coastal walks, perhaps as a result of the prolonged cold period in the spring. While there is one dominant species, ling, there are three heather species that commonly occur in Northern Ireland. This blog describes the key characteristics of ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, and provides some background information on each.

Bell heather and cross-leaved heath flower from June to September, with the more plentiful ling flowering later, normally July to October.  They are all woody, evergreen shrubs, growing from 20cm up to 1m tall. As all gardeners know, they are particularly suited to acidic, peaty soils and therefore are principally found on blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath; habitats which are common on the hills.

Ling Heather

Ling (Calluna vulgaris)

Ling is by far the most widespread and abundant of our heathers, and perhaps because of this, some people and books refer to it simply as ‘heather’. It can be distinguished from the other common heathers by its leaves which are overlapping and appear to cling to the stem. Ling’s pale purple flowers grow in a loose spike on the upper part of the plant’s woody stems. Its flowers are not bell-shaped, they are smaller and prettier than those of bell heather and cross-leaved heath, so worth the effort of looking closely. Occasionally you will come across ling with white flowers; this is believed to bring good luck.

If left to mature, ling heather can live for around 30 years. The name ling is derived from the Anglo-Saxon lig, meaning ‘fire’, and recalls the importance of heather in early times as fuel. It’s not surprising then that mountain wildfires can burn so vigorously, as seen in the Mournes in May 2011.

Ling Heather

Bell heather (Erica cinerea)

Bell heather is the classic heather species, which brings magnificent purple patches to drier hillsides. It is particularly characteristic of the Mournes, but will be easily found among the ling heather and whins (also known as gorse) on most hills. The vivid purple bell-shaped flowers grow in groups along the plant’s wiry stems.

On bell heather, the individual leaves are easy to see and grow in sets of three, with tufts of shorter leaves where the three longer leaves join the stem. The leaves are dark green, and narrow to cope with extended dry periods, from winter frosts and summer drought. This is a feature heathers share with other plants such as whins. As bell heather prefers drier soils it is often found on steeper slopes, dry banks, tussocks, rocks and other well-drained areas.

Bell Heather

Cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix)

The plump bell-shaped pink flowers of cross-leaved heath hang in a bunch at the top of the stem. Its leaves are also easy to distinguish. In contrast to bell heather they grow in sets of four, hence the name. The leaves are narrow and grey-green in colour.

Cross-leaved heath plants tend to be smaller than bell heather and are often scattered rather than growing in profusion. Cross-leaved heath favours wetter ground, it is typically found at the edge of bogs, and in damp hollows between tussocks.

Bell heather and cross-leaved heath are closely related and easily confused; bell heather’s preference for drier ground is a useful distinguishing factor. On cross-leaved heath, the flowers are only at the top of the stem and they are usually larger and paler than those of bell heather.  Closer examination will reveal tiny hairs on the stems and leaves of cross-leaved heath; bell heather is hairless.

cross leaved heather

Important for biodiversity

In the exposed environment of Northern Ireland’s mountains, heather plays a major role in maintaining biodiversity. Heather stabilises peat soils, as well as providing shelter and food for many species. For instance, red grouse are heavily reliant on heather, requiring a patchwork of old heather for nesting and nutritious young heather shoots for food. A 2004 survey of red grouse in Northern Ireland showed a marked decline in numbers and a contraction in the range of this species. While many factors underlie the fall in numbers, most are to do with land management changes that have resulted in loss of heather habitat. Red grouse numbers were found to be strongest in the Antrim Hills and the Sperrins, with hardly any birds remaining in the Mournes.

Heather is also an important source of food for bees, moths and other insects. Bees gather nectar from ling and bell heather, which in turn makes tasty and much sought-after honey, most notably the Mourne Heather Honey. You may notice tiny holes in bell heather flowers; these have been drilled by bees to extract the nectar.

As it is a woody plant, heather is easily broken and damaged by trampling.  The absence of heather near the Mourne Wall is attributed in part to the intense pressure of huge numbers taking part in the annual Mourne Wall Walk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By keeping to existing paths and tracks when we walk heathery hills, we will be doing our bit to reduce pressure on these beautiful and valuable plants. 


Helen Lawless
Helen Lawless  Hillwalking, Access & Conservation Officer - Mountaineering Ireland

Helen is an experienced hillwalker, with a passion for the mountain environment. Helen works with Mountaineering Ireland, the representative body for hillwalkers and climbers, as Hilwalking, Access & Conservation Officer. Helen’s role is focused on two core objectives: securing continued access to Ireland’s upland areas and crags, and promoting the conservation and responsible use of the mountain environment. Visit for more information

Summer Days at Davagh Forest

Posted on August 22, 2013 @ 1:07 PM in Mountainbiking

Thousands of mountain bikers have been enjoying the Davagh Forest Trails powered by Chain Reaction Cycles this summer and with a brand new skills park and pump track set to open next month, this National Trail Centre is due to grow from strength to strength.

As Davagh Forest’s first summer draws to a close, caught up with Craig McCullough, Managing Director of official trailhead provider Outdoor Concepts, to hear a bit more about why so many mountain bikers from far and wide have taken such a shine to this quiet corner of the Sperrin Mountains.

Davagh Forest Trails
So Craig, firstly congratulations for being awarded the contract to provide bike hire and tuition courses from the Davagh Forest trailhead. How have you found this first summer?

First of all I would like to take this opportunity to thank Cookstown Council for putting their trust in us to operate the Davagh Trailhead. The first summer has exceeded all our expectations and there has been a real positive feel around the Davagh Trailhead- from regular mountain bikers to first timers. With plans in place for further developments it is a really exciting place to be at the minute. The new pump track and skills area opens in a few weeks and who knows what comes next! We are now starting to roll out our Skills Classes and Mountain Biking Kids Club.

Davagh Forest Trails
Being based at the trailhead, you must get to chat to folks before and after they head out on the trails. What are people’s first impressions when they arrive at Davagh Forest and how does this compare after their day on the trails? 

Normally folks have done a bit of research online or by speaking with other mountain bikers before they arrive so they know they are going to have a good time. General feedback is that people love the long flowing red runs. They are then voting with their feet as they keep on coming back.

Outdoor Concepts Davagh Forest Trailhead
So what is it about Davagh Forest? What do you think sets these trails apart from other trail centres in Northern Ireland? 

The Davagh Trails were always going to be different to Castlewellan and Rostrevor as they had a different design team. This simply enhances the Northern Ireland-wide mountain biking product. In short bikers simply LOVE the Davagh Forest Trails – long flowing red runs, not that much of a steep climb and of course the iconic Eagle Rock and Boundary Rock are amazing trail rock features.

Eagles Rock on the Davagh Forest Trails

Davagh Forest is a Cookstown District Council facility. Visit the Davagh Forest Trails Page for more information including interactive mapping, detailed route descriptions and up to date trail conditions as well as a whole host of MTB-Friendly places to stay, eat, drink and relax in the local area.

You can also keep an eye on the Outdoor Concepts Facebook Page for all the latest information from the trailhead including workshops, bike hire and special offers.


Chris Armstrong
Chris Armstrong  Mountain Bike Officer

Chris looks after all things mountain biking in Northern Ireland's a tough job but someone's gotta do it!

August Bank Holiday Adventures 2013

Posted on August 19, 2013 @ 3:05 PM in Adventure

You Have Reached the August Bank Holiday Blog for 2013! Don't worry click here to read the August Bank Holiday Weekend 2015 Blog.

With August coming to an end many of us are wondering ‘where did the summer go?’  But don’t worry it’s not over yet! The August Bank Holiday is this weekend and we’ve got the perfect way for you to celebrate it! 

Whether it’s a trip to the beach, a peddle through the forest or something a little bit more crazy, make the most of the last weekend of summer with friends or family on an outdoor adventure. Here are some fantastic events taking place over the August Bank Holiday Weekend 2013:

Todds Leap

Fun with Friends

Coasteering, Ardclinis, Dunseverick Harbour, Co. Antrim, 25th August

Traverse around sea cliffs and take the plunge as you jump into the waters below; this is one activity that is sure to inject some excitement into your weekend!  Guided by experts you’ll swim, climb and jump your way around part of the North Coast ending with a 20ft jump into the sea for those who are brave enough!

Hydro Zorbing, Jungle NI, Moneymore, Co. Derry~Londonderry

The best and most refreshing cool down around, hydro zorbing involves rolling at top speed down a hill in a zorbing ball while enjoying the refreshingly chilled accompaniment of 10 gallons of water - it’s sure to be a blast!

Hire a Kayak, Life Adventure Centre, Castlewellan, Co. Down

 Create your own adventure; hire a canoe or kayak and explore Castlewellan Lake.  Instructors will kit you out and give you some tips before leaving you to paddle the lake at your own pace.

The Ultimate Adrenaline Experience, Todds Leap, Co. Tyrone

If you are loooking for some excitement over the long weekend then look no further!  Off road driving, freefall jumping, body zorbing, ziplining…there are literally too many activities in this session to mention. In fact the experience is so action packed Todd’s Leap have even included one night stay in their log cabins! 

Family Days Out

Bank Holiday Activity Shindig, Action Outdoors, Delamont Country Park, Co. Down, 26th August

Based in Delamont Country Park, on the edge of the stunning Strangford Lough, Action Outdoors is offering 5 great activities including canoeing, kayaking, climbing, archery and grass sledging.  Don’t worry if you can’t decide which one to do at such great value you’ll be able to have a go at them all!

Mountain Biking for Kids, Outdoor Concepts, Davagh Forest, Co. Tyrone, 24th August

Perfect for all kids aged 7-12 who love adventures on their bikes!  Drop them off at the new trails in Davagh forest where they will learn new skills whilst having fun with kids their own age in a safe environment. The kids don’t have to have all the fun though, while you wait take the time to head out on the trails yourself or simply chill out and enjoy a tea or coffee at the trailhead facilities.

Family Surf Lesson, Alive Surf School, Portrush, Co. Antrim

Have a last hurrah with the kids before school starts back with a family surf lesson.  See who will be the first to ride the waves into the sandy shores of Portrush beach as your friendly instructor ensures you have a memorable time in the water.  Lessons last for 2 hours and include all equipment, tuition and a snack for afterwards.     

Family Days Out Northern Ireland

Have a great August Bank Holiday Weekend 2013!


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Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson  Marketing Officer

Sarah joined the marketing team of Outdoor Recreation NI in 2011. A firm believer in giving anything a go at least once (unless it involves jumping out of a plane at 6,000ft!) she is always looking for new adventures in the outdoors and can often be found wandering the Mournes or Glens of Antrim attempting not to get lost!

Family Short Breaks in Northern Ireland

Posted on August 6, 2013 @ 10:31 AM in Adventure

There’s still a whole month of summer left to enjoy – plenty of time to have a few laughs with the kids and create some memories before they go back to school.  Northern Ireland may be a relatively ‘wee’ place but one thing is for sure there is definitely no shortage of outdoor adventure to be had.  With so much to experience on your doorstep why not have a holiday or mini break at home this summer?

Whether you want to get back to nature with a camping trip, or prefer to return to a little bit of luxury after a day in the great outdoors there’s something for everyone…

Family short breaks Northern Ireland

Camping at Castlewellan
There is enough adventure in Castlewellan Forest Park to fill a weekend away. The walks and brand new mountain bike trails around the lake will give kids of all ages the freedom to explore. Once you’ve explored the lakes shore then LIFE can get you out on the water.  This multi-activity centre not only offers canoeing and kayaking hire so you can explore Castlewellan lake but kids (aged 8 and above) can also summit the climbing tower and hit the bull’s-eye with archery.  Just next door the Mount Pleasant Trekking and Horse Riding Centre offer guided one hour treks through the park.  No experience is necessary to saddle up and explore the forest.  If they’re still not tired out send the kids to make their way through the Peace Maze - one of the world's largest permanent hedge mazes.  With so much happening in the forest park you won’t want to leave - luckily with camping facilities onsite you won’t have too!

Adventure packages on the North Coast

If a Hotel break is more your style then head to the North Coast where you can get the best of both – adventure during the day and relaxation at night.   

Marine Hotel Family Stay Package
The newly reopened Marine Hotel in Ballycastle is offering a fantastic 2 night mid week package for two adults and up to 3 children sharing.  Enjoy a delicious dinner in Marconi’s Bar & Bistro, then refuel at breakfast before heading to Sheans Horse Farm to experience the freedom, fun and buzz of horse riding on the 400 acre McKinley family farm in the beautiful North Antrim Hills. 

Continue the fun at Ballycastle harbour, just a 5 minute walk away and the starting point for Aquaholics’ Rathlin Island and Carrick a Rede Sea Safari.  The only way to see the North Coast in all its glory this two hour high speed boat ride will let you experience the spectacular coastline from a whole new perspective.

Roe Park Adventure Breaks
Experience the fun of the outdoors during the day before heading back to 4 star luxury in the evening at Roe Roe Park Resort in Limavady, Co. Derry~Londonderry.  Each package includes an adventure activity, two-nights accommodation, breakfast, one four-course dinner in a choice of two restaurants and full access to the indoor heated leisure pool, steam room, Jacuzzi and sauna.   Glide along on your very own Segway at Benone Beach, learn how to ride the waves on a surf lesson or take part in a half or full day of activities including climbing, archery and canoeing – all are guaranteed to add some excitement to your holiday away with the kids.

Family Fun in Fermanagh

Blessingbourne Estate
The perfect place to introduce you and your family to the exhilarating world of mountain biking.  Situated in the stunning Blessingbourne Estate, Fivemiletown, Co.Tyrone, their family friendly mountain biking trail meanders through beautiful woodlands.  Or for the more adventurous family members have a go at honing your skills on the pump track. Check out this video to see the trails in action. 

With apartments onsite grouped around a 300 year old courtyard beside the stately main Manor House this accommodation is sure to keep everyone happy. The kids can enjoy the freedom of the 550 acres of beautiful grounds while mum and dad sit back and relax on the edge of the Fermanagh Lakelands.  Pets are welcome too so you don’t have to leave any family members behind!  

Trannish Island Bothy
If you want something a bit more adventurous then take to the waters of Lough Erne for a canoeing camping adventure.  Trannish Island Bothy is a great base for a mini adventure break around Upper Lough Erne. The island features an old stone cottage that has recently been totally revamped. With a cosy wood burning stove, toilets, showers and camping platforms to sleep on, this is definitely a bit more luxurious than your average camp site. Trannish Island has BBQ facilities for dad, spectacular scenery, Flora and Fauna for mum and the children can go on a fossil hunt, collect wood for a fire or explore the island underfoot.

Share Discovery Village can provide a range of Canoes/Kayaks for hire to help with access to the island as well as plenty of other exciting outdoor activities within canoeing distance from the island.

Whatever you choose, enjoy your family short break in Northern Ireland!


Latest comment posted by Alisa Rozzy on August 6, 2013 @ 3:00 PM

Nice place and the blog content is so much interesting. I love it! Thanks! Here i read more interesting adventures articles :) Read more >

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson  Marketing Officer

Sarah joined the marketing team of Outdoor Recreation NI in 2011. A firm believer in giving anything a go at least once (unless it involves jumping out of a plane at 6,000ft!) she is always looking for new adventures in the outdoors and can often be found wandering the Mournes or Glens of Antrim attempting not to get lost!

Northern Ireland's Outdoor Adventure Blog