Strangford Sunset – Rebecca Hunter

Strangford is a reminder that the recovery of our damaged natural areas can happen and, we believe, must happen to secure a healthy, wildlife-rich future for us all.  

Variety is the spice of life and it’s hard to find a place with more natural variety than under the waves and around the coasts of Northern Ireland. And nowhere does it better than Strangford Lough. I’ve been visiting the lough since I was six and my dad first took me across on the Strangford-Portaferry ferry. It’s a place I come back to often now for work, the rocky shore in front of Portaferry has some of the best rock pool life I’ve found locally – the last time I was there we recorded shannies, butterfish, juvenile brown crabs and lots of bright red beadlet anemones. 

The lough is well known as a jewel in the crown of Europe’s marine areas; and deservedly so. It’s the largest sea lough in the UK and boasts some of the fastest tidal streams in the world which fly through the mouth of the lough, creating a perfect home for filter feeding animals, like anemones, sponges and hydriods, which blanket the walls of Strangford’s narrows.

The Lough has a variety of personalities – its softer side is found at the northern end where it hosts some of the largest continuous mudflats in the UK, which provide ample feeding grounds for wading birds. Strangford actually supports over 80% of the global population of brent geese who come every winter to feed on the seagrass and green seaweed. 

Strangford (like all of us to be fair) has a bumpier side too. The countryside of County Down is marked by numerous hillocks, called drumlins, a leftover from the last ice age. These drumlins don’t stop at the shore but continue into the lough, creating the array of tiny islets that pepper the water’s surface – some say enough to number the days of the year. These unmanned areas also provide sanctuaries for the seals of Strangford – both the harbour seal and grey seal are found here. And if you’re lucky, you might ride the ferry alongside a group of bottlenose dolphins or spot a solitary harbour porpoise foraging by the coast. 

Strangford Lough also comes with some scars and plenty of baggage. Although it was protected in the 1990s for the wealth of wildlife found there, a lack of management left the seabed, and Strangford’s rare horse mussel reefs, badly damaged. But after years of work, the lough is finally beginning to show signs of recovery.

At difficult times like this, it can help to share stories of recovery. And while I can’t travel to Strangford at the minute, any areas of nature, wildlife and peace have been vital to my everyday life. When we begin to recover from the Covid-19 crisis, we will need to protect and restore our natural areas more than ever.  A recent report has highlighted that climate-friendly ‘green’ policy initiatives will help to address the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, and could deliver the best economic returns for government spending. Strangford is a reminder that the recovery of our damaged natural areas can happen and, we believe, must happen to secure a healthy, wildlife-rich future for us all.  

Rebecca Hunter – Living Seas Manager – Ulster Wildlife