Over the past year, everyone from city slickers to countryside dwellers have been getting closer to nature and learning to love their environment, discovering the creatures that cohabit our locales.
You don’t have to be an avid birdwatcher, eager ecologist or even ‘the next David Attenborough’ to get friendly with fabulous fauna and wild fowl in Northern Ireland. All you have to do is visit any of the amazing parks and forests for access to wonderful wildlife, many only a two-hour drive from Dublin. Or have a fun-filled day out at one of Northern Ireland’s great zoos, farms, aquariums, and animal sanctuaries.
Puffin watching on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim
Hop on the ferry to Rathlin Island, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island. Home to the largest breeding seabird colonies in Europe and RSPB Seabird Centre, birdwatchers and nature lovers will delight in a trip with a special viewing platform with binoculars and telescopes available. Or for something different, head for Rathlin West Light which is known locally as the ‘upside down’ lighthouse. From April to July is puffin season, but you can also spot gannets, dolphins or seals basking on the rocks. End your visit by watching seabird chicks perch precariously on cliff edges as well as guillemots, kittiwakes, and razorbills. RSPB Seabird Centre
Bring your cheeky little monkeys to Belfast Zoo
At Belfast Zoo, you have 55 acres to roam around and over 130 species to see. Get up close with Asian elephants, Rothschild’s giraffes, Barbary lions and Sumatran tigers, California sea lions as well as an array of sifakas, gorillas, chimps and gibbons. You’ll have the opportunity to see native red squirrels, barn owls and Irish black honeybees along the way. Belfast Zoo
Dive in at Exploris Aquarium, Co. Down
You’ll find this awesome aquarium at the foot of the Ards Peninsula in Portaferry where you’ll get a diver’s view of marine life from around the world. Meet the new waddle of penguins settling into their home and watch how they frolic and jump on the water. Ever tickle a shark’s belly or feel a sea urchin’s spikes? Well now is the perfect time to give it a go. Visit the Seal Sanctuary, the Tropical Ocean – home to over 100 species – and meet a family of Asian Short Clawed Otters. You can even adopt one of the seal pups whilst they are going through their rehabilitation. Exploris Aquarium
Wing it to Belfast Lough for wildlife
If it’s birds you’re after, then Belfast’s ‘Window on Wildlife’ (WOW) has got all you need. This RSPB-managed collection of mudflats, watermeadow and river lough is right in the heart of Belfast Lough and is home to more than 100 species of birds. Alongside the countless waders, dibbers and sedge warblers, are konik ponies, a walking trail and a pair of hides from which the birds and other wildlife can be closely observed. Expert staff will help you spot and identify every animal you see as you learn more about this unique project. RSPB
WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre, Co. Down
Three times award-winning Castle Espie is a tranquil and friendly centre set on the shores of Strangford Lough where almost the entire world’s population of Brent Geese resides during the winter months. Hides and nature walks allow you to get close to the wild birds and collection of endangered birds from around the world. A picnic area, an indoor soft play area, Loughshore Café and well stocked gift shop are also available. Recent additions include a free to visit Sensory Garden and an arctic themed Brent Play Barn soft playroom. www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/castle-espie
Seaforde Tropical Butterfly House, Co. Down
At Seaforde Gardens you’ll find a large flight area fluttering with hundreds of free-flying exotic butterflies. The Tropical Butterfly House is set in beautiful grounds, with avenues of mature trees, a maze set in the middle of an old walled garden, many examples of tropical plants, a play area and many other attractions. Reptiles and insects are also available to view, behind glass. There is also a shop and tearoom on site. www.seafordegardens.com
Oxford Island Nature Reserve, Co. Armagh
Bounded on three sides by water, the Oxford Island Nature Reserve is a haven for wintering wildfowl which can be viewed from the five bird hides that are spread around the southeastern shore of Lough Neagh, Co. Armagh. Housing a number of facilities including the Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Kinnego Marina and the Kinnego Bushcraft Centre as well as four miles of footpaths, five birdwatching hides, woodland, ponds, wildflower meadows, picnic and play areas. www.oxfordisland.com
Time for some fun on the farm
You’ll also find Open Farms dotted all around Northern Ireland which make for a great family day out. Like Antrim’s Laganvale Farm near Lisburn, Rosepark Farm in Ballymoney, Watertop Farm in Ballycastle or Kilcreggan Urban Farm in Carrickfergus. At Streamvale Open Farm outside Belfast, your kids can cuddle puppies, rabbits and baby chicks. Or for a hoot of a time, the World of Owls in Randalstown is Northern Ireland’s only owl, bird of prey and exotic animal education centre.
Co. Down, get down to Funny Farm Adventures Maize Maze in Castlewellan, The Ark Open Farm in Newtownards or Phil’s Farm in Newry for some family farm fun. Step back in time at the Discovery Farm in Holywood or meet and greet the gentle alpacas at Cranfield Alpacas in Kilkeel.
Over in Fermanagh, check out the Fun Farm in Enniskillen and don’t miss Tyrone’s Barrontop Fun Farm in Strabane. Or give it welly in Armagh’s Tannaghmore Gardens Farm & Museum in Craigavon.
It is essential to pre-book and to check availability directly with each provider and to be aware of each venue’s cancellation policy when booking.
For more information on great places to visit – check out www.discovernorthernireland.com. With many places to stay just two hours from Dublin, Northern Ireland’s giant welcome is waiting for you.