Celebrating the Unique Natural Heritage and Biodiversity of Castlewellan Forest Park
In 2018 it was announced that Newry, Mourne and Down District Council had secured a development grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to progress plans for the restoration of the parkland and gardens at Castlewellan Forest Park. Development plans also included considerations on future arrangements whereby responsibilities for management and maintenance of the Park would transfer to Council from the NI Forest Service. As part of this process, Council commissioned a variety of ecological surveys and hosted several workshops focusing on the rich ecology, biodiversity, plants and tree collections. All of these have shown what an unique place the demesne is and that it is of national and international importance for aspects of its fauna and flora.
A biodiversity audit of Castlewellan Forest Park identified six European protected species, 27 Northern Ireland protected species and 39 priority species. The findings of the audit were shared with a wide range of experts at a workshop held in late 2019. The results have shown that Castlewellan Forest Park joins a small number of other sites in Northern Ireland which has all of Northern Ireland’s eight bat species foraging in the Park, with four species roosting. There is also a healthy population of otters. In the wider parkland 62 species of fungi were recorded with 25 rare species in the managed grassland. This makes the park of National importance for wax caps and bats and much, much more.
Castlewellan is also known for having one of the most significant arboretum in Europe and is home to Northern Ireland’s 2018 tree of the year, the amazing multi-stemmed Giant Sequoia.
A recent workshop was arranged on site to consult with experts on the plans to restore the Walled Garden, the hub of the Arboretum, and to ensure it is sensitively managed to maintain the integrity of its botanical heritage. This would be integral to protecting it and safe guarding it for the future and maximising opportunities for training and links with other arboreta. There were a wide range of experts and practitioners in attendance including the Director of Horticulture and Learning at the Royal Botanical Gardens Edinburgh; the Director of The Parks Agency; the Vice President of the International Dendrology Society for Ireland; CAFRE; National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh; Northern Ireland Heritage Garden Trust; AFBI; Belfast City Council; Forest Service NI, Mourne Heritage Trust; and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Lear Associates informed attendees on the survey findings, intentions and recommendations for the restoration of the Walled Garden/Arboretum. The survey data indicates that there are some exceptional rare trees in the collection including 47 champion trees, which is the second highest number in Ireland after Glasnevin. This includes the magnificent Nutmeg Tree (Torreya californica), which is the height champion in Britain and Ireland.
In the long herbaceous border, a survey discovered a Rodgersia (Chestnut-leaved Rhubarb) which is thought to be a new species previously unknown to science. The recent study of the Rhododendron Wood indicates that it is an important part of the Arboretum which was planted by Hugh Annesley in the late 1800s. The survey has identified rare species such as Rhododendenronglischrum sub sp.rude, a rare species and subspecies from Western China. As part of the restoration work the old Victorian pathways will be restored so visitors will have access to this magnificent collection.
Newry, Mourne and Down District Council Chairperson, Councillor Charlie Casey said, “Thank you to everyone who attended both workshops, Council plans to create a Forest Park for future generations to continue to enjoy its rich heritage, biodiversity and wildlife”.
The workshop, survey findings and recommendations will now aid the final preparations for a further application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the restoration of the gardens, improved access arrangements, new interpretation and visitor facilities and activities to celebrate the landscape, built and natural heritage of the Park.