Looking out over the Irish Sea from the coastal path at Bloody Bridge, the slopes of Slieve Donard rearing up behind me, it already seems pretty clear why the Mourne Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is being considered for national park status. For although there are dark clouds overhead and it has been raining since dawn, not even the gloomy January weather can detract from the sheer splendour of the Mourne landscape.
Founded in 1966, Mourne AONB encompasses 570 square kilometres of farmland, grassland, forest, moors and coastal vegetation. Its heathland is considered to be among the UK's finest, while the saltmarsh at Carlingford Lough is the largest in Northern ireland. But undoubtedly the biggest draw for visitors is the mountain chain that straddles the region.
Covered in pines and gorse, the Mourne Mountains roll out across the landscape like a mottled green serpent, and the chains' highest peaks are regularly shrouded in mist. Formed 56 million years ago, the closely grouped peaks create a compact ring of 12 summits, stretching 24 kilometres from Newcastle to Rostrevor and sweeping down to the sea at either end. At 852 metres, Slieve Donard (slieve is the Irish word for mountain) is Northern Ireland's highest peak, but all of the mountains offer spectacular views when the clouds finally lift.
People originally settled in the area around 6,000 years ago, and they've been making their mark ever since. The landscape that's visible today is primarily the result of centuries-old agricultural practices. Early farmers in the region had the unenviable task of removing the hundreds of glacial erratics and granite boulders that peppered the uncultivated ground, but the stones didn't go to waste, being built into the walls that still mark out farm boundaries.
"The walls in Mourne are one of its most notable features," says National Trust property manager Dave Thomson. "The stones are huge, and the walls were made with sheer muscle and ingenuity. It says something about Mourne men really--you get the impression that the walls were actually built by giants."
Once cleared, the soil itself presented further problems for farmers; Mourne is primarily made up of acidic, free-draining land. The solution was found along the seashore, in the form of seaweed farming on 'wrack beds'. Farmers would bring large boulders down to the beach and place them in rows along the tide line. Once seaweed began to grow on them, the farmers harvested it on the incoming tide, so that whatever was cut away from the rocks was swept inland. The seaweed was then taken to the fields, dried out and mixed with lime to create a fertiliser that helped reduce the soil's acidity.
Although the wrack beds lie fallow these days, Mourne's coastline serves another, equally important economic purpose, pulling in more than 100,000 tourists every year. Stretching 72 kilometres from Dundrum Inner Bay at Ardilea, along to Narrow Water at Warrenpoint, it encompasses the entire northern shore of Carlingford Lough (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) and Murlough National Nature Reserve, home to a 4,000-year-old dune system. Formed by retreating ice sheets at the end of the last ice age, the dunes here were considerably reshaped in the mid-medieval period, when the greater part of Europe's weather system changed to become more energetic. Much of the sediment in the bay was reworked, helping to create some of Northern Ireland's biggest classically crescent shaped dunes.
The climate in Mourne is a strange mixture of extremes. The mountains produce some of the country's wettest and windiest weather, while the coast, a mere few miles away, has some of the warmest and sunniest. Considering that almost all of the extreme rainfall figures for Northern Ireland have been recorded in the Mourne Mountains, it's hardly surprising that the region is of vital importance to the country's water supply. …