Castle Espie, situated on the shores of Strangford Lough near Comber, County Down, is the newest WWT visitor centre and the Trust’s first in Ireland.
The centre’s buildings are a visitor attraction in their own right because of their history and the numerous eco-friendly features they incorporate, including reclaimed and recycled materials, a wildlife garden and energy systems fuelled by the sun and wind.
Castle Espie’s main draw, though, is its magical mix of wide estuary views, tidal lagoon, eel-grass mats, woodland walks, salt marshes and reed beds; the presence of Ireland’s largest collection of native and exotic water-birds
Point of interest:Largest collection of ducks, geese and swans in Ireland, views of Strangford Lough, Limeklin Observatory, Duckery, many hundreds of migrant birds arriving in winter, large populations of light-bellied brent geese, restored lagoons, grassland, salt marshes<
Getting to the start by public transport:The no 11 bus leaves Laganside Bus Centre in Belfast approximately every hour for the 25 minute journey to Comber. It is then a pleasant one hour walk or 10 minute taxi journey to the centre. (Please note that on Sundays buses run less frequently and depart from the Europa Bus Centre.)
Getting to the start by car:The centre is located 2.5 miles from Comber on the Ballydrain Road, off the A22 Comber/Killyleagh Road.From Belfast follow the A22 towards Comber until you reach the roundabout. Turn right on to the A22 Comber/Killyleagh/Downpatrick road then turn first left at the Ballydrain Road.Free car parking is available at the centre.
Getting to the start on foot:Those arriving at the centre by bicycle enjoy a reduced entry rate. A bicycle rack is situated in the courtyard – please bring your own lock. Follow the link below to the Sustrans National Cycle Network website for a location map and details of local cycle routes.
Terrain:Parkland, steeper in wooded area
On leaving the visitor centre follow the path to the Plumbs. First point of interest - The waterfowl collection at Castle Espie is home to the largest collection of ducks, geese and swans in Ireland. Many of the birds will nibble grain directly from your hand offering an inspiring up-close wildlife experience. Try spotting the nene, red breasted goose, goldeneye and rosybill up close.
Make your way through two sets of gates over a small bridge and be sure to close them behind you. Follow the path beyond the bridge and head towards the Brent Hide in the distance to your left (second point of interest) Here you can witness panoramic views of Strangford Lough. Our four seasons have so much to offer (http://www.wwt.org.uk/visit-us/castle-espie/things-to-see-and-do/four-seasons-at-castle-espie/
From the hide follow the path round to the left toward the thatched round house and Crannog keep an eye out for activity on your left in the Freshwater Lagoon. Moving on from the Crannog follow the path round to your left venturing into wood-henge for a closer view point over the lough.
Keeping left following the path on round towards the limekiln observatory (forth point of interest) - the LimeKiln is a modern take on an old building which used to house the kiln when the site was a brick and lime works at the end of the Victorian era. Now the state-of-the-art building, which boasts glass on three sides and incorporates a composting toilet, is the venue for bird watching and weddings alike. It’s a must-see when you visit the centre. On leaving the Limeklin go left path will lead you to a look out of the newly restored salt Marsh. Where our wetland birds in particular ringed plover can be seen in the spring and summer months.
Follow the path round to the limestone grassland and you will find yourself in the remains of Castle Espie Brick works. (Fifth point of interest) Listen to the history of the brickworks through interpretation panels which are located next to the chimney. Follow the path round to the left and enter the limestone pavilion which has an interactive learning zone indoors and is built complete with a climbing wall on one of the exterior walls. The structure was erected using hempcrete which allows the wall to breathe.
On leaving the Pavilion follow the path round to the right and up the hill which will bring you into the woodlands taking a left signposted for the swamp walk at the top of the hill. Follow the signs round into the swamp follow the path along board walk for about 5 minutes and back into stoat town perfect place for the kids to explore. Following the signs head down the hill watch out for the Gunstore which will be situated on your right watch out for the bats.
Continue you on and follow the signs for the duckery (sixth point of interest) The duckery has two functions: in winter, many young birds are kept within the duckery so that they can stay safe and healthy in the very cold conditions and in June and July, the duckery becomes home to a huge number of ducklings, goslings and cygnets. Passing through the duckery follow the signposts back to the visitor centre and make sure you enjoy the delights of the Loughshore Café.
There is an admission charge into Castle Espie, with all proceeds going towards conservation of wetlands.
Facilities:Visitors centre, disabled toilets, bicycle rack, cafe