As we move towards a world working more in harmony with conservation and sustainability, local nature reserves are great locations to start making that journey with your family.
Nowadays, nature reserves run by the likes of Ulster Wildlife and RSBP (NI) have a wealth of resources and information on site (as well as online) to help educate us about some of the animals and plants we might encounter on some of their walks, and what they mean for that environment.
This is a great way to get children involved in learning more about preserving and improving nature and wildlife sanctuaries, whilst getting the whole family out for some fresh air and exercise.
You might think you need to travel far to find these idyllic nature spots, but in truth, a lot of them are nestled just outside towns and cities; some of them havens right within them!
And there’s something to be said for visiting such places during winter; you often have the place to yourself to explore and fully immerse your audio-visual senses!
Below are just a few reserves you can find within a 20-mile radius of Belfast city centre, each one offering something unique for a different kind of walk:
Slievenacloy Nature Reserve
Slievenacloy is one of those hidden gems. Perched high on the Belfast Hills, you could easily drive past the entrance and never know it’s there.
Part of Ulster Wildlife, it encourages you to not only look for rare wildlife throughout different seasons (fun fact: did you know you can spot a common lizard here?!), but also take in some phenomenal sights of the city below, as well as five of Northern Ireland’s counties.
There are three route options to walk here, all between 1-2 hours long: Priest’s Hill Walk, Stoneyford Walk, and Ballycollin Walk.
We took the gravelly, and fairly flat Priest’s Hill walking trail, which was a good choice with three young children in tow; older children may enjoy the more challenging Stoneyford Walk!
Although Slievenacloy is a great spot in any season, we visited on a hazy afternoon in late August and watched the sun’s rays tunnel through the fluffy marshmallow clouds, illuminating parts of Belfast.
There is plenty to entertain young and old along the routes, with handmade wooden log armchairs bound with wire, information signs on various plant and wildlife species, and even ‘Beware of the bull in field’ signs to get the younger ones walking that little bit faster, all the while glancing across the fields!
Heads up with this one, parking is just at a layby on the side of the road.
Bog Meadows is in the heart of West Belfast, close to the Falls Park.
Another Ulster Wildlife site, it’s often buzzing with volunteers maintaining the site. When researching this location, knowing that it’s just off the M1 motorway can leave you wondering how immersed in nature you might actually feel here, but it will surprise you.
A super easy, flat walk for the kids and accessible for strollers and wheelchairs, this little piece of paradise meanders through grassland leading you to boardwalk and a centre pond with birds and wildlife.
The excitement at crossing over the little bridge with a stream running along had us stopped before we barely began walking, but once we got going it was like following Dorothy’s yellow brick road (except the road is actually a grey path!) through lush meadows of green foliage, all the while with that big blue motorway sign in the distance.
There are some nice touches along this short 2.5-mile route, such as stone artwork by local schools, and the backdrop of Divis and Black Mountain.
An RSPBNI reserve, Portmore Lough feels like a truly unique location to visit; it’s large circular viewing platform allowing you a far reaching look across the Lough and wet grassland almost as soon as you arrive on site.
The long, gradual sloping boardwalk then guides you through the trees with some seriously animated birdsong, before you reach the path where you can walk alongside the grassland, feeling really up close with the birds and any other animals you might spot.
We got Portmore Lough all to ourselves one crisp winter’s morning, and we had some remarkable encounters of various birds gliding just overhead and coming to rest on the water, an impressive sight for the kids, and something that keeps them interested along the way.
Although an ideal spot for avid birdwatchers, this wildlife haven is a great place for anyone to spend a morning or afternoon walking around, and the set-up of picnic tables by the Visitors Centre means you can start or end your visit with a relaxed lunch surrounded by nature!
The walk is a short out and back route, and you can take your time heading out to the bird hut nestled in the middle of the lough, which gives you a totally different perspective at a lower level.
Handy tip: the information hut opposite the viewing platform is worth stopping at, with regular handwritten updates on what you might see at the reserve.
Belshaw’s Quarry was not one we’d prepared to visit at all!
Whilst driving home from another walk with two-thirds of my tiny adventurers, at the last minute I saw the sign calling ‘Nature Reserve’ and headed that direction in search of the hidden treasure.
And what treasure was waiting indeed! The first thing we came across was a beautiful, large, metal sculpture of a cow, and as we ventured further into the trail, it felt like we’d stepped into some fairy-tale land, where you didn’t yet know what you were going to meet next along the path.
Although a short loop from start to finish, this walk can be a little more challenging for younger children due to the number of steps to climb up/down, depending on the direction you take. It’s also not pushchair accessible because of this.
The various sculptures made from natural materials are a great way to get kids young and old interested, and the general ‘feel’ of the colossal limestone quarry is one of mystery and intrigue; it’ll leave you wanting to stick around longer to explore!
Don’t tell too many people about this one! It’s still somewhat of an undiscovered gem…
There are so many more nature reserves throughout Northern Ireland to choose from, so the next time you’re wondering where to head off to on a family walk, why not consider one of them, and start an adventure of your own in these natural paradises.
I can’t wait to tick more off our list!