Newry, Mourne and Down District Council’s Task and Finish Board held a public consultation on Tuesday 20 March at Castlewellan Castle. This was a follow up from the public meeting held last year to actively explore how to protect, restore and develop the natural and built heritage of Castlewellan Forest Park for the benefit of the local population and develop the park’s wider tourist potential.

The Council is currently carrying out a number of studies to help inform the direction of development. These include how to upgrade visitor services using the current buildings; improve traffic flow; develop an understanding of the Park’s biodiversity; and, assessing the collection of trees and shrubs in the Arboretum.  The meeting provided an opportunity for the public to input into some of the current thinking, before any decisions are made.

Castlewellan Forest Park. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Castlewellan Forest Park. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

At the meeting Dr Sally Montgomery introduced the history of the Park, which was extensively researched in 2014 by Castlewellan Futures’ Heritage Group.  From 1740 to 1969, the Park had been owned by the Annesley family until it was sold to the Department of Agriculture.  The oldest buildings are in the Grange, which dates back to the 1700s.  Castlewellan Castle is a Scottish baronial castle built by the Annesley family between 1856 and 1858.  It is close to the entrance of the Arboretum and overlooks Castlewellan Lake. From 1750 the Annesley family planted an extensive number of trees, developed the parkland, and expanded the lake.  We now enjoy the Park as a lovely place to walk and an important habitat for wildlife.

Over 1,000 species have been recorded in the Park and Clive Mellon outlined how amongst these species, there are protected mammals such as Red Squirrels, Pine Marten and Otters.  Some key bird species have also been recorded including the beautiful jewel-like kingfishers and majestic birds of prey such as the Red Kite.  Important orchids, lichens and fungi are also present, particularly in the parkland around the mature trees and the shelter of the walled garden.  The Lake is an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and the water quality needs to be protected.

Michael Lear, the former curator of the Arboretum, underlined the international importance of the walled garden and surrounding area.  While the origins of the walled garden go back to the 1700s, it was Hugh Annesley, in the second half of the 1800’s, who worked with leading botanists such as Kew and Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, to develop the Arboretum.

Local facilitator, Michael Donnelly led the discussion on key questions with consultants from Allen and Mellon, MRA and Kriterion – such as whether it was appropriate to temporarily restrict access to certain areas to protect nesting birds, the current conflicts between traffic and people, and how ‘Pedestrian Only’ areas could be developed.

Draft plans were presented to the meeting for comment.  These showed how the Bothy Yard at the Walled Garden could be developed to bring it back as a working yard to support horticulture, with the Grange being developed as the visitor servicing hub.  The next steps include developing a plan for the restoration and interpretation of the Walled Garden and key heritage buildings.

The Council has also launched a questionnaire for anyone to complete to provide information about their visit to the Forest Park.  Check it out at

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