Key facts about the Mourne AONB

Designation & Extent
Mourne was first designated as an AONB in 1966, and re-designated and extended in 1986 to encompass the Mourne Mountains, Slieve Croob, their farmed foothills and Coast. The AONB extends across 57,000 Hectares, currently divided between three local government districts namely Newry & Mourne (34,000 Hectares) Down (13,700 Hectares) and Banbridge (8,700 Hectares).  However in 2015, local government re-organisation will see the AONB contained within one single local authority area.

Population & Settlements
The resident population was 51,000 at the time of the 2001 Census.  There are 24 settlements, only 3 of which – Kilkeel, Newcastle and Warrenpoint, have a population over 5,000.  Like Northern Ireland generally the area has a dispersed rural settlement pattern.

The Mourne AONB contains 20,000 hectares of moorland & mountain, characterised by a hard granite core of twelve, closely grouped peaks, with Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard, rising 2796 feet/850 metres above sea level.  To the North, Slieve Croob at 534 metres is linked to the main Mourne massif by the broken rocky hills of the Castlewellan area.

The Mourne AONB contains 72 km of coastline. To the south is Carlingford Lough, the only deep water lough on the east coast of Ireland, to the north the sandy beaches of Murlough National Nature Reserve and in between the rocky coves and cliffs where the ‘mountains sweep down to the sea.’

The AONB contains 5,000 hectares of woodland & forest, including the Forest Parks of Castlewellan, Kilbroney and Tollymore as well as the ancient oak wood at Rostrevor.

Public Rights of Way
There are 33.52 miles (53.95km) of public rights of way throughout the Mourne AONB. However, there are many other routes used for walking where ‘de facto’ access exists, i.e. there is no formal designation but a tradition of use.

Geology & Topography
The Mournes are comparatively young mountains formed over 50 million years ago when a vast block of ancient shale subsided deep into the earth’s crust, causing molten granite to fill the cavity left in its place.  Slieve Croob is part of the much older Newry granite complex.  There are 6 designated geological sites in the AONB: Charley’s Rock, Ben Crom, Bloody River, Diamond Rocks, Eagle Rock and Murlough Complex.  Glacial activity has resulted in the formation of many of today’s features in the Mourne Landscape, such as U shaped valleys, drumlins, hanging valleys and moraines.

Conservation Designations
Carlingford Lough is an international RAMSAR site as well as being designated by the European Union as a Special Protection Area.  Rostrevor Wood (17 hectares) and Murlough (1,500 hectares) are both National Nature Reserves and, along with the Eastern Mournes (7,500 hectares), are recognised as EU Special Areas of Conservation (SAC).  There is also a large number of Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) and Areas of Scientific Interest.

Historic Site Designations
As well as 7 state care monuments and 60+ scheduled historic monuments, 414 historic monuments that are not yet statutorily protected but which fall within agri-environment schemes are scattered across the AONB area, all providing a rich insight into man’s imprint on the landscape.

Built Heritage
Mourne has a distinctive built heritage, typified by the traditional cottage. A 1989 audit logged 1,700 vacant vernacular dwellings. In 2001/2002, 963 such structures were identified, indicating that a considerable number had been replaced, demolished or deteriorated. The Mourne Homesteads Scheme, which renovated 7 dwellings to modern day living standards, has been acclaimed as an example of best practice with, among others, a Europa Nostra award.  The AONB also contains approximately 400 listed buildings with the quality of its townscapes and villages also recognised by designated Conservation Areas in Castlewellan and Rostrevor.

Economic Activity
The Mourne AONB has always been and remains a living, working area and traditional staples of the economy including stone working, sand and gravel extraction, fishing and farming remain important economic activities. Kilkeel is Northern Ireland’s largest fishing port, while Mourne stone working skills are still in demand internationally, particularly for the production of iconic monuments. And of course tourism, which began in earnest in the Victorian era has grown steadily. The following level of tourism-related employment in the three districts encompassed by the Mourne AONB has been reported: Banbridge 10%, Down 14.5% and Newry and Mourne 7%. Construction is also a major employer, along with shipping in Warrenpoint and pockets of manufacturing.  However, it remains the case that many people in the Mourne AONB commute to major employment areas outside the area, notably Belfast.

Field & Farm
Farming is central to the cultural identity of the people of Mourne, as well as their livelihoods. The Mourne AONB contains approximately 29,000 hectares of farmland characterised by smallholdings, with approximately 1500 farm units at an average size of 20 hectares.  In addition, farmers in Mourne use extensive upland areas as shared grazing. The earliest farmers began the laborious process of clearing the land of its Ice Age legacy of countless granite boulders. The stones were then built into walls, which served as sturdy field boundaries. With the use of seaweed as field manure and lime to reduce soil acidity, the area under cultivation spread throughout the lowlands and pushed slowly up hillsides. Gradually the landscape, which we associate with Mourne farmland, became established.  Today the dominant farming activity is grazing of sheep and cattle, with potatoes the main crop. Full-time farming is a significant employment sector in three of the wards in the north Mourne AONB, where it represents between 7 to 13% of all employment. There are fewer full time farmers in the south of the AONB, where farming accounts for 3 to 6.9% of economic activity. In the east of the Mourne area less than 2.9% of the population is employed as full-time farmers.

The AONB contains the five reservoirs of Silent Valley, Ben Crom, Spelga Dam, Fofannybane and Lough Island Reavey.

Granite Supply
Granite from the Mournes has been used widely as a building material, notably paving great cities such as Liverpool, Belfast, and London but also as millstones, lintels, window sills and door steps.  Mourne granite has even been found at the Neolithic site of Newgrange in County Meath, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Climate & Weather
The climate in Mourne is temperate with warm, sometimes damp, summers and mild, often wet, winters. The average rainfall on the summits over 650m is 2000 millimetres (mm) each year while at sea level it is in the region of 1300mm.  But at Murlough National Nature Reserve, on the coast, the average rainfall is only 750mm. The weather in Mourne, dominated by prevailing winds across the Atlantic Ocean and characterised by low-pressure systems, is rather unpredictable and can change dramatically over a short time.

Research has shown that outdoor recreation and enjoyment of beautiful places brings people enormous personal benefits in terms of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and sense of connection with an area. Opportunities for outdoor recreation in Mourne are numerous and participation in walking, cycling, horse-riding and in practical conservation may can support healthy lifestyles.