Landscape Character Areas of the Mourne AONB

The character of the Mourne AONB is examined in detail in the Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) of Northern Ireland, produced by the Department of Environment. The key characteristics which confer distinctiveness and importance to these landscapes are summarised below.

Mourne Mountains

Steep rock and scree covered mountain slopes capped with granite tors, falling to the sea on their eastern edge. Coniferous woodlands account for almost 7% of the land cover, along with the ancient oak woodland of Rostrevor, which is of national significance. In the uplands rough grassland is extensive, often at the expense of heather heath. This upland heathland is one of the most extensive in Northern Ireland, one of the reasons for the conservation designations bestowed upon the area (Eastern Mournes Area of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation). This heathland contains some of the few existing montane communities in Northern Ireland as well as a few small patches of blanket bog.

While granite mountains dominate the Mournes, much of the area, like most of Co. Down, is underlain by Silurian rocks of shales, mudstones or greywackes.  These formed over 420 million years ago, from mud, sands and silts lying at the bottom of an ocean known as the Iapetus Sea, which once separated, on the one hand, Scotland and Northern Ireland from England, Wales and Southern Ireland on the other. The world really did look very different then, the layout of the oceans and continents unrecognisable from what we have today. 

Kingdom of Mourne

A patchwork of improved and semi-improved grazing in medium sized square fields divided by robust stone walls of glacial granite boulders. Within this landscape about 6% of the land cover is woodland, a third of which is broadleaf, mostly in Mourne Park a prime example of estate woodland in Northern Ireland. Coniferous forests can be found on Knockchree and along the northern foothills. To the east of Kilkeel River and intermixed with improved pastures, significant areas of damp unimproved grassland and wet heath of importance to habitat and species diversity may be found. The coastal area, most of which is maritime cliff and slopes contains rare littoral habitats.

Kilkeel Coast

Gently undulating, coastal lowland landscape with small woodlands and stands of trees associated with small coastal estates. Medium sized fields separated by hedgerows and distinctive granite stone walls make up for 70% of the landcover. The saltmarsh of Mill Bay is of particular importance as it is the largest intact area of this rare habitat in Northern Ireland and provides an essential resting and feeding spot for migratory birds and waders, while Carlingford Lough contains several of Northern Ireland Priority Habitats.

Tyrella Coastal Dunes Landscape

Long sandy beaches, with hummocky, grass covered coastal sand dunes such as the massive dune system of Murlough Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) which has formed across the wide, shallow Dundrum Bay are backed by flat, open farmland, divided by leggy hedgerows, broken stone walls and cylindrical stone gateposts. Dundrum Inner Bay is found in this landscape, an area of mud and sand flats which is connected to the sea by a fast flowing channel, covered twice a day with the tides, providing a vital stop-off point for migrating birds.

Mourne Foothills

Undulating foothills on the fringes of Slieve Croob and the Mourne Mountains with strong geometric field patterns reinforced by stone walls. Small farms and traditional stone or whitewashed cottages are scattered. The foothills are topographically diverse with drumlins, isolated rocky hill masses, flat-floored valleys and the lower northern slopes of the Mournes. The lowlands are dominated by improved pasture with a few small fens, the hilly areas boast acid grasslands, while the foothills comprise a mix of acid grass, heather and gorse. Within this area Donard, Tollymore and Castlewellan Forests are found along the eastern border, the latter two extensive in coverage and providing diverse habitats in which a number of priority species may be found; these include Red Squirrel, Otter, Irish Hare, Song Thrush, Barn Owl, Wall Brown Butterfly and the Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

Newcastle Valleys Landscape

Long, smooth rolling ridges, diverse landscape pattern of medium-sized pastures with gorse hedgerows and broken stone walls. Between these hills damp grasslands and small fens can be encountered, such as Ballybannan ASSI. This fen contains a number of vascular plants with a restricted distribution in the British Isles, including bog pimpernel, dioecious sedge, lesser clubmoss and black bog-rush. The site also has a diversity of fen types and small species-rich pools. Densely scattered housing, especially in valleys is common. This area also includes tracts of Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest.

Slieve Roosley Landscape

Open landscape of windswept hilltops and more intimate valleys and footslopes. Scattered small scale settlements around the edges of the hills and along the glens; a mixture of old cottages and farms. Woodlands cover about 4% of the Landscape Character Area (LCA), three-quarters of which is part of Rostrevor Forest, although broadleaved woodland is scarce, concentrations along the river valleys of Kilbroney/Rostrevor, Ghan and Moygannon Rivers and some of their tributaries. These are of importance to biodiversity, particularly examples of oak woodlands. Upland heathland, a rare habitat in Northern Ireland, has a significant presence, particularly on the summit of Slieve Roosley, but it is of varied type and quality, due to different land ownerships and histories of grazing.

Slieve Croob Summits Landscape

Distinctive and prominent rugged summits. Open grassland with rocky screes. Small stone cottages, many derelict. Heathland is sparse and blanket bogs on Slieve Croob are Northern Ireland Priority Habitats and are of national and international importance. Woodlands occupy just over 3% of the LCA, most of it in Drumkeeragh Forest where Sitka spruce is dominant and accompanied by Scots pine, Norway spruce, lodgepole pine and other more occasional conifers, semi-natural woodland is scarce.