A Wildlife Enthusiast’s Guide to the Mourne Mountains

Mourne mountains wildlife guide

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The Mourne Mountains cover 1300 acres and are located in the Northern Irish County Down, and they’re incredibly popular with people from all walks of life. In fact, royals like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII would often come here to unwind.

The area has a rich history, and one of the most prominent features is the Mourne Wall which is a dry stone wall spanning more than 19 miles and was built in the early 1900s to combat unemployment. Now registered as a listed building, this enormous wall traverses over 15 peaks!

While a popular tourist destination today, the Mourne Mountains is an ancient area thought to date back a whopping 56 million years and formed during the Caledonian Orogeny, the same geological period that created the world famous Giant’s Causeway, which is located around 99 miles from the Mournes.

The area is not only historically rich but also has a vibrant folklore culture, including ghostly tales of black dogs that guard cemeteries and the Blue Lady of King Street that is often spotted around the harbor. Because of its history and significance, the Mournes is now a protected area owned by the National Trust.

The Mournes are renowned for their beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife, making them an ideal spot for anyone who loves nature and the outdoors. While you’re here, you may spot many species of raptors as well as the famous red grouse, as this is one of the few places in Ireland where these game birds are found. Other wildlife includes the mountain hare, dragonflies, otters, and several species of unique plants like purple saxifrage and mountain avens.

For anyone with an active outlook on life, the Mournes is a great destination, thanks to the wealth of outdoor activities available here. These include cycling along mountain bike trails, water sports, hiking, wildlife photography, and much more.

Types of Wildlife to See

The Mournes are home to a wonderful array of birdlife, including the cuckoo which is a parasitic bird, laying its eggs in others’ nests. As I mentioned, the red grouse is often spotted in the Mournes,  particularly around the heather uplands. You can spot these birds, which are a subspecies of the willow ptarmigan, in the early autumn. Also, in autumn, as well as spring, you may be able to spot migrating birds such as the eider and the great-crested grebe.

Birds of prey are also abundant here, including buzzards and peregrine falcons, which can often be seen soaring through the skies, putting on impressive aerial displays. Male buzzards can be spotted performing courtship flights between March and July. While golden eagles once called this area home, they haven’t been spotted in the Mournes since the mid-1800s. Ravens, while not birds of prey, are also one of the more impressive bird species here and are typically seen in pairs, often nesting on high cliff faces. 

Several species of songbird can also be spotted in the Mournes, including the meadow pipit, which is renowned for its beautiful song. Moving down to coastal areas, the Mournes are home to a variety of seabirds, including gulls and cormorants which are large, primitive looking birds with a real majestic presence. 

But it’s not just birds; the Mournes is home to an abundance of other species, including many beautiful plants like the bog orchid and purple saxifrage. These plants are specially adapted to living in the rocky conditions and they also attract a wide range of pollinating insects like butterflies. Some of the most notable species here are the small heath butterfly, the common blue butterfly, and the holly blue butterfly.

Many mammals call the Mournes home, including the native UK red squirrel and the mountain hare. If you see the hare in summer, it’ll have a brown coat, but come again in winter and it’ll be unrecognizable as its fur will have changed to white to camouflage with the snowy backdrop. At night, other mammals like foxes and badgers are common as well as bird species such as owls. The area is also known for its free roaming sheep and goats which can be found grazing, even at the higher reaches of the mountains.

If you move down the mountains, you may be lucky enough to spot one of the common lizards that are often seen scurrying around in search of food or basking in the sun.

Best Time to Visit


Between April and June, you’ll have a much better chance of spotting the mountain hare as it loses its white camouflage. At this time, many birds start breeding, so this is an excellent chance to see some avian activities, including the courtship flights of raptors, like the buzzard.

Eagle Rock in the Mournes is the last place in the UK known for white-taileed eagle breeding, so keep an eye out for these birds between March and April.

The Mournes is home to many tough plants that thrive at high altitudes and many of these, such as rare orchids, start blooming in spring offering colorful contrast to the rugged landscape.


Summer brings longer days that are ideal for exploring the Mournes, and the red grouse has now had its chicks which can often be seen among the heather in the uplands.

Raptors continue soaring through the skies in search of prey, and lower in the skies, keep your eyes peeled for butterflies like the dark green fritillary and the green hairstreak.

Beautiful wildflowers start to bloom at this time of the year which attracts a host of insects and pollinators. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the Brocade moth which has recently returned to the Mournes after more than a century of not being spotted at all in Northern Ireland!


Migrating birds can often be seen passing through the Mournes during early autumn at a time when the landscape undergoes drastic changes. The heather that covers the uplands comes into full bloom, and foliage starts becoming denser, allowing for sweeping panoramic views.

It’s also at this time of year that the mountain hares begin developing their white winter coat so be sure to see if you can spot one.

There is an annual harvest festival in autumn, which is always worth attending, but there are many events going on around the year, so it’s always a good idea to check the calendar.


Now that the hares have fully changed color, it’s harder to spot them in the snow, but what a treat when you do!

Nocturnal mammals like foxes become very active at this time of year, so it’s a wonderful time to take a nighttime tour where you might also spot owls like the barn owl around the Ring of Gullion.

Other Times to Visit

The wonderful thing about the Mournes is that there is something to see no matter what time of year you visit. While the landscape may change from season to season, it remains one of the most majestic and diverse in the UK.

However, it is advisable to keep in mind that this part of the UK is prone to unpredictable weather so, even in summer, you might need your raincoat or fleece!

What to Explore?

  • The mountains: Being a compact range with 12 mountains, the Mournes is easy to explore in a short time. But if you want to check out some of the best mountains with the greatest views, then I would recommend Slieve Binnian and Slieve Donard. The latter is the highest mountain in NI and is home to many wildlife species like red grouse and mountain hares. Slieve Binnian stands at 2,448 feet above sea level and offers just as stunning views. For something more off the beaten track but with just as much wildlife, try Hen Mountain.
  • The Mourne Wall: The wall is one of the key attractions of the Mournes and spans more than 22 miles. Not only is it of historical importance, but it’s become a great focal point for hikers who often enjoy walking its length. Start your hike at Slievenaglogh and follow the wall over 15 peaks until you reach Moolieve.
  • Forest Parks: If you’re keen to spot woodland wildlife then the forest parks around the Mournes are a must-see. Tollymore is a wonderful place to spot red squirrels, while Kilbroney covers 97 acres and is a great spot to see rare butterflies. 
  • Reservoirs: Silent Valley reservoir in Kilkeel is the perfect spot for a wildlife walk. It’s a very tranquil location built in 1891 where you can see lots of wildlife and walk through the Binnian Tunnel. The Ben Crom reservoir is a remote body of water, also in Kilkeel where wildlife lovers can spot dragonflies and birds like the red kite.
  • Walking & hiking: The Mournes are a great place to explore on foot, with many walking trails, including the Mourne Coastal path that offers views over the sea and the mountains. Start at the Bloody Bridge River to access this well-maintained, beginner friendly trail and don’t forget to look for otters along the river. For Hare’s Gap, the most dramatic of all the mountain passes here, start at the Trassey Car Park. While more difficult than the coastal path, Hare’s Gap has some amazing wildlife spotting opportunities. Hiking through the uplands covered in heather allows you a chance to see red grouse and mountain hares, particular during autumn.
  • Deer spotting: In the Donard forest, you may be able to spot fallow deer, although these animals can be spotted throughout the region in various habitats. The Bloody Bridge River trail is also a hotspot for deer spotters.
  • Explore the waters: It’s not all about the mountains in the Mournes; there is a lot of life around the bodies of water here. For example, head to the Spelga Dam to check out some of the local birdlife. There are also lots of mountain streams that are home to salmon and trout, so it’s no wonder that this area is popular with anglers. On the moorlands, you’ll find pretty pools that are home to insects like damselflies and dragonflies, which are especially active in summer.
  • Organized events & trips: If you want to learn more about the area you’re exploring, then I would recommend heading to one of the Heritage Trust Sites, where there is lots of information, and some even offer guided tours. Many nighttime tours take place allowing visitors to experience the nocturnal wildlife here, and there are lots of annual events for families with children.
  • The coast: Situated on the coast, the Mournes offer a great opportunity to explore two very different landscapes. Dundrum Inner Bay is a brilliant spot for observing wading birds like the lapwing and curlew while the rugged cliffs are home to various raptors like the peregrine falcon.

How to Get There?

Public Transport

  • Trains run daily between Belfast and Newcastle.
  • From Newcastle, there are various bus services, but always check the timetable before traveling. One of the best is the Mourne Rambler Service, which runs a circular route through the local area.
  • Alternatively, since the Mournes are only a 20 minute drive from Newcastle, it may be affordable enough to get a taxi.


  • If you’re already in Northern Ireland, then you can take the A24 from Belfast and head south towards Newcastle.
  • Roads are clearly signposted for easy access to the Mournes.
  • There are 11 pay and display car parks around the mourns with single day passes or season tickets available.


  • Belfast International Airport is the closest airport to the Mournes, and flights from England, Scotland, and Wales come in daily.
  • You might also fly to George Best Belfast City Airport, which provides just as easy access.
  • Public transport is available from both airports or there is the option to rent a car with both airports having a Hertz shop on site.

Walking & Cycling

  • If you’re staying in Newcastle, it is possible to cycle into the Mournes for a more eco-friendly (and waistband friendly) vacation.
  • Once there, it is possible to use one of the many cycling trails, and there are several bicycle hire companies nearby, including those that rent out electric bikes.
  • It is important to plan ahead and familiarize yourself with the trails you plan to take. While the Mournes is not a huge area, it’s certainly easy enough to get lost if you don’t know your way around.
  • A GPS device or map will help to guide you and this is especially important in the more remote parts of the mountains.

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