Between Comber and Newtownards in County Down lies WWT (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) reserve Castle Espie.
This is a wonderful site, and I would say the most impressive family attraction I have ever visited (with an awful lot to recommend it for non-family visitors!)
There is the ornithological side, obviously enough. Castle Espies combines a nature reserve, viewing sites onto Strangford Lough (home at times in the autumn to 80% of the world’s Brent Geese), and also areas where various rare wildfowl have been bred and can be fed. All of this is extremely well done. Children can “feed the ducks” (including the critically endangered Hawaiian Goose) and get up close – something which surely helps nature connection which is an overall key to the whole Castle Espie experience.
Beyond the wildfowl area is the reserve proper. Meandering paths take one past large lagoons, leading to hides for the dedicated birders, a pond life area, and reconstructed Neolithic structures with the chance to re-enact an archaeological dig.
One of the most impressive – and poignant – features of Castle Espie is the way in which the industrial heritage of the site is integrated in to the reserve. Castle Espie was formerly a lime brick production site. This could be portrayed as antithetical to its current conservation focused, but instead an approach emphasising the social history and the lives of the working men, women and children on the site. One of my children was drawn in by the tragic story of an fatal industrial accident on the site, leaving a wife widowed and five children fatherless.
In the forests there were not one but two highly impressive outdoor playgrounds. One was the “Secret Swamp” – the “swamp” itself being a protected wet woodland. This slightly alarming video (the troll isn’t normally there) gives a guide:
Castle Espie Secret Swamp Promotional Video from DanDanDann Productions on Vimeo.
There’s also a wonderful visitor centre, with play area and cafe and a bookshop full of temptation… and parts I didn’t get to explore, such as the duckery, the sensory garden, a full restaurant and much more.
Some random YouTube videos of Castle Espie.
From WWT itself, a video of a Black-necked Swan family:
Another WWT Video – “Discover Wetlands”:
A Little Grebe and chick:
Another WWT Video on the sensory garden (which I didn’t get to explore):
A video focusing on on Wild Birds:
“A Day At Castle Espie” video;