200-year-old tradition of island farming on Strangford Lough

Sheep on the barge passing Gibb's Island, Strangford Lough

For nearly 200 years, farmers around Strangford have transported their livestock to the rich grazing land of the islands in the Lough. From animals swimming short distances, to transporting them on makeshift rafts, cows and sheep have long benefited from the varied pasture.

The grazing plays an important role in the conservation management of the land, helping to control the growth of scrub and providing excellent habitat for local wildfowl and migrating birds to thrive.

Sheep being loaded onto the barge, Salt Island, Strangford Lough
Sheep being loaded onto the barge, Salt Island, Strangford Lough
Sheep being loaded onto the barge, Salt Island, Strangford Lough

As a charity, we are responsible for the care of 20 islands on Strangford Lough – 12 of which are grazed for most, or some, of the year.

Last week, rangers from the National Trust Strangford team assisted local tenant farmers Frankie and Kevin McCullough to remove 150 grazing hoggets (young sheep) from Salt Island, for transport to the slopes of Slieve Croob, County Down.

The important role of conservation grazing

The National Trust has been operating a livestock barge, or cot, on the Lough since 2000 – firstly, the Penelope (until 2012), and then the Cuan Brig (from 2014). The vessel has allowed for the continued farming of the islands of the Lough. Without it, there would have been land abandonment and the afforestation of the islands, either through planned planting or natural succession.

" Loss of grazing and subsequent scrub development would see a very significant loss of species-rich grassland, a rapidly shrinking plant community in County Down. "
- Hugh Thurgate

Head Ranger Hugh Thurgate said: "Loss of grazing would also lead to a decline in suitable grazing habitat for wintering wildfowl and a loss of suitable habitat for breeding seabirds for which the Lough is internationally renowned.

"Woodland development would result in the disappearance of visible culture, history and archaeology which is currently wonderfully accessible. There are other commercial barges operating on the Lough but none of them are designed for the transportation of livestock. The Cuan Brig is the only vessel that farming landowners and tenants can hire for the movement of stock and is available to anybody, it’s not just for National Trust tenants.”

Off loading the sheep at the quay
Off loading the sheep at the quay
Off loading the sheep at the quay

Rangers Hugh and Will Hawkins took the helm of the Cuan Brig to move two boatloads of hoggets off Salt Island. These animals were offloaded at Mullagh Quay before being taken to Frankie's farm on the slopes of Slieve Croob. The hoggets will spend their summer on the mountain before being assimilated into Frankie's flock of 450 breeding Scottish blackface ewes.

The Mullagh Quay is one of a series of early stone-built quays on the Lough that pre-date the 1834 Ordnance Survey Map. In its day, amongst other things, it is likely to have seen the importation of coal and export of grain and potatoes.

Hugh said: “It is one of the pleasures of using the barge that we can re-use quays that have been around for close to 200 years, for the first time in many, many decades. Frankie, while being a man of the mountains, born and bred, also has a strong connection to the County Down coast, grazing sheep on Copeland Island for 20 years and on Salt and Green Islands on Strangford Lough since the early 1980's.

“These islands provide relatively high-quality seasonal pasturage for mountain sheep and have become integral to Frankie's whole farming enterprise.”

Island farming is just one example of the National Trust’s ambition to use methods of conservation farming to ensure the local environment and wildlife are allowed to flourish, while also working in harmony with farmers.