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Exploring Murlough National Nature Reserve

A brown, orange and cream patterned male Marsh Fritillary butterfly
A male Marsh Fritillary butterfly at Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

A visit to Murlough National Nature Reserve is a wildlife lover’s dream with mammals, birds, hundreds of insects and swathes of beautiful wildflowers all to be discovered. Outside of the reserve, the Trust also looks after other important conservation areas in County Down, where you can go for a walk through nature.


Murlough boasts a diverse range of fauna. Over 620 species of butterfly and moth can be found here, including the marsh fritillary butterfly, a UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) priority species.

Grazing cattle and ponies

A mixture of cattle, ponies and rabbits graze the land. They help shape the habitats which are perfect for Murlough’s invertebrate species, as well as the common lizard which preys upon some of the invertebrates. If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of one of the bigger mammals on the reserve – the fox, badger or stoat.

Farmland and coastal birds

Murlough is a great place for birdwatchers to see farmland birds and coastal birds, and Dundrum Inner Bay offers great views of many wintering waders. Keep an eye out for the seals at Ballykinlar beach as you'll often see them hauling out from the beach.

Sunny slopes for butterflies to thrive

There are 23 species of butterflies at Murlough. The reserve is one of the last strongholds of the endangered marsh fritillary. This species needs sunny slopes and hollows to thrive on the reserve and, with an abundance of devil's bit scabious, which is their food source, there are areas that make the perfect home for colonies of this butterfly.

Rare moths recorded

Other well-known species include the small copper, the common blue and the painted lady. Several moth species can also be found at Murlough, including Palpita vitrealis, a migrant species from southern Europe that has only been recorded twice in Northern Ireland. The black rustic is a common autumn species, and the pink-barred sallow can also be seen here.

The pygmy shrew

The pygmy shrew is the smallest mammal found in the UK. It is, in fact, smaller than some insects and is sometimes found sleeping in the burrows of beetles. A fully grown pygmy shrew is around a quarter of the size of a house mouse.

The average weight is around 4 grams, although they can range from 2.4–6.1 grams and their weight can decrease by up to 28 per cent in winter. They are often referred to as 'annuals' since their life span, at best, is around 15 months.


Rabbits were originally introduced to Murlough in the 12th century and bred as a source of food and fur for Normans. Many locals still refer to Murlough as 'The Warren'.

The rabbit populations here play an important part in maintaining the structure and biodiversity of Murlough and conveniently help keep the low-density heathland ecosystem which allows many wildflower, heather and lichen populations to flourish.


Several bird species call Murlough their home. These include the pale-bellied brent goose, which is one of the most important wildfowl species that visit Dundrum Inner Bay. Once a rarity in Ireland, the little egret population has seen an increase in recent years and can be spotted on the reserve.

Stonechats are insectivores appearing in open scrubland around Murlough. Dunlin, mainly a winter visitor to Dundrum Bay, this is the standard small wading bird.

Walks through nature

Visitor walking the coastal path at Murlough National Nature Reserve, Co Down in June
Visitor walking along the coastal path in June at Murlough National Nature Reserve | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Dundrum Coastal Path

This path is an old stretch of railway which would have carried you out to Newcastle. It forms part of the Lecale Way and provides beautiful views across Dundrum Bay and many opportunities to watch coastal wildlife. Spot herons, egrets, curlews and oystercatchers who enjoy the rich abundance of foodstuffs on the mudflats. The linear trail is around 2.5km and is accessible by a small car park off the main A2 to Dundrum.

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Plants growing in the dunes and a view to the Mourne Mountains from Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down

Discover more at Murlough National Nature Reserve

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