Designated in 2006, Binevenagh AONB covers the area between the Roe Estuary and Magilligan, the cliffs of Binevenagh, the Bann Estuary and Portstewart sand dunes.
The Sperrins end in the north with a zone of cliffs overlooking the north Atlantic, serving as a final reminder of the area's turbulent volcanic past. The severe skyline of the cliffs at Binevenagh make a breathtaking contrast with the outstanding expanse of Magilligan Strand.
This is one of the finest beaches in the Province and stretches for 8 km, from Downhill to the narrows of Lough Foyle. The steep, round-topped grassland hills and the sandy shoreline are the dominant features, separated from the rocky shores of Donegal by just one kilometre of sea.
You can obtain more information on the AONB from Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust who, with the support of the Binevenagh AONB Management Group, have developed a 5 year management action plan for this area.
Natural Heritage of Binevenagh AONB
Much of the landscape of the Binevenagh AONB is characterised by long beaches and extensive dune systems. Within these dune systems there are examples of creeping willow, embryonic and shifting dunes whilst the damp areas in between the dunes are known as 'dune slacks'. The post glacial landscape at Magilligan Strand, a National Nature reserve (NNR), was created as a result of the changing sea levels which followed glaciation and shares many of the characteristics of the 'machair' landscapes of western Scotland. The Bann Estuary is also an important site in relation to the study of coastal physiography. Both have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). Managing the dune system at Benone, a Local Nature Reserve, is the responsibility of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council whilst Portstewart sand dunes are managed by the National Trust. These are special habitats and important for the wide range of different plants and invertebrate species they support including the example shepherd's cress, petalwort, variegated horsetail and the rare marsh hellebore. There are many different insects here as well including the brightly coloured burnet moth and butterflies such as the meadow brown, grayling and marsh fritillary. In some cases marram grass and sea buckthorn have helped to bind the dunes together but in the case of the latter this often needs management to prevent it swamping the native species. The extensive mudflats of Lough Foyle have been designated as a RAMSAR site in recognition of its international importance for birds. Its eelgrass beds provide a rich food source for the light-bellied Brent goose and whooper swan on their return from Iceland each Autumn. Lough Foyle has extensive mussel and oyster beds and flounder, plaice and shoals of grey mullet are common. The River Roe, River Foyle and River Bann are all noted for salmon and sea trout. The Bann estuary is also noted for eels and the mudflats here are important for many waders such as the redshank and lapwing. Shelduck have been known to nest in the sandhills near Castlerock. For 'shell spotters' the beaches of Binevenagh AONB are a paradise. Look closely and you could find anything from a delicate top shell to large oyster, whelk or Icelandic mussel shell. Offshore you might see a small whale or dolphin whilst common (or harbour) porpoise often hug the shoreline in summer.
Inland Binevenagh has been designated as both a SAC and as an ASSI. This striking headland is important for both its geology and geomorphology, however it is particularly noted for its unique assemblage of arctic-alpine plants such as purple saxifrage and moss campion. Wildflowers such as kidney vetch, harebell and wild thyme are common on the moss rich screes and slopes. The native ash and hazel woodland at both Aghanloo and the Umbra is a feature of the lower slopes and home to several rare plants including the bird's-nest orchid. Peregrine falcons often be seen hunting around the cliff face.
Altikeeragh situated on the plateau above Binevenagh is an important example of an intact raised bog and supports many rare bog land plants and mosses such as sphagnum imbricatum. This site has a wild and remote character and has been designated as both a NNR and an ASSI. Other parts of the upland area such as Springwell and Ballyhanna have been planted in commercial forestry.
The AONB provides a habitat for a wide range of other animals including fox, badger, stoat, otter and notably rabbits. The dune land also provides a habitat for Ireland's only reptile, the common lizard.
Cultural Heritage of Binevenagh AONB
Binevenagh translates from Irish as the 'mountain of Fiobhne' in legend the son of an ancient celtic chief. Binevenagh AONB has been settled since Mesolithic times and the area around both the Bann and the Foyle estuaries has a rich archaeological heritage. Several sites have been excavated near Portstewart Strand and Castlerock to reveal flints, scrapers and pottery. Further up the Bann at Grangemore there were several other important finds including a dugout canoe, one of five found on the lower stretch of the river, pottery, beads and bronze age pins. Other prehistoric sites include Ballywildrick standing stone and Bronze Age cairns on Binevenagh and at Ballyhanna. Excavations of several middens revealed the remains of cattle, sheep, pig, red deer and whale as well as fish bones and shells. There is also evidence for early iron working and another midden produced pottery, lignite bracelets and part of a bone comb. The most spectacular find was made in 1896 close to the River Roe and became known as the 'Broighter hoard'. This produced several gold objects including a large golden torc, two necklaces, a bowl and a model boat complete with oars.
The 'Giant's Sconce' near Sconce Hill was originally an iron age hilltop enclosure, similar to Granian in Donegal. It is reputedly associated with 'Cethern son of Finton' one of the red Branch Knights. Craigboile Fort is a similar enclosure close to Binevenagh. Other prominent earthworks include Stradreagh, a fine early Christian period rath, and a fortified hilltop at Downhill.
The land around Magilligan close to Drumavally and Ouhtymoyle is important for arable farming particularly carrots which grow well in the sandy soil. The place name Magilligan translates from Irish as “the parish of the clan Gilligan”. This area, known locally as the 'levels', was where Lt Col Thomas Colby undertook the Lough Foyle Baseline survey in 1826. This helped to create the most accurate map of Ireland at that time and two of the original base towers used for the survey still survive at Ballymulholland and Mineary. Bellarena is also home to one of only two gliding clubs in Ireland offering visitors the chance to view the AONB from the air. Today much of the land at Magilligan is in use as a military exercise area and firing range with only restricted access for the public.
Around the foothills of Binevenagh there are also several important churches including St Aidans, Aghanloo, Dunboe and Tamlaghtard. The remains of an older church at Tamlaghtard, close to St Aidans, date from the 13th century. St Aidans is reputedly the final resting place for St Aidan whose remains were returned here from Lindisfarne but also has associations with St Patrick. A holy well within the grounds is said to have healing powers and several mass rocks in the wood nearby possibly date from 1695 the time of the Penal Laws. The churchyard is also famous as the burial place of Denis O'Hampsey one of Ireland's famous harpers. Blind from the age of three, he lived to the incredible age of 112 and was one of ten who performed at the famous Belfast Harp festival in 1792.
In the past travelling inland from Coleraine to Limavady could be hazardous! The inland route (B201) known locally as the 'Murder Hole' road was reputedly home to as many as six gangs of highway men the most notorious of which was led by the infamous 'Cushy Glen'. Today visitors can choose to follow the coast along the Causeway Coastal Route or alternatively take the train. This part of the railway journey between Coleraine and Londonderry features in Michael Palin's television series 'Great Railway Journeys of the World' and is nothing short of spectacular. Its route follows the coast and includes Downhill tunnel, one of the longest in Ireland. When the tunnel was blasted in 1846 it attracted crowds of over 12,000 people and afterwards over 500 people celebrated its completion at a huge banquet held within the tunnel itself. This event became known as the 'Great Blast'.
There have been many shipwrecks along this exposed northern coastline. The Bar Mouth at the entrance to the Bann has always been particularly hazardous and here there are records of over 25 shipwrecks, the most recent of which has a Panamanian registered vessel, the Burgundia, in 1981.
Built Heritage of Binevenagh AONB
Hazlett House, just outside Castlerock, was built in 1690 and is a rare Irish example of 'cruck' construction. Originally a rectory, the house has no foundations but was built around a frame of curved timbers or 'crucks'. Hazlett House is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. Nearby, Castlerock has an interesting history linked to the development of the Londonderry and Coleraine Company who offered 10 years first class travel free to anyone willing to build a villa in the town. These 'villa tickets' proved popular and many of the older buildings such as Seawell House, Craiglea and Atlantic Lodge date from this period. Other interesting buildings include Rock Ryan originally built as a bathing lodge, the Twelve Apostles a distinctive basalt terrace and Christ Church, Church of Ireland which dates from 1870 and was designed by Frederick William Porter. Castlerock railway station dates from 1873-75 and was designed by Charles Lanyon. At Downhill Estate there is a series of interesting buildings associated with Sir Hervey Bruce, Bishop of Derry.
The construction of Downhill Palace dates back to 1785 and at one time included a library and gallery with works by Raphael and Caravaggio. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire in 1845 and only a romantic ruin remains. Bishop Hervey also built Mussenden Temple, as a summer library for his young cousin Frideswide Mussenden. Occupying a precarious cliff top site, the Mussenden Temple was modelled on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli in Italy and an inscription inside reads "Tis pleasant safety to behold from shore the rolling ship and hear the tempest roar".
From here there are superb views of both Downhill and Donegal. Other interesting buildings built by Bishop Hervey during this period include both the Bishops and Lions Gates. All of these buildings are owned by the National Trust [Opens in New window] and access is available to the public. Bishop Hervey also commissioned a number of famine relief projects including the Bishops road which today provides a spectacular scenic route.
Further west the Martello tower at Magilligan is a well known landmark. Built between 1812 and 1817 to guard against a possible French invasion, it was one of 74 constructed in Ireland. In its day the Martello Tower would have included a cannon platform and quarters for 12 men and an officer. Evidence of more recent coastal defence works include a series of World War Two 'pill boxes', examples of which can be seen at both Castlerock and Portstewart Strands together with a radar and anti aircraft station at Magilligan.
Bellarena House, for many years the seat of the Gage family, was designed by the famous architect Charles Lanyon. So was Drenagh House, famous for its 70 acre Italian and English gardens, its conifer arboretum and rhododendron glen. Fruithill, commissioned by Robert McCausland, was the first house built on the Drenagh estate and dates from the 18th century. All three houses are still in use as private residences.