Discover one of Donegal's hidden gems - Ard na Mona woodland reserve. PHOTO: Siobhán McNamara
We all need places to retreat, to switch off from the stresses of everyday life, settle our thoughts and recharge ourselves.
Here in Donegal we are blessed to have a diversity of such places from which to choose - long beaches and hidden coves; well-beaten tracks or quiet paths; dramatic mountain landscapes in which to lose ourselves, or reliable hidden corners that help us to reconnect.
One such place for me is Ard na Mona Woodland Nature Reserve on the shores of Lough Eske.
Maintained by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), this nature reserve has a unique mix of native plants and wildlife, combined with more exotic species introduced when it was part of the adjoining and privately-owned Ardnamona estate.
Work carried out in recent years has significantly improved the quality of paths through the woodland. A number of wooden footbridges are also a welcome addition and are in keeping with the natural surroundings.
It is full of surprises, and is a fantastic place to observe the transition from season to season.
Ard na Mona begins to come alive in spring. In the midst of tall trees sloping down to a tranquil corner of Lough Eske, there is little to be heard above the exuberant birdsong. On the forest floor, wood sorrell and primroses push through the mossy carpet, and the sharper-eyed meanderer will spot frogspawn in the still water.
As spring runs into summer, some unusual tree blossoms appear. Species of deep red red and snow white rhododendron add flashes of drama with their eye-catching flowers and long, shiny leaves.
But when Ard na Mona really comes alive for me is when the bluebells and wild garlic cover huge swathes of forest, with late primroses and new buttercups, bramble blossom and snakes head fritillary also making an appearance. The first bees and butterflies of the year add life to the hidden landscape, and it never fails to evoke in me a sense of gratitude and privilege to be there; witness to this natural world which carries on in parallel to our own busy, human lives.
In summer it is a sanctuary from the heat, and again the mix of ancient woodland and exotic imports is a pleasure to behold. There is no shortage of wildlife, from foxes, badgers, rabbits, hare and deer to the much-loved red squirrel and numerous species of birds, bees, butterflies and other insects. Streams that tumble gently through the woods are soothing and refreshing. And on reaching the lowest point of the path, walkers can sit at the lakeside and watch fish jump for flies.
Late summer and autumn are spectacular, with blazing colours and an earthiness that seems to fill the air. Winter too has its own charm. When everything else is stripped away, the eye is drawn to the what remains - the colourful bark, the diversity of mosses, lichen and other species, the towering evergreens and the occasional winged winter visitors - geese and swans seeking refuge from the chill of Iceland, Greenland and as far away as Canada.
Part of the path is relatively level, and is suitable for all levels of fitness. It runs along the highest part of the reserve and comes to a dead end at the privately-owned section of Ardnamona estate.
There is also a loop walk which is more challenging, dropping to the lake shore and then rising steeply. Wooden railings have been installed in places for support at some of the steepest sections though it is important to note that this section is not suitable for people with limited mobility, nor for wheelchairs or buggies. But if you feel up to it, this walk is certainly worth the effort, and will give you a different experience every time.
The physical and emotional benefits of getting out and about in nature are well-documented. Now more than ever with the added anxiety of the Covid-19 pandemic never far from the surface we need places like Ard na Mona to give us a much-needed boost and to help us through the challenges that face us from day to day.
The entrance is accessed from the shore road at Lough Eske.
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