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The Ayres National Nature Reserve

Guided walks

Why not take one of the summer guided walks with the Ayres Warden to learn about the reserve and its management and hopefully find some of its many hidden gems. There is a wealth of unusual and rare species at the Ayres. For details contact the warden (tel: +44 7624 365131) or check the event listings on the Government homepage.

Natural history

The main feature of the Ayres National Nature Reserve is the extensive area of lichen heath. This habitat type can not be found elsewhere on the Island and only occurs in small patches in the UK. The other name for the lichen heath is grey dune due to the overall colour given by the lichens.

The reserve has several breeding bird species that are rare or in decline. Linnets (Carduelis cannabina), lapwings (Vanellus vanellus), skylark (Alauda arvensis) and little tern (Sterna albifrons) are the most notable breeding birds. The Ayres NNR shoreline is the only place on the Island where little terns breed.

Curlews (Numenius arquata) can be spotted during the summer months by listening for their delightful burbling call. This declining species nests on the ground, as do most of the breeding birds on the Ayres NNR, and they are easily disturbed from their nests.

Five species of orchid are regularly seen on the reserve though their abundance may be reduced by a wet winter. The Ayres NNR is one of 2 known localities where the Isle of Man cabbage (Coincya monensis ssp monensis) still occurs. Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria) and adders-tongue (Ophioglossum vulgatum) are 2 unusual-looking ferns that spring up through the grasses and sedges. During late summer the ling and bell heather form a rich carpet of purple with occasional vibrant patches of yellow western gorse flowers.

Whilst walking the paths through the heath keep an eye out for green tiger beetles (Cicindela campestris) scuttling beneath your feet. They will be hunting for caterpillars or looking for a mate.

Along the sand and shingle shoreline grey seals bob up and down in the surf taking note of passers-by whilst large flocks of golden plover over-winter in their hundreds.

Over 780 species have been recorded on the reserve. This includes plants, fungi, birds, spiders, moths, ants etc. More are still to be recorded and studied further.  See downloadable documents for a wildlife record form.

Geological history

Approximately 10,000 years ago the northern part of the Isle of Man was covered by a glacier. The Bride hills were formed as a terminal moraine (the rocks and soil pushed along in front of the glacier). Since that time, the Ayres NNR have formed from sand and shingle moved along the west coast of the Island. This material has formed a succession of ridges from the Lhen/Blue Point area to the Point of Ayre. The word Ayres NNR is, in fact, a Norse word meaning gravel bank. Rue Point has extended seaward by approximately 30m in just over 50 years as new material has been washed up the coast to form new ridges.

In addition, the north of the Island is believed to be rising. This combination of deposition and upward land movement has created a raised beach.

Social history

The Ayres NNR has evidence of settlement dating back to Mesolithic and Neolithic times, though no artefacts have been found on the part of the Ayres NNR that is in Government control.

From 1600 the Lord of the Island had rights to all the game on the Ayres, while the in-tack holders had rights of passage to the shore and grazing on the common. Two posts from 1795 are still visible, marking the farmers' land and the common.

Agriculture in the north of the Island was under developed and provided an additional income to fishing in the 19th century. Prior to 1845 the Ayres NNR heath extended much further towards the Bride hills. The Disafforesting Act of 1861 swept away the ancient rights of the common and the heath was divided up into thirds between the Crown, the people and an area that was put up for sale. The land was sold off in strips which can still be seen on Ordnance Survey maps today. The land was enriched using marl, seaweed and farmyard manure.

Typical rotation crops were:

  • 1st year - potatoes or turnips
  • 2nd year - barley
  • 3rd year - clover
  • 4th year - oats
  • 5th year - peas or oats

Old field boundaries can be seen on the reserve, now abandoned and returned to the heath. At grid ref. NX 422 030 old lime kilns are present. These were used to make lime to 'sweeten' the acidic fields.

Around the time of World War II the Ministry of Defence had ownership of the land. The Ayres NNR were defended from coastal attacks and were also used for carrying out military manoeuvres. Today 303 bullet casings can still be found. If any munitions are found they should be left and reported to the police immediately.

In 1967 the conifer plantation was planted in the centre of the reserve. The trees are stunted by the harsh weather conditions and the poor soil. Though the trees are an artificial feature they are a breeding area for some birds.

The first ecological study, currently available, of the Ayres NNR was written in 1931. Since then proposals for the Ayres NNR 'waste land' have ranged from sand and gravel extraction, oil refinery, salt works, land fill, conifer plantation, hotel and golf course and mineral extraction, some of which have taken place.

In 1996 the former Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry declared the Government-owned land on the Ayres as an Area of Special Scientific Interest ensuring its protection for future generations. In 2000 the area was deemed to be of national importance and declared a National Nature Reserve (NNR), allowing greater protection under the Wildlife Act 1990.

Ayres National Nature Reserve Byelaws

This nature reserve is internationally important and easily damaged. To conserve the wildlife and to allow it to be enjoyed by everyone, please observe the byelaws. There are 2 sets of byelaws covering this National Nature Reserve:

  • The Ayres National Nature Reserve (Department Land) Byelaws 2005, as amended by the Ayres National Nature Reserve (Department Land) (Amendment) Byelaws 2023 which cover the land held by the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (most of the site - see the map in these byelaws)

  • the Byelaws of the Manx Museum and National Trust, covering the Manx National Heritage land adjacent to the Ballaghennie entrance

The Ayres NNR DEFA land byelaws can be found on the downloadable documents section on this page. 

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