Before the water level in Lough Erne was lowered in the nineteen fifties, Humphreys Island was very probably underwater.

This is just one of the many pearls of wisdom that Amy Burns, Estate Manager of the RSPB NI’S Lough Erne Islands, shared with me on an unforgettable hike across this stunning landscape.

For the last seventeen years the Enniskillen woman has been involved with the charity that is dedicated to the conservation of birds and nature in a variety of roles before taking up her current position in 2019.

RSPB NI acquired this piece of land eleven years ago in 2013. Given that Fermanagh is famous for its islands, it seems fitting that the organisation should add this diminutive islet to the forty six islands they already look after across the county. 

According to Griffith’s valuation, Humphreys was a very small island back in the late nineteenth century.

In the wake of the drainage scheme of the 1880’s and the lowering of water levels on Lough Erne after the construction of the hydro-electric dam at Ballyshannon between 1946 and 1955, more land was exposed which is why Humphrey’s exists in its current form. 

The quirky name might well be due to the previous owner’s grandfather who called it Dicky’s or Humphrey’s Island simply because it may have once been owned by a Dicky Humphrey’s.

Amy discovered more about it from local historian Frankie Roofe who explained that the southern tip of Humphreys where the lough is narrow, was known locally as buttermilk point.

When this area of water became frothy it resembled churning butter and row boats from Enniskillen would turn back knowing that this was an ominous sign that conditions further on up the lough were very rough.

Famous local musician Joan Trimble created a piano composition inspired by this local tale and there’s also a paving stone outside The Impartial Reporter with Buttermilk Point inscribed on it.

As is the case with several of the island sanctuaries peppered throughout Fermanagh, Humphrey’s Island is within sight and sound of Enniskillen.

En route we weaved our way through a residential part of the town and then to the other side of Silver Hill housing estate on the Shore Road. Amy explained that this is lowland, wet grassland.

The terrain is damp and squidgy underfoot as we ploughter through it. We stop and turn back to get a broader view of this special place. 

There is a slight downward sweep, but overall it’s a fairly flat landscape which is why Amy believes that at one stage what we are bouncing on today would have been entirely submerged until the mid-twentieth century when it was reclaimed. 

We come to a gravel path and before long two radiant swans appear welcoming us to the place that they are proud to call home.

While they aren’t quite displaying, the female Pen is having a thorough clean up of her feathers as her husband, the male Cob remains on guard and in full alert mode, a polite but stern reminder for this pair of visitors not to get too close.

Amy confirms that they are mute swans. She adds that you can tell the difference easily because of their orange beaks and that this pair will in all likelihood be together for life.

It’s difficult to ascertain how long they have been a courting couple. Perhaps only a few months, or maybe years.

Either way these birds of a feather flock together beautifully and remind us that at least in the birding world, romance is alive and well.

The swans glide off elegantly to their favourite places in this picture postcard setting. Rushes sway in the gentle breeze, skylarks trill and warble, grateful that this natural wetland habitat has been restored and is becoming ever more secure for them.

Every step taken here feels like a privilege. Not many people have roamed freely on Humphreys Island as we are able to do today and Amy says that’s the way it will stay, 

“A lot of the reserve that we manage is islands on the lower lough. We look after forty seven and only two of them are open access to the public. Breeding waders are quite sensitive to disturbance so Humphreys island itself won’t be public access. So yes, this is a special occasion to come out on it today.”

In the distance a lapwing whistles its agreement with what the woman who must surely be able to talk to the birds has said.

As the gentle breeze carries the tune away Amy unlocks a gate whilst reassuring me that there are no marauding cattle or bulls to be concerned about. 

Regardless, I say a silent prayer as the sign clearly states that we are entering a predator fenced area. This barrier is not a typical agricultural stock fence and is electrified to keep out foxes and help protect the lapwing who are ground nesting birds. 

In my best limbo dancing move I follow Amy’s lead and duck underneath the barrier, relishing the marshy, soft ground underfoot which evokes distant childhood memories of trampolining at the recreation grounds in Portrush during the summer holidays. 

The grass is lush and gently sweeps across my two tone pink and navy polka dot wellington boots, a present from a rare breed farmer in Tandragee and a story for another day.

We amble up the stepped, stoney path, reeds on either side as we approach the brow of the small hill.

The reveal is impressive as Devenish Island slowly comes into vision with the pencil thin round tower as eye catching as ever.

To see this iconic Fermanagh image from this unusual vantage point is worth the steps we’ve done a hundred times over.

From this peak the views of lower lough Erne are staggering. Tall, golden, reeds billow on the lough shore and Amy explains that this is a particular type of reed that the birds love,

“Phragmites reeds attract a variety of species. This is a plant that can grow up to twenty feet tall. They provide an important home for many species including sedge warbler, great crested grebe and the mute swans.

“In winter, populations of whooper swan and goldeneye arrive to avoid the harsher temperatures further north. Breeding waders and a unique Sandwich tern colony also thrive on some of the islands within Lower Lough Erne.”

I wonder if this landscape takes care of itself and mention another RSPBNI site at a lough in County Antrim where an ingenious bio diversification initiative involved the use of Konik ponies from the Netherlands to graze the land, 

“We're currently not using the Konik ponies in Fermanagh. It has been discussed but we work very closely with a lot of farmers on Lough Erne.

“Cattle grazing is very important for waders as it creates ideal nesting and chick rearing conditions. The continental cattle maintain the wet grasslands during the spring and summer months and a herd of highland cattle overwinter on the islands.”

Amy explains that this is very important because when the waders are first hatched they're very small, so it's important that they have a really short sward to be able to walk through and allow them to feed freely. 

As we approach the Lough shore the wind whips up and make its presence felt while the ground underfoot sympathises and gets soggier with every step. 

The rocks on the shoreline come into our field of vision and so do the lapwings. A dozen or so perch patiently on the ancient stones, content in the knowledge that this is their place and this place is home.

Known fondly as Pee Wits because of their call, they have a round wing shape, a distinctive head crest and a flock in flight can flicker between black and white because of the way they flap their wings.

If we get too close Amy explains that we will disturb their roosting and very probably they will lift to relocate perhaps eyeing out good feeding sites as they go.  

In a heartbeat, as if reminding us not to out stay our welcome they’re up and away appearing to form a V shape in the Fermanagh skyline that is a beautiful sight to see and gladdens the hearts of the bird woman of Fermanagh and her contented companion.


Anne Marie McAleese is a broadcaster, writer and author who considers Fermanagh as one of her favourite places. You can listen to her every Saturday morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s, ‘Your Place and Mine’, 8am-9am.