Ballygilgan Nature Reserve (Lissadell)

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Image © Mícheál Casey 2007


This site consists of Ballygilgan Nature reserve ("the Goose Field"), a large area of improved permanent pasture which is a traditional wintering site for over 2,000 Barnacle geese, while freshwater ponds on the site attract other waterfowl and waders, and a cereal patch at the east end attracts wintering finches and buntings.
Click on the links on the right for further details Species Directions and Location Map Aerial Photo and Access

Lissadell is located around 10 Kilometres north-west of Sligo town

All year round

Ballygilgan Nature Reserve
was created by ministerial order of the Irish Government in 1986, but is still colloquially known as "Lissadell" or "the Goose Field".  The term "Lissadell" on this website refers to the Reserve, rather than to the adjacent historical mansion and estate that bears the same name. The Reserve was created for the protection of Barnacle Geese which have wintered in the area for centuries, but whose numbers had dwindled to a couple of hundred in the 1980s.  These strikingly handsome small geese are part of a populations that mostly breed in eastern Greenland and migrate each autumn via Iceland to winter in Ireland and Scotland, returning along the same route to breed in Greenland in the spring.

This reserve is west of the village of Carney on the shore of Drumcliff Bay, a significant site in its own right, and bounded on its southern edge by Lissadell Strand.

The Lissadell goose field is a large field of improved permanent pasture, subdivided for grazing purposes in summer into two parts with a wire fence.   The Reserve is owned and managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the land is grazed by cattle in summer and autumn, and good grassland management ensures the sward is in optimal condition for the geese when they arrive.  The grazing cattle are removed in autumn and the geese have the Reserve to themselves for the winter.
Barnacle Flock
Images © Mícheál Casey 2007
Group of Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Goose
The Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) which winter in Ireland, together with those in north-western and northern Scotland and the small outlying flock in Wales, represent the entire breeding population from north-east Greenland.  The total population has been counted at least every five years from the 1950s to the present day, and with conservation and protection has increased in numbers over that period from just over 8,000 birds to 56,000 in 2003.  The Sligo population is Ireland's seconds largest flock, and has increased from a low of 250 around 1970 to 800 in 1980, and to over 3,000 today, which winter in north-west Sligo, from October to April, generally spending most of the early part of this period at Lissadell and the later part in the Ballyconnel/Ballintemple area to the west, north-east of Raghly Point.  It is considered that the major factors involved in this population growth has been improved winter nutrition at sites like Lissadell and protection from hunting in Ireland and in Scotland. The effects of climate change on the ecology of the breeding grounds in Greenland may also have played a role.

Lissadell is renowned as a superb site for seeing these geese in winter, being both a reliable and highly accessible site, unlike many of the other wintering sites favoured by Barnacle geese.  Large flocks are also found at Sheskinmore, Co. Donegal, Termoncarragh, on the Mullet Peninsual in Co. Mayo and on the uninhabited Inishkea Islands which are west of the Mullet.  Small parties of Barnacles may be seen infrequently on passage anywhere in the north-west.  Migration from Greenland is via Iceland, and the birds generally arrive at Inishmurray in early October, and tend to spend the first couple of weeks there, before appearing at Lissadell in mid-October.  Inishmurray provides important early season grazxing and roosting site throughout the winter.

The Barnacle geese tend to graze at Lissadell during the day, and fly to roost on Inishmurray in the evening, one of the most spectacular sights imaginable on a fine winter's evening.  A good proportion of the flock are ringed with Darvic rings, large lightweight plastic numbered rings which can be read with a telescope, and have allowed many of the birds using the reserve to be identified and followed from season to season at Lissadell and in other Barnacle Goose sites on Inishkea Islands, in Donegal and on Islay, off the coast of Scotland.  Most of these ringed birds have been captured and ringed while moulting and flightless on their breeding grounds in Greenland, although a number have also been ringed while wintering, on the Inishkeas or in Scotland.  These ringing studies have thrown valuable light on migration patterns and routes as well as on site fideliuty and movement between wwintering sites within and between winters.  Barnacle Geese normally pair for life and there a number of ringed pairs in the flock which are usually seen grazing within a couple of feet of each other.

There are a couple of small seasonal ponds in the Goose Field,  which are used for bathing and drinking by the Barnacles.  In addition, the ponds attract a large flock of Teal and Wigeon, as well as regular Shoveler, Teal and Pintail. A wide range of waders use the ponds, such as Redshank, Greenshank, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwits, Lapwing, and Dunlin.  At the eastern end of the goose field, a small area has been sectioned off and planted with seed-bearing crops for wild birds (oats, linseed, triticale), as well as brassicas and wild flowers, which attract good numbers of finches in winter.  In 2003 spectacular numbers of migrant finches were attracted to this crop;  around 600 Chaffinches, 50 Brambling, 100 Greenfinches  and Goldfinches were counted there in October of that year. In winter, Redwing and Fieldfare can also be seen on these fields, and at high tide Curlew, Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redshank and Oystercatcher forage on the pasture.

In summer, the nearby broadleaf woodland  surrounding Lissadell House holds Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Spotted  Flycatcher. South of Lissadell House, a sandspit stretches north of Rosses Point  for around 2 kilometres. Most of the waders and terns occurring in Drumcliff Estuary roost here and occasionally attract a Peregrine Falcon. The dunes themselves can hold up to 50 Snow Buntings in winter. A few Sanderling feed along the surf at the seaward side of the sand spit.

When to visit

October - March

Birds of Lissadell - the species that use the site  

Barnacle Geese, Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing, Curlew, Redshank, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Oystercatcher
(Cereal patch:  Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Reed Bunting)

Greenshank, Whooper Swan, Shoveler, Pintail, Black-tailed Godwit, Light-bellied Brent Geese
(Cereal Patch: Tree Sparrow)

The arrival of 3,000 plus migrating geese from arctic Greenland each year brings the prospect of vagrants travelling with the flock, and they rarely disappoint.  Most years bring some geese seldom seen in the north-west of Ireland, which have included Snow Geese, Bean Geese, Dark-bellied Brent, Black Brant,  Greylag Geese, Pink-footed Geese, Greenland White-fronted Geese and Richardson's Cackling Geese.  In most cases these "strays winter with the Barnacle flock, and with patience excellent views of these birds can be achieved over a few visits.

Other rarities seen on the reserve include Green-winged Teal, Brambling (in the wild-bird seed patch at the east end of the field).

Barnacle Goose Pink-footed Goose Greylag Goose Greenland White-fronted Goose Richardson's Cackling Goose Dark-bellied Brent
Barnacle Goose Pink-footed Goose Greylag Goose

Greenland White-fronted Goose Richardson's Cackling Goose Dark-bellied Brent Goose
Mallard Wigeon Green-winged Teal Shovelers Pintail (female) Brambling
Mallard Wigeon Green-winged Teal

Shoveler Pintail Brambling
Whooper Swan Curlew Oystercatcher Lapwing Black-tailedGodwit Bar-tailed Godwit
Whooper Swan Curlew Oystercatcher

Lapwing Black-tailed Godwit Bar-tailed Godwit

Images © Mícheál Casey 2007
Getting There:


From Sligo:   Take the N15 north towards Bundoran, pass through Rathcormack, at Drumcliff  (4.6 miles/7.4 km from Sligo), turn left just past Yeats Tavern (opposite medical centre) onto by-road signposted for Carney, Lissadell House, follow road through Carney village (keeping left at end of village), the "Goose Field" is on left approx 300 m past Carney village.

From Bundoran:   Take the N18 south towards Bundoran, pass through Tullaghan, Cliffoney, Grange, at Drumcliff (16.9 miles/27.2 km) from Sligo, turn right just before Yeats Tavern (opposite medical centre) onto by-road signposted for Carney, Lissadell House, follow road through Carney village (keeping left at end of village), the "Goose Field" is on left approx 300 m past Carney village.

Access by Public Transport
There are two daily bus services on weekdays to Lissadell. See  Bus Eireann's website for departure times. Several daily buses serve Drumcliff and it is around 3 kilometres on foot to Lissadell from here. 

Location Map 
Lissadell Location map

Aerial Photo 
Lissadell Aerial Photo

Access, Viewing and Parking


Every inch of the field can be viewed without entering it, so please do not enter the field.  Furthermore, any attempt to view the field from the exposed seaward (strand) side is very visible and will disturb/flush the geese and the birds on the ponds.


There are good viewing opportunities, depending on where the geese are in the field.
- from the road along the side of the field - there is very restricted parking and visibility and viewing from this road is not recommended
- from the BirdWatch Sligo hide at the western end of the field.  This is approached by a path through the woods
- from the end of the unsurfaced lane at the eastern end of the field

While the Lissadell Barnacles are more approachable than those at other sites, please remember that they are wild geese, and easily disturbed or flushed.  If there is excessive disturbance they will desert the site for the remainder of the day, or for seceral days.  It is essential to use good field craft when viewing the birds, especially by avoiding sudden movements and loud noise, and by using the terrain and the hedges to remain out of sight.  When approaching the hide, try to keep out of sight of the flock, and try not to make any noise when entering the hide, closing the door etc.


Please park with due consideration for your own safety and with consideration for other visitors and road users, i.e. do not park on corners, blocking access or views for other drivers or obstructing roads.  

See access map below:

Lissadell Aerial Photo - labelled