It was once among Northern Ireland’s most impenetrable landscapes, dominated by razor wire and Army sangers.
But, more than a decade after the watchtowers were dismantled and troops re-deployed, almost £1 million is to be spent opening up the area dubbed “Bandit Country” during the Troubles.
The £980,000 grant will be used to create new trails and train tourist guides to take people through previously inaccessible parts of South Armagh.
“The Ring of Gullion is one of the most significant investments to date – not least because of its huge historical and geological importance,” said Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which made the contribution as part of its Landscape Partnership programme.
“We believe that our grant will help local people enjoy the heritage on their doorsteps and boost visitors to one of the most beautiful natural sites in western Europe.”
The money has been awarded to Newry and Mourne District Council to help the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership preserve and protect the landscape and to make new paths through parts of the vast countryside for the first time.
Courses for budding natural historians, archaeologists and Ring of Gullion heritage ambassadors will also be funded.
Mr Mullan added: “We believe this is important and exciting work because it opens up beautiful areas for public access, helps us to conserve traditional skills and makes an important contribution to the economy – including the tourism industry.”
Since 1994, the HLF has awarded £192 million to more than 1,000 projects across Northern Ireland.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has welcomed the latest investment.
He said: “This is excellent news. It should not be underestimated that our natural and built environments have the potential to generate significant economic benefits not least through tourism and to contribute to the health and well-being of local communities and visitors alike”.
Regarded by some as one of Northern Ireland’s last great wildernesses, the Ring of Gullion is the remnants of a huge volcano formed 60 million years ago with the magnificent Slieve Gullion, long celebrated in song and story as Ireland’s “Mountain of Mystery”, at its centre.
The HLF Landscape Partnership programme provides grants of between £100,000 and £3 million for projects which aim to conserve an area of distinctive landscape character that is recognised and valued by local people.