Conference to tackle downside of hillwalking

Fri, Sep 7, 2012, 01:00

TAKING TO the hills has its downside, as Irish uplands are experiencing signs of “recreational erosion”.

Such is the impact that Mountaineering Ireland, the national governing body for climbing, hill-walking and alpinism, has called in British and Irish experts to discuss the issue.

Two Ministers and representatives from the British Mountaineering Council, Cairngorms National Park, the Mourne Heritage Trust and the National Parks and Wildlife Service are among participants at a dedicated conference planned in Co Wicklow this month.

The Helping the Hills conference in Glendalough will also be addressed by first Irish Everest summiteer and Belfast architect Dawson Stelfox.

Mountaineering Ireland chief executive Karl Boyle said the debate’s aim was to raise awareness of the challenges facing the mountain environment, which has become host to a growing number of festivals and tourism-related events. The conference will discuss interventions already applied here and elsewhere, and establish a set of principles to underpin upland pathwork.

British Mountaineering Council access and conservation officer Elfyn Jones said Ireland could learn from an “over-engineered” approach to paths up Mount Snowdon in the 1970s.

“Most mountain walkers are attracted to the hills to get away from over-engineered and urban developments,” Mr Jones said.

“But just by being there we all have an impact, and if we are to protect the environment we cherish then we also have to accept that some work is required.”

He stressed the need for consultation with walkers prior to work being carried out, and advocated “softer” techniques that are more sensitive to the environment – and allow finished paths to fit into the “aesthetics” of mountains.

The EU had funded capital works for path repair in Wales, but there was a risk now of lack of funding to maintain or care for this work, he has warned.

“Guiding principles” for footpath work, such as those developed by the British Upland Path Trust, would also be useful in an Irish context, he has said.

“All path managers really need to consider not just the work required to repair eroded paths but the funds required to maintain them,” Mr Jones said.

Mr Stelfox, an international mountain guide who became Ireland’s first Everest summiteer in 1993, said he believed the “small is beautiful” approach was most pertinent. “So climbs should be lightweight and adventurous, events should be low key and retain an element of risk and responsibility, and footpath repairs should be non-intrusive,” he has said.

Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan and the North’s Minister for the Environment Alex Attwood will jointly open the two-day conference next Thursday in Glendalough.

Other speakers will include Northern Ireland Outdoor Recreation’s director and Heritage Council member Dr Carolynne Ferris, and Coillte recreation manager Bill Murphy.

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