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Wicklow ZigZags closed: Landowner says he is ‘fearful’ after being attacked by hiker

‘We’ve found our sheep ripped apart after dog attacks,’ says the landowner assaulted on the ‘Zig Zags’ trail last week

Sheep farmer Pat Dunne at the entrance to the walkway where he has withdraw consent for public access to his lands via the Zig Zags trail at Glenmalure. Behind him is the Avondale River, which flows by his front door. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Amid the distant roar of the Carrawaystick Waterfall, the spring lambs leap about playfully outside Pat and Margaret Dunne’s cottage. The property is nestled in what is surely one of the most beautiful spots in the Wicklow Uplands, maybe even in the entire country.

This is deep in Glenmalure Valley and the waterfall cascades down into the Avondale River flowing just metres from the Dunnes’ front door. Their Galloway cows are on the move way up on the “Zig Zags”. The steep mountain path, with sharp zigzag switchbacks, shoots from the valley floor up Cloghernagh Mountain, a high eastern spur of Lugnaquilla.

Pat expresses initial reluctance, immediately overcome, to shake hands because, he says, his hands “have been in and on” lambing ewes all morning, He then settles down, cup of tea in hand, to tell his sorry tale to The Irish Times.

Wicklow walking trail closed to public after alleged assault of landownerOpens in new window ]

It begins with the 69-year-old mild-mannered, welcoming sheep farmer being assaulted last Sunday morning. It ends with the new signage now visible beside his house. It informs hikers that the Zig Zags are now closed as he has withdrawn his permission, in place for 16 years, for the public to roam through his farm.

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A sign announcing that the Zig Zag walking trail through farmer Pat Dunne's land is now closed following an incident where a hiker attacked the farmer. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The one condition the Dunnes set down when they signed up to the “agreed access route” concept in 2007 – effectively opening the Zig Zags to the public – was that nobody hiking up there could bring dogs. Never is their concern about dogs more acute than in lambing season. But last Sunday morning Pat saw a man, a boy and three dogs walking past his window towards the gate where the trail begins.

“I shouted across at him that he couldn’t bring the dogs up and he just yelled back at me, ‘I’m going’, it was a simple as that,” says Pat. “I shouted back at him but he just wasn’t for listening.”

I met him on the pathway and I said to him, ‘Look, I want you to leave, I want you off the property.’ And at that stage he just lunged at me and grabbed me and put me down to the ground

—  Sheep farmer Pat Dunne

He added while Margaret joined him outside the house and “pleaded” with the man to turn back because of the danger posed by the dogs, “he just brushed past her and kept shouting ‘I’m going, I’m going’.”

“Then I met him on the pathway and I said to him, ‘Look, I want you to leave, I want you off the property.’ And at that stage he just lunged at me and grabbed me and put me down to the ground.”

Quickly condemned

As the attacker was pinning down Pat, he threw the leads for the three dogs to the boy and instructed him to run up into the trail, which he did. The middle-aged assailant, in hiking attire, then waited a moment and ran after the teenager with the dogs, leaving a stunned Pat to gather himself.

The matter is now under Garda investigation. It was quickly condemned by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and Mountaineering Ireland, with both saying they understood why the Dunnes had decided to withdraw permission for the trail on their land to remain open to the public.

A kid goat among the gorse flowers in Glenmalure, Co Wicklow. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

IFA sheep chairman Kevin Comiskey said it was “critical” at this time of year that sheep were protected from dogs, which were “causing unimaginable suffering for sheep and lambs and huge economic losses for farmers”.

Aaron Byrne, rural recreation officer with County Wicklow Partnership, described the closure of the trail as a “huge blow”. Those who would lose out were the hikers who had “benefited from the goodwill of the Dunne family and enjoyed access to the mountains through their lands”.

During the Celtic Tiger period he picked up a new ‘arrogance’ in some of the visitors. ‘People came back down to earth’ in the years of the crash, but he senses ‘that arrogance is back’

Mountaineering Ireland said the case illustrated how “the poor behaviour of one individual can result in a loss of access that affects the wider recreation community”. It urged hillwalkers and climbers to “show their support” for the Dunnes by “respecting the closure” of the ‘Zig Zags’.

Almost a week on, Pat Dunne says he is “not shaken” by the experience. Instead, he feels “frustrated”. Down the years, he says, about 200 people have hiked the ‘Zig Zags’ every weekend, with numbers spiking in summer. During the Celtic Tiger period he picked up a new “arrogance” in some of the visitors. “People came back down to earth” in the years of the crash, but he senses “that arrogance is back”, though he insists: “More than 95 per cent of people are good, decent.”

Pat and Margaret are themselves members of the Arklow Wicklow Hillwalkers Club. They have hiked with the group in “Wales, Scotland, France, the Alps, Slovenia, Austria, different places”.

But Pat insists that the threat from dogs to his animals on his lands is real. He says most hikers who bring dogs with them – despite local signs telling them not to – have them on leads. But they soon let them run freely. He has found his sheep dead many times because of dogs.

Special relationship

While his estimated 1,000 sheep are his livelihood, losing them is “about much more than just the monetary value”. At this time of year “we’ll be in the shed or out in the field possibly with a light” checking in the lambing ewes. Many of them get into difficulty and Pat and his sons often have to intervene and revive the newborn lambs.

“There’s nothing that would give you as much pleasure than seeing the lamb shaking its head [showing life] and in a couple of weeks time to see that lamb out behind the ewe and he playing along behind her.” Those difficult experiences that end well foster a special relationship with those animals, he says.

“To then go to the hill and see that lamb ripped apart... it’s a real kick in the you-know-whats for you. There’s also little old bog pools on the hill, and sheep won’t go into them, they won’t go near water unless they are chased. We’ve found sheep in them dead and they ripped apart then. Sheep won’t go into water unless they’re running to get away from something.”

He is sorry the Zig Zags are now closed. He was tempted to close the trail many times down the years, especially after being verbally abused from time to time by some hikers. But he always settled on leaving the trail through his land open “so as we wouldn’t exclude all the decent people”.

One landowner said a new trend was hikers with drones, a practice they believed was as much about putting their farms under surveillance, to check vehicles that were about to be stolen, as it was recording the Wicklow landscape

He points out that the Zig Zags – 1.5km in length but part of a 14km Lugnaquilla route – were fashioned by the Parnell family in about 1800 so that hunting parties from the Avondale estate could more easily traverse the steep countryside. He says he has traced his wife’s ancestors living in his cottage back to 1789. Local lore says Michael Dwyer was sworn in as captain of the United Irishmen in the house.

He stresses that he loves the Wicklow Uplands and is committed to the way of life up here. He has tried to nurture the biodiversity of the region and wants to share it with people, hence granting public access to the Zig Zags.

“But for somebody to come along and do that sort of thing... What the hell... what do you do then?” he says of last Sunday’s assault.

Other landowners in Glenmalure also told The Irish Times of finding their sheep dead in recent years after being chased and attacked by dogs. One said a new trend was hikers coming up with drones, a practice they believed was as much about putting their farms under surveillance, to check vehicles that were about to be stolen, as it was recording the stunning Wicklow landscape.

‘Sitting ducks’

“We’re sitting ducks here,” says one local. “The nearest [Garda] barracks is Rathdrum but you won’t get anyone from there. They have to come from Wicklow, a long way. The people with the dogs, they just don’t care, you’re told to ‘eff off and mind your own business’. They seem to think they’re on public land rather than on our farms.”

Pat insists he had no choice but to close off the Zig Zags. At the same time, he feels he has been pushed into the decision and he hopes other Wicklow landowners are not put in the same position. He doesn’t want Wicklow closed to hikers but concedes he’s “fearful” for the future in that regard, though so far there is no sign other trails will close.

“I hope they reflect and reflect deeply before they would make that decision,” he says of landowners who might follow his lead. “I certainly wouldn’t like to see other places closed off.”