Rising number of walkers threatens Irish mountains

From Carrauntoohil to Cuilcagh, Irish uplands are groaning under ever-increasing footfall

Hikers along the Sheep’s Head penninsula in West Cork. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Hikers along the Sheep’s Head penninsula in West Cork. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

Even by Irish standards, Cuilcagh is not an eminent mountain. Ranked just 165 in stature among Irish mountains, it offers, nevertheless, a memorable panorama over the border counties. Cuilcagh, straddling Cavan and Fermanagh, has historically attracted about 3,000 annual ascents. However, a knock-on effect of this unexceptional footfall was that a SAC (Special Area of Conservation) became eroded.

In a well-meaning attempt to prevent further damage, a boardwalk and wooden stairway were completed on the Fermanagh side of the mountain in 2015. This worked well enough until 2017, when a video of the boardwalk under the title “Stairway to Heaven” went viral on YouTube.

An avalanche of walkers and sightseers immediately alighted on the area as, almost overnight, the boardwalk became Fermanagh’s most popular attraction. Inevitably the local infrastructure creaked under the strain. Haphazard parking on country lanes made access difficult for farmers, while the hugely increased footfall caused considerable erosion between the top of the boardwalk and Cuilcagh’s summit.

Visiting the mountain on a Friday afternoon in June, I immediately discovered the boardwalk was visible from miles away – although it was less noticeable than, for example, the pilgrim path on Croagh Patrick. Local people still spoke of continuing weekend congestion with hundreds of cars parked by the side of the narrow access road, but the previous chaos seemed to have resolved itself somewhat.

Fragile ecosystem

Local landowner John Sheridan had opened about 50 pay-for-parking places, which appeared to have relieved some pressure. Signs had also been erected requesting walkers not to venture beyond the boardwalk so as to preserve the fragile ecosystem, although some walkers were observed ignoring these.

Nevertheless, the Cuilcagh saga clearly emphasises how tricky it is to design interventions to safeguard the upland environment and the unexpected ripple effects which may arise from well-intended initiatives.

This is becoming an ever more pressing problem, as the number of recreationists in the Irish uplands increases exponentially. Not only are these uplands now an important leisure resource, they have also morphed into a significant generator of revenue.

In 2003, the number of visitors to Ireland who participated in hillwalking or hiking was 168.000; in 2016, the figure had risen to almost 2.1 million. Applying average spending by overseas tourists to the latter figure means the market segment was worth at least €1.25 billion to the Irish economy, and this is without taking account of revenues from domestic hikers.

Until recently, conventional wisdom almost uniformly held that the uplands were a bit like the northern lights or the colours of a New England autumn: they came as a gift of nature and required no incremental investment. Now, we are coming to realise that when it comes to outdoor recreation there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Scarce resource

From Wicklow to Carrauntoohil, Galtymore to Mount Errigal, the Irish uplands are groaning under the strain of the ever-increasing footfall. According to Mountaineering Ireland: “Just 0.35% of Ireland’s land area lies at or above the height of Cuilcagh. Only a portion of this very scarce resource remains in a relatively wild or undeveloped condition. It is, therefore, everybody’s responsibility to cherish Ireland’s mountains for the benefit of future generations.”

How will this be achieved? Helen Lawless, Access and Conservation Officer with Mountaineering Ireland, believes there is a lack of integrated planning for upland areas. “Mountaineering Ireland holds that the creep of tourism infrastructure into mountain areas changes the landscape and detracts from the sense of adventure. We expressed concerns about the Cuilcagh boardwalk from the outset. It was a disproportionate response to the modest amount of erosion evident on the mountain and now detracts from the unspoiled nature of the landscape.

There was little thought of overcrowding or environmental damage when I spoke with walkers descending the Cuilcagh boardwalk

“However, it has been built and what we must now do is put measures in place to mitigate the impact of increased footfall on Cuilcagh. The present structure should not be extended further. Instead, a robust arrival platform should be created at the top by scraping away the residual peat and exposing the bedrock.” says Lawless.

“There is also a need for education. Visitors to Cuilcagh must be made aware of the preparation they need to make in advance of their visit.”

Bill Murphy, a former head of the recreation and environment section of Coillte, is now an outdoor recreation consultant. He is also the founder of Mountain Meitheal, a volunteer group dedicated to protecting and conserving Ireland’s mountain and forest areas.

Environmental pressure

Murphy believes that, as our upland areas come under increasing environmental pressure, we need to invest in their wellbeing. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Our uplands must be sensitively managed and this requires that we have the appropriate expertise in each situation so as to decide the best solution. These solutions need to be developed on a case-by-case basis.”

Regarding boardwalks, Murphy believes they have been overused in the Irish uplands. “Boardwalks have a role, when they are installed as a narrow “bog bridge” to protect sensitive areas such as marshes and fens, but they should not be used as an obtrusive highway into the uplands that eliminates the inherent, but small, risk associated with outdoor recreation.

“The best upland interventions are the ones we hardly notice. Unfortunately, boardwalks have become a quick-fix response where other more appropriate solutions should be used. The expertise to provide these solutions exists here in Ireland, but is grossly underutilised.”

There was, however, little thought of overcrowding or environmental damage when I spoke with walkers descending the Cuilcagh boardwalk. When asked what they thought of the new “Skyway to Heaven” there wasn’t even one dissenting voice. “Great day out”, “lovely walk”, “beautiful views”, “great idea”, were some of the choice comments from a number of people who had clearly enjoyed, what they considered, a memorable day in the Irish uplands.

The lesson from Cuilcagh is clear: a consensus about how we manage our mountain landscapes will not be easily achieved.

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