Grass or tarmac? The towpath debate

Hikers and nature-lovers are unhappy about hard-track plans for Irish waterways

River Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary River Barrow trail: “The grassy towpath is the green frame for the river,” according to Olivia O’Leary. Photograph: Paddy Woodworth

"Step out on the grassy way which is the Barrow towpath and you have stepped into another world. You can walk along the river for miles without hearing a car or a lorry. You can't even hear the sound of your own footsteps. You'll hear the birds; the rush of the weirs; the wind in the trees. And little by little you'll let go of your worries because the river has cast its spell."

Earlier this year, in one of her inimitable radio diaries for Drivetime, on RTÉ Radio 1, Olivia O'Leary expressed her love of a very special landscape – and her dismay at Waterways Ireland's plans to "improve access" to the Barrow and other rivers (and canals) by building hard-surface, impermeable tracks on the old pathways that give her, and many others, so much balm and pleasure.

“We are all in favour of more walkers and canoeists and cyclists and anglers,” she continued, “but the grassy towpath is the green frame for the river, part of its soft beauty. Why destroy the very beauty we want visitors to see?”

O'Leary is not alone in her concern. Liam Lysaght, an ecologist, and director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, has submitted (as a private citizen) a very strong objection to the proposal.


“The Barrow track is a magnificent site,” he writes, “with qualities that are unique in western Europe. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that this man-made feature, running along the Barrow, has for decades been left to develop organically in tune with nature, with only the minimum of management intervention.

"The resultant amenity is a walking route of stunning beauty, wonderful tranquillity and a rich biological diversity rare across the breadth of the European Union.

“The current based on an ill-conceived concept....Attempts to ‘improve’ the track to accommodate increased and more varied usage of the amenity will detract from the very quality it is trying to promote.”

Azure flash

Walking from Ballyteigelea Bridge towards Graiguenamanagh on a luminous early-summer afternoon, it is hard to disagree. A kingfisher catches the light in an azure flash, again and again, and then again. The unusually extensive riverside woodland is ringing with birdsong, and it seems exceptionally rich in plants.

Lysaght’s submission notes that the trail lies within a special area of conservation, with 159 species that are legally protected. Some are threatened by extinction, including the freshwater pearl mussel and the Killarney fern. He warns that engineering works would open new opportunities for the spread of alien invasive species, one of the biggest threats to our native flora and fauna.

The towpath, at least on this part of the trail, is broad, up to five or six metres wide at some points. It can amply accommodate mountain bikes and wheelchairs, as long as the former show consideration for other trail users. And, to my slightly arthritic ankles at least, grass on a firm base – the path was originally created using compacted quarry spoil – is a much happier surface for a long walk than Tarmac.

The path needs management, of course, including regular mowing of the central strip – but not the plant-rich margins – in the growing season. Waterways Ireland is already doing this rather well. So why does it want to mend what doesn't seem broken?

Local usage

Waterways Ireland is a 32-county body set up under the British-Irish Agreement of 1999; it says it manages, maintains, develops and promotes more than 1,000km of inland navigable waterways, principally for recreational purposes.

Cormac McCarthy, an environment and heritage officer with the agency, says that he appreciates people’s concerns about the plan, “but we have to be objective, not subjective. Local people naturally have a range of intangible connections to the landscape as it is, but the path is not just for local usage.”

He points out that the agency has a brief to attract more national and international visitors to our waterways, to promote tourism. Therefore “we must be able to offer consistent paths, in order to market them”, so that different recreational users “will know what to expect”.

It’s surely equally arguable, however, that tourists will want diversity, not uniformity. No one expects the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s long-distance pilgrimage path, to have the same appearance from start to finish.

The Barrow is not the only place where the agency has run into strong local opposition. Two weeks ago on this page we visited the Royal Canal with Jesmond Harding of Butterfly Conservation Ireland. He expressed grave misgivings about the effects on biodiversity of the agency's hard-track engineering along its margins.

Until recently Harding had been fairly happy with the way Waterways Ireland was managing the butterfly-friendly canal-bank vegetation between Leixlip and Kilcock, Co Kildare. It has regularly mowed a swathe of the grass towpath to facilitate walkers but it has left a border of wild flowers along the canal itself, and another on the bank between the path and the hedgerow.

Corridors of habitat

“These swards form essential corridors of habitat for butterflies and other species,” he says, “and Waterways Ireland has also been helpful in trimming back the trees in the hedgerow itself, which would otherwise march out and shade out the wild flowers. Up to now we have found them very helpful and amenable to consultation.”

However, he was horrified when he recently visited a section of the towpath much farther west, near Enfield, and found a bulldozer ploughing away several metres’ width of the towpath, including the south-facing bank vegetation that is critical for butterflies to sun themselves and breed.

McCarthy is refreshingly open about the bulldozing at Enfield.

“We hold up our hands: this shouldn’t have happened. It was due to a breakdown of communication between us, the county council and the contractor. As soon as Butterfly Conservation Ireland alerted us to it we stopped it, and we have met them again and will have further meetings.”

Harding acknowledges the level of engagement but remains unhappy with much of the plan. At Allen Bridge, near Kilcock, the towpath towards the Shannon is green and a little uneven (which is good for biodiversity), and the bank vegetation is intact. It is easily accessible to walkers.

Towards Dublin, however, the towpath has been levelled and covered, to up to four metres width, in Tarmac. Harding recognises that some locals are happy with this development, and it certainly makes fast biking and skate-boarding easy, although no lanes are marked. However, it has turned a rich and visually varied semi-natural space into blank urban pavement.

Mary Jennings, of the Tidy Towns committee in nearby Maynooth, also expresses anxiety about Waterways Ireland's plans.

Older feel

“We have been well served by the existing pathway. It has retained an older feel than the Tarmac areas, and it doesn’t need any heavy construction work.

“We understand that many interest groups need to be accommodated on this route, including cyclists, but our biodiversity action plan stresses that these paths should be well managed for wildlife. We want to meet Cormac McCarthy to discuss what is really being planned.”

McCarthy stresses that the type of surface envisaged varies from section to section, that planning permission with public consultation is a condition of all the agency’s work, and that even after permission is granted he is willing to meet anyone onsite to discuss their concerns and to modify implementation if necessary.

It seems likely that he will be very busy.


A canalbank or riverbank is a very narrow ground where Waterways Ireland must integrate a very broad range of legitimate public interests.

Even among environmentalists there are inevitably clashing priorities for such spaces. Some argue for cycleways as a climate-change essential; others stress biodiversity protection. And the push to increase visitor numbers and boost tourism clashes with the need for quietness associated with contemplative hiking and fishing.

McCarthy says that "the overarching aim of our heritage plan is the protection of biodiversity". He points out that the agency has carried out detailed professional ecological assessments of its plans, in collaboration with the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Jane Stout, director of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research and deputy chair of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, says they're happy that Waterways Ireland is engaging fully and openly with the pollinator plan as best it can.

There is a still a lot of room for improvement, however, and for a lot more discussion with local groups. One size will not fit all over 1,000km of walking routes, North and South of the Border.