Hillwalking at a price


The number of tourists coming to Ireland for hillwalking holidays has halved in five years and there are indications that the sector is continuing to decline. This development has exacerbated the fall in business experienced by the hospitality industry outside of the major cities and particularly along the western seaboard. The reason for the collapse in the number of hillwalkers is simple: a number of vociferous and largely unrepresentative landowners have denied visitors access to the hills - in some cases verbally abusing them - and word has gone out that walkers are no longer welcome in Ireland.

Last week, the Irish Farmers Association published details of what it described as a "countryside walkways management scheme" aimed at enhancing the tourism potential of rural regions and boosting their economic development. But when the fine words were stripped away, it amounted to little less than an attempted raid on the public purse. Landowners would get €1,000 a year from the State to allow walkers to cross their land and this would be topped up by a payment of €5 a metre on the trails involved. When fully operational, the cost would come to €15 million a year. In addition, because payment would be involved, local authorities would have to fully indemnify landowners against any claims for injuries from people using the walks.

Access by the public to upland areas is an issue that has been festering for years. More than years ago, when agitation first began, special legislation was passed to protect farmers against claims from visitors. But, in spite of the success of the legislation, the issue did not go away. Some farmers wished to extinguish traditional walks across their properties while others sought to secure payment from the traffic involved. The IFA was generally supportive of both groups and threatened to fiercely resist any attempt to legislate for access to the countryside.

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív has set his face against a scheme of payments for landowners who facilitate hillwalkers. And his attitude is unlikely to change. The situation has been complicated by the fact that payments were initially made to farmers under REPS I in the 1990s but were withdrawn when the EU Commission objected. In other countries, such financial support for farming in an environmentally friendly manner and protecting wildlife in upland areas is regarded as an intrinsic part of an open countryside policy. Here, the IFA is trying to have its cake and eat it. The Minister is holding firm. And the tourist industry suffers.