In 2003, the number of visitors to Ireland who participated in hillwalking or hiking was 168,000.
Last year, the figure had risen to almost 2.35m, with domestic holidaymakers making up 1.2m.
The result is that, from Lugnaquilla to Croagh Patrick and from Galtymore to Mount Errigal, the uplands are groaning under the strain of the ever-increasing footfall.
Kerry’s MacGillycuddy’s Reeks have a particularly acute problem. The attraction of being Ireland’s highest mountain range draws a horde of visitors year-round, with 125,000 recreation seekers entering on to the Reeks from the three main access points during 2017.
Greater wear and tear on the mountains is the inevitable result, while farming activities are also negatively impacted.
It will probably come as a surprise to many that, unlike other Irish mountain ranges, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks are not part of a national park and are instead in private ownership and are being actively farmed.
Ironically, Carrauntoohil was once in State ownership but was then purchased by the ancestors of the present landholders from the Land Commission.
A general consensus has emerged in recent years that something needed to be done about managing the increasing number of recreation seekers on the Reeks.
The MacGillycuddy Reeks Mountain Access Forum was established in 2014 with the aim of protecting, managing and sustainably developing the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks Mountain Range.
In recent weeks, an email was forwarded to some walking clubs in the Munster area informing them that they need to submit an event sheet to the MacGillycuddy Reeks Mountain Access Forum prior to any walks /hikes taking place.
This was stated as a requirement for all groups of ten or more accessing the Reeks along with the prior submission of a copy of the club’s public liability insurance.
It was further stated that the event sheets were needed to ensure that:
The email also specified: “We respectfully request that your clubs access the Reeks from one of the main access points only — Breanlee, Cronin’s Yard, Lisliebane or Strickeen where car parking can be facilitated appropriately.”
On the Macgillycuddy Reeks Mountain Access project website, it is stated: “You must notify us prior to the event taking place by completing the event form, failure to do so may result in access being denied.”
The email raised some concerns in hillwalking circles as it appeared to represent an erosion of the traditional right of open access to the Irish uplands.
As was immediately pointed out, there are no similar requirements for any other mountains on these islands with the highest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales open to all comers at all times.
Keep Ireland Open (KIO) is a national voluntary organisation campaigning for the right of recreational users to responsible access to the Irish countryside.
In an initial reaction to the new code of practice, KIO chairman Roger Garland agreed the vast numbers of walkers accessing the Reeks poses a serious erosion problem which is common in other honeypot areas both here and abroad but stated he was unable to see how the use of these event sheets would help.
“Presumably if the [walking] clubs co-operate which is problematical and it is felt that there are too many clubs seeking access on the same day some clubs will be advised they cannot come on that particular day,” said Mr Garland.
Mr Garland also has concerns about the practicality of informing groups from outside Ireland about the new requirements.
“We just don’t see how it would be possible to notify a broad range of clubs from other countries,” he said.
When it comes to car parking problems, he believes the best way forward is “to have a modest charge for car parking as this would encourage car-pooling”.
As regards a broader solution to the generally agreed problems which are occurring on the Reeks, Mr Garland said: “It is obvious that before this draconian regime is put in place there should be a meeting of all parties to see how these problems can be solved and we are convinced that with a bit of give-and-take they can be solved.
“Invitees should include landowners, farm organisations, national organisations representing walkers, walking clubs and interested individuals.”
Patricia Deane, meanwhile, is project manager for MacGillycuddy Reeks Agri Environmental Scheme.
It is immediately clear, in speaking to her, she believes passionately in the sustainable development and use of the Reeks and that responsible access to the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks is in the interest of all users.
“We are trying to minimise erosion, avoid traffic congestion and work with the landowners so as not to disrupt their farming activities,” she said.
“These are the reasons why these small group forms are being requested, a small request, to help manage the issues.”
With regard to the fact that no restriction on walking groups exists on busier mountains such as Ben Nevis and Snowdon, Ms Deane pointed to the fact that those mountains are in other jurisdictions and may handle footfall better due to the climatic conditions — as the west coast of Ireland is extremely wet.
But, after centuries of habitual use, would she not concede that a right-of-way not been established to the summit of Ireland’s highest mountain?
Ms Deane is emphatic no such right exists and that permissive access with the landowners is working well, so why would this be an issue?
The request for organised groups of ten or more to have adequate insurance is likely to prove the most onerous of the new conditions, particularly for overseas’ or informally-structured groups.
Ms Deane, however, believes insurance is required “to ensure the landowners would be adequately indemnified, as this is a major concern for them, but also so that club organisers are covered in the event of a member having an accident, regardless of those guiding /experience or their qualifications”.
Mr Garland disagrees and said the purpose of present insurance is to indemnify walking clubs against claims that an accident to a participant was caused by negligence by the walk leaders/organisers.
“Presumably if they [clubs] have no insurance or if the policy wording is not to the liking of SKDP they will be refused access,” he said.
“The requirement for club insurance which comes from the farm organisations makes no sense as land-owners should have their own insurance.”
Meanwhile, Ms Deane is happy about the success of the Reeks Access Forum and says she will be informing every walking club in the country about these basic requests for walking on the Reeks.
“The Access Forum is working really well and is an excellent model for sustainable management that, I believe, could be used to manage other mountains such as Lugnaquilla, Galtymore, and Errigal,” she said.
The future, it seems, will lie with permissive access only on many of Ireland’s best-known uplands.