In our present dystopian world, there is one constant — the wonder of the Irish outdoors remains undimmed.
Rural Ireland has come to the rescue of the nation once again and is the backbone of our staycationing holidays this year. From all corners of the country, come tales of great human tides seeking the physical and mental health benefits of recreating in green spaces.
This is, of course, unsurprising. With such stables as spectator sports, concerts, festivals, and holidays abroad denied us, the outdoors has become the new playground of the nation for recreation in green spaces is one of the safest activities available during the present pandemic.
Compared to other countries, we are lucky because Ireland has a small population with large expanses of pristine upland and wilderness areas.
Having rambled in almost every corner of Ireland, I can vouch that, despite many reports to the contrary, walkers are, due to the continuing goodwill of the landowners, allowed pretty much unhindered access to all our major mountain and upland areas.
Simply put, ample room exists for everyone to recreate safely.
What doesn’t exist, however, is an infrastructure to facilitate access to our upland and wilderness areas. To begin with, we don’t have sufficient car parking spaces, toilet facilities, and signage to allow individuals to easily harvest the benefits of outdoor recreation.
Many times, this summer I have witnessed agricultural machinery unable to access land because of cars overflowing from inadequate car parks.
I have also witnessed an increasing problem of erosion. Most of the Irish uplands are covered by blanket bog and where enough people cross it, it breaks down and becomes soft and mucky. Soon walkers are forced to go right or left to get around it, and in the present circumstances of vastly increased footfall, the path inevitably gets wider. Without specific intervention, the landowner soon finds that rough grazing land has been transformed into a great mucky scar on the hillside.
The final problem for outdoor recreation is that present application of negligence law has effectively transferred the cost of personal insurance from recreationalists to landowners, As things stand, not only do landowners surrender privacy and leave themselves open to the small number of irresponsible individuals who leave gates open, damage fences, and allow dogs to worry livestock, they also expose themselves the possibility of being sued.
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 realising that when it comes to outdoor recreation there is no such thing as a free lunch. From Wicklow to Carrauntoohil and Galtymore to Croagh Patrick and Mount Errigal, the Irish uplands are groaning under the strain of the ever-increasing footfall and landowners are also being greatly pressurised.
The time has come to remove this burden by investing adequately in the marvellous recreational resource that is our uplands. First, we need to invest in an adequate infrastructure of car parks, toilet facilities, and signage at the principal trailheads to facilitate recreationalists and remove inconvenience for local people.
For our busiest mountain routes, we must take the pressure off the landscape by building consolidated paths from the vernacular stone that seamlessly merges into the landscape. This model of access has been successfully used across Great Britain.
Finally, a much promised, but continually deferred, indemnity scheme that would protect farmers who allow recreational use of the uplands must be implemented immediately, Occupier’s liability should cease being a backdoor where landowners are obliged to carry the risk for misfortunes befalling recreational users of the uplands. As responsible hillwalkers, we have a duty to provide our own insurance cover.
John G O’Dwyer is a guidebook author and chairman of Pilgrim Paths Ireland. His latest book titledis published by Currach Books