SPECIAL REPORT: Authorities scale new heights in €257m bid to protect Ireland’s national parks

A €257m, 10-year tourism masterplan for our national parks has been a long time coming, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

SPECIAL REPORT: Authorities scale new heights in €257m bid to protect Ireland’s national parks

A €257m, 10-year tourism masterplan for our national parks has been a long time coming, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

Looking out at Killarney National Park from Ladies View at the Upper Lake.
Looking out at Killarney National Park from Ladies View at the Upper Lake.

THEIR iconic features have graced countless postcards, tourist brochures, and Instagram accounts, and time in their company makes memories for a lifetime so it seems only right that our national parks should be treated as national treasures.

But do they get the appreciation — and protection — they deserve?

The six parks — Killarney, Wicklow Mountains, The Burren, Connemara, Glenveagh, and Ballycroy — between them cover around 68,700 hectares of mountains, lakes, woodland, bogs, walking trails, archaeological sites, and historical houses, attracting 3m-4m visitors a year.

Accurate counts are hard to obtain because not everyone enters the parks through a visitor centre, where their presence can be registered, and besides, some of the visitor centres only open for part of the year.

Suffice to say they are a big draw for overseas tourists, staycationers, and day-trippers alike and the fact that entrance is free only adds to the appeal.

So it was with understandably large smiles for the camera that Minister for Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, under whose responsibility the National Parks and Wildlife Service falls, unveiled a 10-year tourism masterplan for the parks a fortnight ago.

The €257m plan, commissioned by her department and compiled by SLR Consulting, highlights the abundance of natural riches in the parks and proposes a range of ways to further develop their tourism potential.

“Multimillion-euro investment to help national parks and reserves become world-class visitor experiences,” trumpeted the publicity material from the department.

Padraig Fogarty, campaigns officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, responded with an almost audible snort, if it is possible to read such a reaction into a tweet.

He tweeted after the launch: “Some facts about our national parks: They don’t exist in any legal sense, none operates under a management plan, Killarney is subject to an EC complaint due to gross mismanagement, illegal machine turf-cutting and dumping goes on in Glenveagh, Wicklow Mountains is a sheep ranch.”

He was on holidays in northern Spain at the time, marvelling at the Somiedo Natural Park where the European brown bear population has been rescued from the brink of disappearance and is now recovering well despite the competing needs of farmers, commerce, and tourism in the region.

“They’re running a park with dangerous wild animals roaming in it and doing it successfully,” Fogarty sighed on his return.

“We have none of those issues. We’re talking about just trying to get trees growing. It’s very basic stuff and we can’t even manage that.”

The department would roundly reject that accusation but there has been a long-running difference of opinion between environmental groups and successive governments over the way the parks are managed and it looks no closer to resolution.

To take the first of the points Fogarty so pithily made in his tweet, the legal status of the national parks, there is in fact a curious void which the masterplan says should be addressed.

Ireland’s first national park, Killarney, began with the 1932 Bourn Vincent Memorial Act which allowed the State to accept Muckross House and its 11,000-acre estate as a gift to the nation, but the park has since doubled in size and there are only a few cursory lines in the act requiring that it be “managed and maintained” for the “recreation and enjoyment of the public”.

Lough Leane, Killarney National Park, Co Kerry. The master plan suggests charging for parking at Muckross, expanding shuttle bus services, and adding cycle and walking trails. Picture: Denis Scannell
Lough Leane, Killarney National Park, Co Kerry. The master plan suggests charging for parking at Muckross, expanding shuttle bus services, and adding cycle and walking trails. Picture: Denis Scannell

The next most relevant piece of legislation is the State Property Act of 1954 but it simply sets out the powers of State authorities to decide the use of and access to State-owned lands and matters to do with rents, licences, leases, transfers, and so on.

“There is no definitive legislative basis that defines duties, obligations, and powers in respect of national parks,” says the masterplan.

It goes on to say that the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) also lacks legislative backing, a point it acknowledges was also raised in a 2010 review by consultants Grant Thornton.

That review found a “lack of clarity pertaining to the role of the NPWS” and recommended legislation to strengthen the service’s legal mandate in conservation and protection.

The SLR masterplan backs that still unimplemented recommendation. “A strong legislative basis is critical to strengthen the role of the NPWS,” it says.

Fogarty gave a practical example of why he believes legislation is essential. “There’s quad-biking in Wicklow and we were asking the NPWS why is that allowed, why can’t you prevent it?

“They say there is no legislation we can use to prevent it. A lot of the habitats in the park are protected under the Birds Directive or Habitats Directive but these are only certain parts or aspects of the park so those protections are narrow. It doesn’t necessarily mean the authorities can say quad-biking isn’t compatible with a national park and stop it.”

The department was asked what plans it had for legislation. It replied that the parks are managed under the 1954 Act and under the European Habitats Directive. No such plans then, it seems.

Going back to Fogarty’s tweet, his reference to none of the parks operating under a management plan is also an issue raised in the masterplan. Successive ministers have promised management plans for all the parks but that pledge has fallen by the wayside.

Killarney and Wicklow have plans that are a decade out of date, a plan for the Burren has been in preparation for several years but remains in draft form, and the department says it is prioritising conservation objectives for specific sites and “as such there are no immediate plans to produce management plans for Ballycroy, Glenveagh, Connemara, or Wicklow Mountains National Parks”.

Fogarty says drawing up management plans would be pointless if they were not implemented and at the moment, neither the staff nor budgets existed to do so.

“The NPWS is woefully under-resourced and it’s very poorly organised. There are people in the service who know exactly what the problems are but they’re just ticking over and doing the bare minimum. No minister wants to own it.”

The Grant Thornton review, cited again in the masterplan, hinted at something similar. The NPWS has been moved around various government departments over the years and the report says it should be kept under the Department of the Environment but given its own chief executive.

“I personally think it should be part of the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Fogarty.

“The EPA has a certain degree of independence whereas the NPWS is totally emasculated. They can’t do anything without departmental say-so.”

The masterplan also highlights under-resourcing of the NPWS: “Estimates of current staff levels suggest that the NPWS is running at about 50% staffing capacity in mid-2017.”

It says: “The NPWS has experienced recent cuts and long-term under-resourcing: consultations suggest that the service is under-resourced in terms of staff, day-to-day operations and capital investment.

“This affects both the visitor experience and adherence to the conservation objectives of the International Union for Conservation of Nature [the IUCN under whose criteria the parks are meant to operate].”

By its calculations: “An additional 66 full-time equivalent technical staff are required to bring the total number of technical staff to 123 (from park manager to guides grade) to operate effectively to meet their core conservation mandates.”

The department says the 50% figure only refers to what would be needed if all aspects of the masterplan were implemented. But it does agree the NPWS suffered from “enforced financial retrenchment” from 2008 to 2016 and is in the process of rebuilding its staffing complement. It says it recruited 24 full-time staff in the last year alone.

THE masterplan says 341 full-time staff would be needed to implement the masterplan for the parks in full. The department says the NPWS has 330 staff but it is not clear how many full-time equivalents that works out as and those are not dedicated to the national parks as the NPWS also has 78 nature reserves and several hundred special areas of conservation (SACs) to care for.

An Taisce also has worries about the resources made available to the NPWS. “There was a lot of concern that, because of the financial cuts, the NPWS dropped their membership of the IUCN,” says Ian Lumley, An Taisce’s heritage officer.

“It’s being renewed but it’s such an important network to be part of that membership should be a priority.”

The department confirmed that membership — thought to cost around €150,000 a year — was allowed lapse for a time. It insisted, however: “The national parks remained managed under the principles of IUCN regardless of the department’s membership status during the recession.”

The reason environmental groups say resources, legal powers, and international links are so important to the NPWS is that the parks are facing considerable challenges.

Illegal and/or uncontrolled burning and turfcutting, overgrazing by a combination of livestock and wild deer, damage from human and vehicular traffic, and infestation by invasive species are just a few of the problems they face.

Some of this stems from the historic interface between man and the natural environment at a time when it was believed nature was there to be exploited and would always bounce back, but Padraic Fogarty believes not enough is being done to help the parks recover from past damage or to prevent fresh damage occurring.

National parks have a category II rating from the IUCN which demands a high degree of conservation to keep the landscape, wildlife, and ecology as near as possible to how nature intended it while allowing its use for recreation, education, and research. Fogarty says at the moment, ours only deserve a category V or ‘protected landscape’ rating which is for less pristine areas that are indelibly affected by human activities.

For example, as his tweet mentioned, Killarney National Park is the subject of a complaint to the European Commission in relation to mismanagement over the handling of the rhododendron invasion.

Rhododendron from mainland Europe were brought to Ireland as specimen plants without due regard for their impressive ability to reproduce, spread, and take over parkland and woodland, pushing out native plants and creating thick, dark canopies that stop sunlight reaching anything else trying to grow beneath.

Removing it is costly, massively labour-intensive, and prone to failure if every last stem of reproductive potential isn’t gotten rid of — and Killarney’s native oak woodlands have paid the price.

Deer are not only a problem in Killarney but their impact is particularly pronounced there.

“In the past, wolves kept the population down but now they don’t have predators so they need to be culled and there’s a public perception problem with culling. People think of it as killing Bambi,” says Ian Lumley.

Padraic Fogarty agrees the issue has to be dealt with sensitively. “We don’t want to create the impression that the deer are vermin — they are a really valuable heritage,” he says.

“But there isn’t enough food for them. They’re eating the bark of the trees and killing the trees and any saplings too. This has been the case for the past 10-15 years. There are no new trees coming up. Everything is eaten. You could play golf on the floor of the forest.”

Sheep farming also causes challenges as the NPWS isn’t in control of all grazing licences and some historic grazing rights take precedence.

“The mountains in Connemara are an absolute mess,” says Fogarty. “They’re over-grazed, the vegetation is gone, and you’re left with muck and slime.”

The Irish Farmers Association did not put a representative forward for interview but in a statement, national hill committee chairman Flor McCarthy said: “Sheep grazing contributes to good land management.

“To ensure land is not overgrazed, farmers who have grazing rights on national parks and commonages must adhere to minimum and maximum stocking rates.

“In general, farmers must ensure their land is not overgrazed in order to comply with the rules to receive CAP payments.”

Turfcutting may be a more contentious issue. Cutting by hand is permitted under licence in restricted areas within the Wicklow and Connemara parks but it takes place covertly — and sometimes by machine — elsewhere.

Policing it is tricky, costly, and unpopular. From a conservation perspective, the bogs are a precious ecosystem, but they make poor farming land. In hard times when they produced little in the way of agricultural output, they at least provided fuel for the fire and that’s a tradition that’s difficult to break and a mindset that’s difficult to change.

“It’s another reason the NPWS needs to be strengthened. It has to have government support to take unpopular decisions,” says Fogarty.

Despite the struggles to protect our existing national parks, Ian Lumley believes that ultimately the solution is to take more land into the parks.

“Ireland has taken a very conservative approach. National parks only cover land in State ownership whereas in other countries, national parks embrace land that is State-owned and privately owned and the private owners come under a strict management regime for grazing and other land use.

“So it’s not a case of them and us. It’s everyone working together for a common purpose and it becomes the normal and natural way to care for the landscape.”

The masterplan

The Guinness family Luggala estate in Co Wicklow. The state is considering buying the area for a visitor centre. Picture: PA Wire
The Guinness family Luggala estate in Co Wicklow. The state is considering buying the area for a visitor centre. Picture: PA Wire

The plan comes with a mix of sensible and bold ideas for encouraging growth in visitor numbers and improving their experience once they get there.

Some of the ideas are simple. For example it urges the creation of a single, easily identifiable brand with a shared logo — it cites the well-known US National Parks Service badge with its instantly recognisable bison and redwood tree — and has come up with the slogan, “Experience the wild heart of Ireland”.

It also stresses the importance of improving signage, pointing out that visitors whose rambles take them into our national parks often don’t know they’re in a defined park, what it offers, where they can go, or what they can do there.

“In some cases the signage is extremely negative and focuses on what not to do rather than what can be done,” says the report.

Certainly visitors to most parks will become intimately acquainted with red circles warning no camping, no barbecues, no vehicles, no swimming, no boating, no dogs without leashes, no dogs at all, no removing stones, and so on.

Addressing those deficiencies is relatively easy but the plan also recommends the creation of extensive additional walking trails and cycle ways, new shuttle bus services to and through the parks, shelters for walkers, hides for wildlife watchers, a doubling of staff numbers, and the building of new visitor centres or at least the substantial refurbishment and expansion of those that exist. “The current visitor centres in our national parks are almost all outdated and not fit for purpose,” it says.

The masterplan calls for better links with schools and third-level institutions, describing the educational aspect of the parks as “under-developed and under-resourced” despite the fact that “education is a key objective of an IUCN Category II park” — the standard with which our parks are meant to comply.

The masterplan urges the building of a planetarium in Ballycroy, Co Mayo, and a concert and performance venue at Coole Park, which, although a reserve rather than a national park, has been included in the study. It recommends revisiting the idea of a car park at Mullaghmore in the Burren and an interpretative centre at Luggala in Wicklow — both projects that were abandoned after lengthy court battles initiated by community and environmental groups in the 1990s.

And while they’re at it, it says the State should think seriously about buying Luggala estate, the 18th-century mansion and 5,000 acres of landscaped gardens and oak woods that was the home of the late Guinness heir Garech de Brun and which is on the market for €28m. The minister in charge of the national parks, Josepha Madigan, isn’t likely to find loose change for that one any time soon.

Last April she published a document, Investing in our Culture, Language, and Heritage, which pledged an investment of €50m in the national parks over the next ten years. The new masterplan, also with a 10-year life cycle, says an investment of €121m will be needed for capital expenditure alone — not including the purchase of Luggala house and estate. And it puts the full cost of implementing the plan at €257m.

In return, the masterplan says Ireland will be able to position itself better in an international market where “nature-based tourism is a large and growing component” attracting 8bn visitors annually and generating $600bn (€513bn) a year for local economies.

Killarney

Established 1932

10,300 hectares

1m visitors (97 per hectare)

Our oldest, best-known and most-visited national park for its size, the landmark features of Killarney National Park in Co Kerry have captivated generations.

With three lakes, mountains to the south, east, and west, and a rich built heritage, it provides an enchanting mix of the rugged and refined.

But rows over rhododendron and deer are as much a hardy annual as the coachloads of American tourists seeking out Kate Kearney’s cottage.

Some 3,000 hectares were invaded by rhododendron, which grows aggressively and is extremely hard to eradicate. Close to €1m has been spent on clearance in the last eight years and the department says 2,000 hectares are now under control but require continual monitoring.

The European Commission is currently investigating a complaint by the voluntary environmental group, Groundwork, that the State is failing in its duty to protect the native oaks from the rhododendron infestation. It said it was seeking a response from the State.

Separately, the commission has infringement proceedings against Ireland for failure to designate special areas of conservation and establish the necessary conservation measures for them — including in relation to Killarney National Park.

As for the deer, they are competing with their own growing numbers and with livestock for food, and are destroying saplings. Numerous animals have been found starving or dead in recent months.

The department says it carries out culls as required — more that 100 so far this year. It also issues licences to hunt deer during open season from September to February, and issued 5,000 this year alone.

Muckross House and estate has long acted as the information point for the park but a plan already exists to operate it as a standalone attraction now that Killarney House, which spans an area between the park and Killarney town, has been refurbished for use as a dedicated visitor centre.

The masterplan suggests charging for parking at Muckross but otherwise encouraging the use of buses by expanding existing shuttle services for getting around the park. It also calls for cycle trails, an extended network of walking trails, and upgrading of existing trails. It urges making better use of the lakes by providing opportunities for rowing, kayaking, and underwater exploration, with viewers added to tour boats.

Wicklow Mountains

Established 1991

21,500 hectares

1.5m visitors (70 per hectare)

The largest of the national parks, Wicklow, is also the only one within a day trip of the busy Dublin tourist hub.

Its main gateway also happens to be shared with the Glendalough Monastic Settlement, so traffic congestion is a regular feature. Once visitors get past this extraordinary heritage site, the park opens up into a spectacular assortment of mountains, valleys, glacial lakes, rivers, upland bog, forest and heath.

Walking trails are concentrated around Glendalough, however, so only the more adventurous get to immerse themselves in the wilder areas. Sheep farming has long been a feature — as have disagreements over the impact of grazing. Mountain biking and quad-biking, though prohibited, do take place and cause erosion. Commercial forestry has taken its toll too, with bogs drained for planting and much of the open ground birds and wildlife displaced. Illegal and ill-managed burning of vegetation are major problems which the department acknowledges damages habitats and leads to erosion. It stresses burning is illegal between March 1 and August 31 but that changed in the last fortnight when a bill to allow burning in March was passed.

The masterplan urges the provision of a dedicated visitor centre as currently there is only an information point in a cottage at the Glendalough entrance and a small share of the OPW visitor centre that focuses on Glendalough.

It suggests the new centre could be built 2km away at Laragh village where visitors could also take shuttle buses to six new information points at the outer extremes of the park.

Pick-up and drop-off points would be established at 12 different locations, and nine “enhanced access points” would be developed to discourage everyone from converging on Glendalough.

Alternatively, and controversially, the plan suggests building multiple gateways and information points with serviced parking areas and just a small interpretative centre near Luggala where a previous attempt to provide a centre led to a lengthy legal battle.

Better still, it suggests the State buy the 5,000-acre Luggala estate, former home to the late Guinness heir Garech de Brun, and locate a visitor centre there.

Other recommendations include the provision of shelters along the waymarked Wicklow Way, the creation of a new network of walking trails and excavation of some of the 18th century mines in the Glendalough Valley to allow visitor access.

Glenveagh

Established 1975

17,000 hectares

170,000 visitors (10 per hectare)

Located in north-west Donegal, Glenveagh’s remoteness is one of its most appealing features but it also causes the country’s second largest national park to have the second lowest concentration of visitors. And many of those focus their attention on Glenveagh Castle to the neglect of the rest of the park.

That means few get to experience up close the multiple peaks of the rugged Derryveagh Mountains or the full beauty of Lough Beagh (AKA Lough Veagh).

It means the chances of catching a glimpse of a golden eagle are also greatly diminished. The magnificent eagles, extinct in Ireland since the early 1900s, were reintroduced in 2001 and through painstaking management and heartbreaking setbacks, have established a population of about 30.

Remoteness also means that dumping and illegal turfcutting can take place virtually undetected. The Irish Wildlife Trust has recorded cutting by “sausage machine” which drives over the bog and sucks the turf out of it, leaving long sausage-like strings of sods.

The department says it is it is monitoring turfcutting and intends drawing up a management plan in consultation with local communities to ensure the peatlands are properly managed.

The park is also recovering from over-grazing by deer herds over many decades so any plan to encourage more visitors needs to take into consideration the damage already done.

Nevertheless, the master plan recommends strengthening links with the park and the small towns and villages around it, with possible park and ride facilities in at least five of them.

It also encourages the expansion of the few walking trails within the park, the development of looped cycle routes and the refurbishment of derelict fishing and hunting lodges and famine cottages as information points. Lough Beagh could also be opened to exploration by small electric boats manned by trained guides, it says.

The drumlin-shaped, heather-roofed visitor centre at the northern edge of the park was designed to fit in with the environment but the plan says it needs to be redeveloped or rebuilt.

Glenveagh Castle, 4km further in to the park, also needs some attention to calm congestion and its larger turret is considered the ideal structure in which to create a glass lookout that would allow 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.

Connemara

Established 1980

3,000 hectares

180,000 visitors (60 per hectare)

Ireland’s most westerly national park and the only one that touches the sea, Connemara National Park in Co Galway has the Atlantic lapping at its fringes at Barnaderg Bay, hills in its centre, Connemara ponies in its wild open spaces and the dozen magnificent peaks of the Twelve Bens or Twelve Pins mountain range to its south.

It also has sheep and the rows that go along with that. Habitats in the more mountainous south are acknowledged to be highly sensitive and fragile and there is a reluctance to send much more traffic — human, animal or otherwise — in that direction.

Nevertheless, the plan does seek to improve facilities that better serve the existing visitors and attract new ones.

The visitor centre, open from March to October, is in the former farming buildings of the old Letterfrack Industrial School which “urgently require refurbishment”.

Environmentalists argue the park boundaries should be extended to take in the full Twelve Bens range and possibly even Roundstone Bog with conservation being the top priority.

For while these areas would undoubtedly wow more tourists, it is notable that in recommending new walking trails in the park, the plan locates them entirely in the north of the park, away from the fragile south.

Many visitors to the area also take in Kylemore Abbey and its stunning lakeside gardens which lie outside the northern boundary of the park and the plan suggests introducing a shuttle bus service between it and the visitor centre at Letterfrack. Better tour boat linkages between Barnaderg and Inishbofin island are also suggested.

Ballycroy

Established 1998

15,200 hectares

74,000 visitors (5 per hectare)

Ballycroy in Co Mayo is the newest of the national parks and it is still evolving following a 5,000-hectare expansion last December.

The extended park now takes in Wild Nephin, a former Coillte commercial forest which is to be restored to its wild state over the coming years.

However, there is concern that the planting of conifers (spruce and pine) continued over the last five years despite the wilderness designation project being agreed in principle. How exactly it is intended to phase out these activities and begin the process of returning Nephin to the wild is also unclear.

The department says a Wild Nephin Conversion Plan was completed recently and will be publicly available in the next six weeks.

That issue aside, Ballycroy is a haven of untainted wilderness, with vast stretches of Atlantic blanket bog and sweeping grasslands fringed by the Nephin Beg mountain range.

It also has the distinction of being Ireland’s first internationally recognised Dark Sky Park. This a status conferred on regions where the lack of inhabitants and associated sources of artificial light provide perfect conditions for stargazing.

The plan calls for more facilities to further develop the dark sky element of the part, recommending the building of a 60-seater planetarium and observatory.

It also recommends the expansion of the visitor centre, which opens from April to September and the extension of walkways to include raised boardwalks across the bogs.

Coole Park

Established 1983

405 hectares

17,000 visitors (42 per hectare)

Coole Park in Co Galway, more properly called Coole-Garryland Nature Reserve, is a reserve rather than a national park but it was included in the consultancy project because it has many of the features of a national park, having both a built and natural heritage.

Formerly home to Lady Augusta Gregory, co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, the park boasts a remarkable network of turloughs and natural underground channels that collect the water that runs off from the surrounding Slieve Aughty Mountains, and the Burren.

With heavier rain in winter, the levels in the turloughs rise — by as much as 10m — and join to form one lake before flooding the surrounding woodland, where the vegetation has had to adapt to life in the wet and dry.

Gradually, the water drains out through swallow holes in the lake bed and makes its way to the sea at Kinvara.

Coole House no longer stands but the outbuildings do and have been converted into a visitor centre, though it only opens from April to September.

The masterplan calls for it to be reconfigured to provide space for natural history exhibits, as the focus is primarily on the history of Lady Gregory. It also calls for the provision of hides from which to view the famous wild swans, and the creation of shelters in which to hold outdoor classes.

It wants to continue cultivating the artistic heritage too, however, and recommends the building of a new performance space that could host local drama groups, visiting performances by professional groups, writers’ workshops, weekend literary events and so on.

It also says the park would benefit from having a poet or dramatist-in-residence.

The Burren

Established 1991

1,700 hectares

20,000 visitors (12 per hectare)

The smallest and most distinctive of the national parks, the limestone landscape of the Burren National Park and its array of wildflowers is unique in Ireland and a rarity worldwide.

It is also the one which environmentalists agree has achieved the best balance between conservation, agriculture and tourism.

It is the only one with a management plan in development. It currently exists in a draft form and is awaiting input from Clare County Council which wants to add a “vision statement” for the entirety of the wider Burren region.

There is no visitor centre in the park itself. Rather, it is located 8km away in Corofin village where a free shuttle bus picks up and drops off during the summer months. The visitor centre is open from April to September but there are plans to extend the facilities and opening hours.

The draft management plan recommends revisiting the idea of providing a carpark within the park at the base of Mullaghmore where works were begun but abandoned in the 1990s after a lengthy legal battle.

The masterplan notes this, rather than endorses it, and also proposes the creation of new parking facilities, to be used mainly by an expanded shuttle bus service and also to be linked to a new cycle trail from Corofin.

Within the park, no new walking trails are proposed, but better use of the trails with greater provision of expert guided walks is recommended.

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