AS walking becomes an increasingly popular past-time, opening up the countryside been a key issue for lovers of the outdoors.
Some landowners have been objecting to people getting onto their property. But there are ways of resolving such problems, as is being proved by a scheme in Kerry and west Cork, in which landowners play an active role.
Before we go into that, however, it’s as well to mention National Trails Day, next Sunday. About 100 events are taking place all over the country, including 13 free events around Cork alone, with water trails for canoeists and kayakers included for the first time.
The programme features a canoe trail on Lough Erne, trail conservation work, nature and heritage walks and family cycling. There will be a walk in the world famous Aillwee Caves beneath the Burren in Co Clare, and a series of off-shore events on Bere Island, Co Cork, Arranmore, Co Donegal, and Inisbofin, Co Galway, for the first time.
This year, National Trails Day is an all-Ireland event with, for the first time, Northern Ireland Forest Service and Northern Ireland Tourist Board as sponsors, along with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Coillte, the National Trails Office of the Irish Sports Council and Fáilte Ireland.
Meanwhile, walkers using the 215km Kerry Way route, which takes in some of the most scenic areas of the country, will notice significant improvements over the coming months and years. This is due to the work of the South Kerry Development Partnership (SKDP), in association with State agencies. Surface conditions as well as signage, bridges and styles have been brought to a high standard along the route due to work undertaken by landowners.
The five-year scheme allows for payments to farmers/landowners along walking trails and heritage routes that are approved by the National Trails Office, in return for them carrying out enhancement and maintenance work on the section of the walkway that crosses their land.
The scheme is worth almost €250,000 annually to some 200 farmers along both the Kerry Way and part of the Beara Way. Its success is regarded as a huge step forward in the growth of walking tourism in the south-west.
SKDP official Maria Farmer, who is responsible for implementing the scheme, has received a positive response overall from landowners and reports a strong uptake of the scheme. Landowners sign a contract to carry out work under an agreed plan. Such work includes monthly checks of the trail, cutting vegetation, ensuring that all drains are maintained and new drains put in place so that the walk is in top condition.
Two landowners, Sylvester Donnelly and Crohan O’Shea, from the Lohar area near Waterville, are hoping the number of walkers will increase.
Sylvester commented that as well as directly benefiting landowners, the improved walkways would bring more people to the area benefiting businesses. He also enjoys meeting walkers on the route.
This interaction is also seen as important as it gives visitors an opportunity to meet local people in a natural setting and learn something about the area and enriching their holiday experience. They may spend extra time in the area, as a result.
SKDP chief executive John Pierse, touching on the same point, said that with the Kerry Way now opened throughout the year, there was potential for businesses to greatly extend the season.
The initial idea to include farmers in the walking initiative, by paying them to carry out maintenance work routes, came from the South Kerry/West Cork Walking and Land Access Working Group which was set by Donal Corkery, of Gleninchaquin Park, Tousist, Co Kerry, in June 2006.
He realised the only way to deal with the access issue, and thereby drive walking tourism forward, was to ensure farmers were fully included in all aspects of walking projects. This, in turn, led to the initial idea of getting landowners involved in maintaining the walkways and receiving payment for their work.
Initial meetings were held with Gaeltacht, Community and Rural Affairs Minister Éamonn O Cuív and Arts, Sports and Tourism John O’Donoghue, which eventually resulted in the Walks Scheme being formally launched by Minister O Cuív in March 2008.
No doubt, many people will experience the Kerry Way for themselves, on National Trails Day. Truly, walkers will be spoiled for choice on the day. An area being highlighted is that haven of tranquillity, Gougán Barra, Co Cork. Gougán, the site of St Finbar’s first monastery and the source of the river Lee, was Ireland’s first forest park which was established in 1966.
* full listing of events is on www.nationaltrailsday.ie.
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