Monday 26 September 2016

New scheme to protect farmers if hikers injured on their land

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

The Government is moving to urgently introduce a new national indemnity scheme after a high profile court case saw farmers consider shutting their gates to hillwalkers. File photo
The Government is moving to urgently introduce a new national indemnity scheme after a high profile court case saw farmers consider shutting their gates to hillwalkers. File photo

Farmers and landowners will be protected in the event of walkers and tourists falling or getting injured on the country's most popular walks and trails.

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The Government is moving to urgently introduce a new national indemnity scheme after a high profile court case saw farmers consider shutting their gates to hillwalkers.

‘WELCOME’: Frank Nugent of the Irish Uplands Forum
‘WELCOME’: Frank Nugent of the Irish Uplands Forum

Two pilots of a protective scheme are currently in operation on popular walks in different locations. Successful running of the programme will lead to a new national indemnity scheme being rolled out before the end of the year, officials at the Department of Rural Affairs have told hillwalking associations.

It means the State will take up the worry of allowing walkers to access trails through farmers' lands in upland areas such as the McGillycuddy Reeks, Croagh Patrick and the Wicklow Way.

It follows a landmark court decision in favour of a walker who fell in the Wicklow Way.

Farmers warned the judgement could result in them preventing hillwalkers from accessing their lands in some of Ireland's most scenic areas.

They had also previously called for indemnity to lie solely with hillwalkers amid concerns that they would be made liable in the case of serious injury.

Costs of running such a case were of huge concern to the Irish Farmers' Association.

The Sunday Independent understands a plan has already been agreed and drawn up by officials in the new Department of Rural Affairs.

It was previously worked on by the Department of Environment before this year's general election. However, it has not yet been outlined how the plan would be introduced.

This means the practicalities of how payments would be made by the State have yet to be drawn up and the Government is still mulling this over with the State Claims Agency.

It is expected that the newly proposed national indemnity scheme will be implemented by the end of 2016

Talks have been ongoing between the department and major stakeholders on mountains for more than five years as concerns grew that farmers could be subjected to massive pay-outs to injured walkers.

Mountaineer Frank Nugent was one of the first Irishmen to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He is now chairman of the Irish Uplands Forum and said a roll-out of a national indemnity programme was important to protect landowners in areas such as the Wicklow Way or the Twelve Bens in Connemara.

"Most of those areas, the land there is private so a scheme like this would take all of the worry away from the farmer," said Mr Nugent.

"The Occupiers' Liability Act makes it very clear that landowners should not be responsible for people coming on to walk.

"We would absolutely welcome the implementation of the scheme because we have been proactive in trying to get a scheme introduced.

"We have always realised the value of the Occupiers' Liability Act but the problem with the act is that it doesn't prevent someone from suing the farmer. That means they need legal representation and straight away that costs money."

An experienced climber was awarded €40,000 last April in a "game-changing" ruling after a fall on a wooden boardwalk. Hillwalker Teresa Wall's claim for damages against the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for designated walking routes and paths around the country, came after a fall on a rotten boardwalk. She suffered a gash on her right knee that required seven stitches.

The judge said it was clear from photographs produced in evidence that the boardwalk had been made up of second-hand wooden railway sleepers that were badly rotted. Staples were protruding from the sleepers and chicken wire was loosely hanging over the boardwalk. She added that reasonable care had not been taken to maintain the boardwalk and make sure it was in a safe condition.

Sunday Independent

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