Farm Ireland

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Step in the right direction

After years at war, farmers are finding a new path towards better relations with walkers

Proinsias de Burca

NOT too long ago you couldn't mention the words farmer and hill walker in the same sentence without causing a general outbreak of cold sweats and hypertension. The notion that landowners would let walkers onto their land was anathema to them, while, for walkers, the thought that they couldn't roam where they wanted bordered on a call to arms.

However, under the auspices of Eamon O'Cuiv's Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, an agreement known as the Walks Scheme offers a solution to this seemingly intractable problem.

The scheme makes landowners along specific walks enter into an agreement to allow walkers access to the route. They agree to maintain and enhance those parts of the walk on their land and in return they will receive a twice-yearly payment of €14.50/hr for work done in accordance with a work plan agreed with the local partnership company. It is a national scheme and open to all landholders on National Way-marked Ways, Looped Walking Routes, Heritage Routes and other trails that have been approved by the National Trails Office.

The 2008 initiative appears to have solved many contentious issues, such as access, insurance, private-property rights and income. Moreover, it is helping generate income for farmers and rural communities. This is particularly the case in areas with traditionally high tourist numbers.

James O'Mahony is employed as a rural recreation officer by the local partnership company to manage the walking scheme in Sheep's Head Peninsula in west Cork. Located to the east of the Beara Peninsula, Sheep's Head has become one of the more popular walking destinations in the country.

"The farmers drive the walking product around here," says James O'Mahony.

"They own the Walking Company and the chairman is a farmer, Gerard Burke. There are about 550 farmers signed up to the scheme between Beara and Sheep's Head, and the results are excellent.

"The B&Bs, the self-catering accommodation, the pubs and restaurants are doing very well. Many of the B&Bs and self-catering units are owned by farm families. Farmers have taken courses in guiding and have familiarised themselves with the history, heritage, geology and archaeology of the area."

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Mr O'Mahony says that what has happened in Sheep's Head and across the Beara Peninsula is testament to what can be achieved by partnership.

"Partnership is the key," he says. "Making sure you bring everyone along and making sure there is something in it for everybody."

In the Slieve Bloom Mountains it is a different story. David Kinsella is chairman of the Slieve Bloom Rural Development Society, an organisation drawn from communities in the Laois and Offaly mountains.

According to David, huge work has been done developing walks and promoting walking in the Slieve Blooms over the past decade, but the investment has been slow to pay off.

"The Slieve Bloom Way is one of the best-known waymarked ways in the country. On the back of this we have developed a series of walking products that include looped walks [and] a series of eco walks with accompanying guide material that can be downloaded from our website," says Mr Kinsella.

"A huge walking festival takes place here over the May bank holiday weekend and there are guided walks every Sunday from April to October."

While numbers walking the Slieve Blooms and coming to the festival have increased, David says there's little evidence that walkers are leaving a lot of revenue in the mountains.

"Don't get me wrong, we love to see people coming and enjoying the mountains, but the income from tourism and tourists isn't at all what it should be. The only hotel located in the mountains is being run by the banks and pubs are closing in the villages."

David explains that proximity to Dublin is not the big advantage it might appear to be.

"Walkers from the greater Dublin area can arrive in the Slieve Blooms with a packed lunch, do a full day's walking, and go home without spending a euro. We need to work on products that will keep them here and encourage them to spend. Walking on its own is not generating income for us."

Ann Lannigan, rural recreation officer for Laois and Offaly, says that the area is starting from a very low base but that the uptake from landowners joining the Walks Scheme is strong.

"While we have a good team of walk leaders, recently a partnership of agencies trained a group of new leaders that will be available to undertake longer walks over a number of days," Ms Lannigan said.

Fáilte Ireland's Deirdre Cole agrees. She says that the landowners, accommodation providers, pubs, walking groups and walk leaders are beginning to work more closely to put together packages that will attract walkers who will come and stay, and spend and enjoy.

While the Walks Scheme has helped clear the way for walking to take its place as a key driver of rural tourism, a lot needs to be done in areas without a strong tradition of tourism to give it the reliability of the traditional milk cow.

"It is hard to engage farmers and other locals in the industry when they see such little return from it," Mr Kinsella adds.

Irish Independent