Sunday 25 February 2018

Hillwalker's 'game-changing' payout could hit access to farms

Landscape of Wicklow Mountains, Ireland
Landscape of Wicklow Mountains, Ireland
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Farmers have warned that a court award of €40,000 for a woman who fell in the Wicklow Mountains could result in them preventing hillwalkers from accessing their lands in some of Ireland's most scenic areas.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) said farmers' livelihoods could be ruined should a serious judgment be made against them by an injured hillwalker.

Chairman of the IFA hill farming committee, Pat Dunne, runs a farm in the Wicklow Mountains.

He is concerned about people using his land for trails.

"This will cause a lot of problems and a huge amount of anxiety because a lot of good work has been done to defrost the relationships between farmers and hillwalkers.

"We want to keep the countryside open but this has the potential to set all of that back a long time," he warned.

"I'm concerned because a new wooden bridge was put in here. You begin to wonder if somebody fell on that and put in a claim, where do we stand on that?"

Hillwalker Teresa Wall's claim for damages last Friday was against the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), which is responsible for designated walking routes and paths around the country.

Ms Wall fell on a rotten boardwalk and suffered a gash on her right knee that required seven stitches.

However, Mr Dunne is concerned that farmers will now be wary of hillwalkers rambling off routes.

"It is a judgment that has gone against a lot of things. It is a potential game-changer," he said.

"I spoke to landowners and walkers yesterday and they are dismayed with it (the decision)."

He is also concerned that the National Walkway Scheme, which is run by the Department of Environment, could be disbanded in light of the claim.

A total of €1.8m was spent upgrading walkways last year under the scheme.

"What if the National Parks decide they will have to take these boardwalks out? Then you are looking at huge erosion because of the volume of footfall in these areas," said Mr Dunne.

Erosion is a huge issue on many of the country's walking trails and paths that remain without boardwalks.

The annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage at Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo, was cancelled for the first time in living memory last July because torrential rain, aligned with constant erosion, made the reek impassable.

Croagh Patrick's Stakeholder Group was set up last November to manage the mountain and its chairman, Martin Keating, said he was also concerned after last Friday's ruling.

"The liability issue is one of the foremost on our agenda to try and make progress on," he said.

"It is also concerning from the point of view of local groups looking to carry out work on the mountain to redress the erosion issues on it at the moment," he added.

The NPWS is managed by the Department of Arts. A spokesperson there and at the Department of Environment said officials needed to examine last Friday's judgment before making any decisions following the ruling.

Wicklow's Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle said he was concerned about potential consequences the ruling would have on tourism in the area.

"In this beautiful county our countryside is one of our greatest assets and it's vital for both walkers and locals that the open trails policy continues and everyone is free to enjoy all that Wicklow has to offer."

Irish Independent

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