'We are loving our mountains to death'
Conservation projects should focus on protecting upland areas, not making them easier to climb
We are loving our mountains to death, as erosion and heavy footfall continue to damage the country's most popular walks.
Increased hill walking is taking a toll and Mountaineering Ireland is warning of an urgent need to invest in our mountains.
It also highlighted how authorities must move away from the creation of boardwalks on highlands because they are unnatural and difficult to sustain.
A walker was awarded €40,000 in damages last month in a "game-changing" ruling after a fall on a wooden boardwalk in the Wicklow Mountains.
Mountaineering Ireland's access and conservation officer Helen Lawless says we need to explore natural protection methods.
"There are materials that are available on site and because of that they blend into the landscape and that is absolutely key.
"It should look natural.
"You are away from roads, buildings and other structures so anything that looks obviously man-made in a mountain environment is going to look out of place."
Carrauntoohill, Brandon and the McGillycuddy Reeks in Kerry; Errigal in Donegal; the Wicklow Mountains; and the Galtees in Tipperary; they all face a constant battle with erosion.
So too does Ireland's holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo.
The annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage was cancelled there last summer for the first time in living memory because adverse weather and hazardous climbing conditions made the pilgrimage too dangerous.
However, Ms Lawless says it is important that conservation work does not make climbing easier.
"There was research done among pilgrims on Croagh Patrick some years ago and even the pilgrims would not want it to be made all that easy. For our members, it would detract from their experience too.
"You can't make it safe because it would not be a mountain any more. Where would you stop?
"We are fortunate with Croagh Patrick that it is a rocky mountain and geology has made it possible for Croagh Patrick to withstand really high usage better than most mountains would have.
"Nonetheless, it has been described by some British experts as the most eroded mountain path in Ireland or Britain at the moment."
There is an over-reliance in Ireland on foreign expertise because those dealing with upland erosion here have not been sufficiently qualified in the past, but that is changing now.
Noel Spillane, CEO of the South Kerry Development Partnership, was involved in setting up a group that helped train local landowners to combat erosion on the McGillicuddy Reeks in recent years.
"The skills in upland path repair are few and far between in the country," he says.
"The people who we approached doing this project were all from Wales and Scotland. Those skills have now been passed on to the local landowners and any future works that need to be done - because a lot needs to be done on the Reeks - can be done by these guys.
"Nine local landowners signed up and more than 2km of pathway has been repaired."
A similar group is now being founded in Mayo to handle issues relating to Croagh Patrick. Ms Lawless says this is an example of what should be done nationwide.
"Climbing mountains is a hazardous activity. The project manager in the McGillicuddy Reeks was emphatic that it is about protecting the mountains, not making it safer.
"We are literally loving our mountains to death and this is the bit that is most visible.
"A little bit like those eroded paths being an expression of people's relationship with the mountain, they are also the most visible impact of the popularity of hillwalking.
"We are never going to be able to fix all of our eroded paths. The people who are having that impact; myself, our members and other walkers and climbers, need to take some responsibility to manage the impact we are having."
She says investing in mountains and preserving them will also be a boost to rural communities.
"Demographically, they are disadvantaged as well. There tends to be less employment, they have lost their younger people, shops and pubs and other services.
"They are struggling.
"During the government formation talks we saw more and more talk about rural Ireland but there is almost an outer level to rural Ireland and that is the communities in our upland areas."