Thursday 17 October 2019

Hollywood hills are in good, safe hands

Reporter David Medcalf joined an expedition to the upland grazing above Hollywood in West Wicklow where a unique habitat is being minded by the farmers whose sheep graze the wild mountainsides

Philip Dunne, Pat Lee and Cormic Ryan
Philip Dunne, Pat Lee and Cormic Ryan
Walkers at the SUAS open day and demonstration event in Hollywood

Wicklow Uplands Council and SUAS showed that they knows how to throw a Hollywood party - though this was not the brash Tinseltown Hollywood of movie fame but the Wild West Hollywood of Wicklow.

More than a hundred people showed up in response to open day invitations from the organisation which is working with hill farmers to make sustainable use of the high mountainsides.

Among the attendance were some of the farmers who run sheep across these windswept slopes, joined for the afternoon by environmentalists, walkers, journalists and the plain curious. The first leg of the gathering took place in the warmth and shelter of the community hall in the village of Hollywood where the meet-and-greet took place.

Sitting quietly at the back of the hall, Minister of State Andrew Doyle admitted that his own family enterprise on the far side of the mountains does not qualify as a hill farm. However, his Agriculture Department has played a part in arranging the pilot project which prompted the formation of SUAS - the word means 'up' in Irish. And the sniff of EU money has heightened interest as the paymasters in Brussels cast around seeking more imaginative uses of their agri-funding. A sum of €1.95 million to be spent over a period of five years has been earmarked for the SUAS pilot project.

The Minister excused himself and departed for an engagement in far off Kerry while everyone else was shepherded into a fleet of waiting buses. They brought us upwards and upwards and upwards in low gear along rough roads to the high altitude of Granamore Commonage. Disembarking into cold drizzle, it was immediately clear that if anyone who failed to heed the advice regarding sturdy shoes and waterproofs then they were in for a miserable afternoon.

The going underfoot was uneven and the grey skies were quietly relieving themselves, throwing down rain of growing intensity - not that anyone really minded. Advertised as an 'Open Day', this event undoubtedly lived up to the billing, staged in the most open of open air amidst the most gloriously open of open country. Our host was Declan Byrne, project manager of the SUAS project, seconded to the job from the Teagasc farm advisory service.

He watched everyone drink in the fine scenery dominated by White Moss Mountain with its heather and bracken and gorse. He reckoned that a sheep let loose here would be able to walk to the Dublin border without ever meeting a fence while searching for grass amidst the gorse and bracken.

A scattering of white-faced Wicklow ewes was evidence that not all the local stock had abandoned Granamore to seek nourishment elsewhere. The expectation was that there would be deer to be seen but, as it turned out, Bambi & Co were marked absent on this occasion.

Instead, a group of half a dozen bucaneering bullocks had arrived unannounced from heaven knows where to make the most of whatever sparse grazing they could find. Their presence did not faze the local farmers who confirmed that they did not recognise the visiting livestock and that they did not mind that the cattle were helping themselves to precious grass.

After all, their own animals are also free to wander large swathes of West Wicklow, so they have learned to farm in a spirit of give and take. The commonage at Granamore comprises more than 400 hectares of ground, rising from 250 metres above sea level to a plateau at 590 metres above sea level. Eleven farmers hold grazing rights which have been passed down through the generations, licence to put a few hundred sheep in total out on the mountainside.

Responsibility for this draughty terrain lies with the National Parks and Wildlife Service since the State bought the place out from the estate of Lord Waterford (otherwise the Duke of Devonshire). The service is concerned to conserve a habitat which may be described as a wilderness and yet which is home to some of Ireland's most interesting flora and fauna.

This high up countryside underlain by hefty Caledonian granite is a haunt of birds of prey such as merlin and peregrine falcon, not to mention hen harriers and maybe rare red grouse. In a recent report on the area, ecological consultant Faith Wilson noted that grouse droppings have been identified on White Moss Mountain. The plant life to be found on these often soggy slopes includes bog cranberry, crowberry and bilberry - all three of them classified as rare.

The day trippers bussed up from Hollywood were brought into the heart of the commons along a track which was of surprisingly good standard. The explanation for the excellence of the path is explained by the historic association with the Devonshire estate. The time was when his lordship and friends enjoyed the sport of hunting across the wilderness, so trouble free access was required - hence the road. The open day demonstration group paused to look at a culvert, a rock lined underpass which allows water to drain beneath the track.

The issue of drainage is one which has the ecologists performing a complicated balancing act as plans are laid for the conservation of Granamore. Rain which falls here is funnelled into the River Douglas which eventually ends up in the Poulaphouca reservoir, part of the Liffey basin. As Poulaphouca feeds the mains serving the taps of the million-plus people who live in Dublin, it is a matter of national importance that the water remains unpolluted.

It may also be noted that the lower reaches of the Douglas have populations of otter, trout and kingfishers which naturalists are obviously keen to maintain. However, good ecological practice dictates that water must not be channelled in such a way that it flows too quickly off Grananore towards the otters and the kingfishers and all those thirsty Dubs. A quick flow would dry out the land and stop the formation of new peat on the boggy parts of the commonage, though the commonage is by no means all bog.

Faith Wilson outlined in her report at least four categories of habitat: heath (wet, dry or Alpine); grassland; bog; and rocky scree. She was concerned that the uncontrolled burning of vegetation and over-grazing have wreaked damage on the soil and on vegetation. Some of the higher slopes have been so degraded that there is a risk of landslides.

The good news was that the farmers and parks personnel are now ready to take on the active management of this exposed but marvellous location. Burning, which is necessary to keep gorse, heather or bracken from staging takeover bids, will continue on dry heathland but in a more regulated and more scientific way than in the past.

Some of the pilot project money has been spent acquiring the overalls, the flame throwers and the beaters needed to make targeted burning safer and more effective. The open day visitors were shown how the plants return in the wake of the flames.

Over five years of the project, measures such as careful monitoring of sheep numbers, culling of deer and moving on cattle are likely to be on the agenda. It may become necessary to put up fences to allow more effective control of grazing, with sheep numbers reduced in winter and early summer. The scientists admit that they are not sure exactly what impact the deer are having on heath and bog, so their movements will have to be monitored.

Any invasion by Sitka spruce from the commercial forestry next door will have to be resisted, but it may be a good idea to plant broadleaf trees such as mountain ash, willow and holly in some of the less exposed areas.

Project leader Pat Dunne from Glenmalure was delighted with the turn-out for the open day as he commented that it was: 'a wonderful opportunity to bring a group onto the slopes of the Wicklow uplands to discuss, share and experience first-hand, what the hill-farmers are doing to restore the area.'

Meanwhile, consideration is being given to the possibility of opening up the old road through Granamore to allow walkers easy access. At present the route of Saint Kevin's Way, the pilgrim way from Hollywood to Glendalough, puts hikers on the public road and his lordship's track may offer a more pleasant alternative. Watch this space.

While the Hollywood commonage at Granamore was the focus of attention on this occasion, also included in the SUAS pilot scheme are shared grazing lands at Ballybeg near Tinahely and at Glassnamullen near Enniskerry. It is reckoned that, all told, maybe 400 Wicklow landholders have an interest in mountain commonage, guardians of a landscape which is precious and unique.

it is clearly the case that making a full-time living from raising sheep on such demanding land is next to impossible but, with a little help from Europe, it is possible to generate some income from them thar hills.

Bray People