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There's room to roam for walkers but public urged to keep a safe distance


Avoid the crowds: Busy scenes near Lough Tay, Co Wicklow, people look for a distraction from the coronavirus crisis and home. Photo: @LugMoquilla

Avoid the crowds: Busy scenes near Lough Tay, Co Wicklow, people look for a distraction from the coronavirus crisis and home. Photo: @LugMoquilla

Avoid the crowds: Busy scenes near Lough Tay, Co Wicklow, people look for a distraction from the coronavirus crisis and home. Photo: @LugMoquilla

'I was horrified when I saw the photo," says Paul Clarke. "The amount of people not listening to the warnings on how the virus is spread from person to person."

Clarke is a keen hiker from Naas, Co Kildare. The photo (above), which he posted on his LugMOquilla Instagram account this week, shows traffic congestion near Lough Tay, Co Wicklow, on St Patrick's Day.

It's just one image of crowded parks, access roads and walking sites shared on social media this week, as cooped-up citizens escaped their homes for fresh air, exercise and interaction in a society that has seen its sport, cultural institutions and pubs close down almost overnight.

"We drove to Gougane Barra yesterday [10 minutes from us] and drove away without getting out of the car because there was a bank holiday-style crowd," says Siobhán Burke, a tourism consultant who lives in West Cork.

In Dublin, travel writer Nicola Brady noted busier-­than-usual crowds at Bull Island, Phoenix Park and St Anne's Park, "where there were loads of families walking within close proximity to each other on narrow paths".

"We've seen a real increase in visitor numbers to our most popular recreation sites in South Dublin and North Wicklow," confirms Pat Neville, communications manager with Coillte.

"Places like Ticknock, the Hellfire Club or Tibradden... people tend to go where they know. With the numbers we're seeing in the most popular areas, social distancing is very difficult to manage."

'Social distancing' is a key concept in the public health guidelines issued as Ireland battles to contain the global spread of Covid-19.

The HSE's tips for social distancing include recommendations to "avoid crowded places", "reduce interactions" and "keep a space of two metres [6.5ft] between you and other people".

With shuttered sports, schools and leisure options however, a pent-up demand for activity has resulted in peak season-style crowds congregate around popular parks and trails, making such distancing more difficult.

"The main walking spots in Wicklow are overrun with people creating chaos and not respecting safety distances," says Fred Verdier of Wicklow Tourism, where Glendalough and Laragh have drawn bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) has also posted a notice of concern.

"While there is space at most sites to facilitate some access to fresh air and exercise for people during this period, NPWS staff have noticed irresponsible behaviour at sites [large social groups gathering on communal walks as opposed to small family units walking], which could increase the risks of onward transmission of Covid-19," it said.

Visitor centres at Ireland's National Parks and Nature Reserves have closed until at least March 29, but the parks and reserves themselves remain open.

The NPWS urged walkers to adhere to social distancing principles and HSE advice in these "extraordinary times" - recommendations that have also been echoed by the OPW.

Other communities and groups have pointed out issues with littering, dog control and the impact of crowds and inconsiderate parking on locals, farmers and access for emergency services.

So what should hard-pressed families in need of fresh air do? "People do need access to nature," says Pat Neville of Coillte.

"Forests in Ireland are open and we are encouraging people to go there," he adds. But he pleads that people do not block entrances, have a back-up plan if car parks are busy [there are more than 300 recreation sites listed on www.coillte.ie], and respect the HSE guidelines on hygiene and social distancing.

"It doesn't feel natural. Normally you walk shoulder-to-shoulder. But we're asking people to spread the distance out, as you would anywhere else."

Others suggest visiting off-peak (outside the 'rush hours' of 12-4pm) and doing a little research on less popular walks, parks and estates.

"Wicklow is blessed with many locations for all to enjoy outdoor activities and there is plenty of room for everyone," says Fred Verdier, suggesting lesser-visited places for outings like Tinahely, West Wicklow, and walks south of the Wicklow Way stretch.

Ahead of the weekend, Paul Clarke of LugMOquilla has contacted fellow hiking Instagramers, encouraging them to post photographs of off-radar walks he hopes will steer people away from hotspots.

"The mountains in Ireland are vast," he says. "But there are some lesser-known, beautiful walks people can do to get out of the house to clear the head."

Irish Independent