Is Wild Nephin losing its wild side?

Published by James Orr on

September 4th, 2018

Wild Nephin in North Mayo became Ireland’s first official wilderness zone in 2013 when Coillte, the semi-state forestry company, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) agreed to begin a long-term rewilding project.

Five years on and Wild Nephin has been the subject of much controversy. For example, data obtained by The Green News last November revealed that 260,000 non-native conifer trees had been planted in the Wild Nephin area since 2014.

Most recently, Fáilte Ireland announced last Friday a 2.1 million euro investment towards a 56km cycle track in the area. This funding will go towards upgrading the Western Way walking trail to a grade three cycle/walk track “extending from the Great Western Greenway, through Ballycroy National Park to Ballycastle in North Mayo”.

The Western Way enters into the Wild Nephin wilderness area between Letterkeen and Bellacorick but doesn’t encroach upon the core area of the wilderness zone.

Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring TD said that the cycle track will provide “economic opportunities for a range of local tourism businesses including accommodation providers, restaurants, bike hire, guiding and outdoor pursuits”.

While this new development will undoubtedly enhance tourism and promote Ireland’s youngest national park it does not align with the vision rewilding supporters had for Wild Nephin.

So does this mean that Ireland is losing its last wilderness?

Conifer Plantation in Wild Nephin area, now part of the Ballycroy National Park 2 December 2017 Photo: James Orr

Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park

The Wild Nephin idea was first conceived by Coillte’s former head of Recreation, Environment and Public Goods, Bill Murphy. The wilderness advocate previously told The Green News that he wanted to see the area converted into “a large wild landscape” free from human management within 50 years.

“The area would not be developed to provide facilities for tourists as in a national park or forest park but would provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature and wildness in all its beauty and hardships,” Mr Murphy said.

The Wild Nephin area was incorporated into Ballycroy National Park last December. Coillte’s 4,600-hectare portion of Wild Nephin expanded the National Park to 15,000 hectares, which as of last Friday has been renamed Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.

The merging of Wild Nephin into the National Park, however, worried Mr Murphy, who said that he was “concerned” that NPWS will cease to manage Wild Nephin as a wilderness zone. The NPWS “have shown in other national parks a tendency to over-manage and wilderness is by definition a non-intervention management option”, he told us.

Rhododendron in Wild Nephin Area, 2 December 2017 Photo: James Orr

For example, the invasive plant rhododendron has been and will continue to be a major challenge for the wilderness project and the National Park.

NPWS’s senior divisional manager, Denis Strong, previously told The Green News that control of the invasive plant will be needed “indefinitely”. This indefinite management certainly doesn’t fit with the wilderness model.

Minutes from a Wild Nephin Management Group meeting from February 2016 reveal that it would cost an estimated €8 million to control rhododendron in the Nephin zone. In comparison, the total NPWS budget for 2017 was €11 million.

Perhaps the 2.1 million euro funding for the cycle track would be better spent on habitat restoration and the conservation of biodiversity. Instead, thousands of tourists will be cycling through conifer plantations and fields of rhododendron.

Wild Nephin wilderness area, December 2 2017 Photo: James Orr

What is Wilderness?

Wilderness is a difficult state to achieve, especially in today’s world. As well as proximity to roads you need to take into account the terrain, walking and cycling trails and even mobile phone signal.

The furthest point from any public road on the Irish mainland is right in the middle of the Nephin Beg mountain range. When you stand there, you are 8km from the nearest road. It is no surprise that this area was the perfect place to establish Ireland’s first wilderness area.

Bill Murphy had hoped that the wilderness area would stay remote and underdeveloped. Hiking trails would not be maintained but would deteriorate over time and bridges would be removed. He definitely did not plan for any cycle tracks to be installed in the area.

Paul Kelly, Fáilte Ireland’s chief executive, summed it up perfectly when he said that the new cycle track will have an “authentic wilderness feel” and the “perfect destination” for a growing numbers of visitors who want to “get away from it all”.

 So instead of the true wilderness that Wild Nephin was supposed to give us, are we just going to be left with a wilderness feel? I hope not.

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James Orr

James is The Green New's Biodiversity Reporter and a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Dublin. James has a BA in Zoology from TCD.