Cuilcagh Mountain has experienced a 700 per cent increase in walkers in just two years, leading to concerns about erosion of the specially conserved habitat on the summit.
As many as 24,000, the equivalent of well over a third of the population of Fermanagh and 10,000 more than the population of Enniskillen, tackled the 666 meter mountain (pictured above) last year.
The trend is an unexpected and unintended result of the Cuilcagh Boardwalk which opened in July 2015. The aim of the boardwalk was to protect the rare blanket bog from erosion caused by walkers. However, the impressive wooden structure has featured extensively on social media and has prompted the huge influx of walkers.
On Tuesday evening, a meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council (FODC) Regeneration and Community Committee examined a report by Director of Community, Health and Leisure, Robert Gibson warning that “action must be taken now to preserve the special landscapes for generations to come.”
FODC manages the 25,000 hectare Cuilcagh Mountain Park. The legacy Fermanagh District Council secured European funding under the INTERREG IVA programme to finance the boardwalk.
“The boardwalk has become incredibly popular in a very short time. Due to the boardwalk being featured on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, You Tube, bucket lists, etc, the numbers of walkers on the route has increased from just over 3,000 in 2014 to over 24,000 in 2016 and show no signs of levelling off,” Mr. Gibson’s report stated.
Walkers have also brought litter and traffic congestion to the sensitive site and Marble Arch Geopark staff are litter picking the route every few days in a bid to keep it under control, Mr. Gibson revealed.
The summit of Cuilcagh “is one of the few areas within Ireland that is designated as montane heath making it important ... nationally and internationally,” he continued. Many walkers, having reached the end of the boardwalk, walk across the top of the mountain to reach the ancient cairn which is the remains of a burial mound dating from the bronze age, 2,500-500 BC.
According to Mr. Gibson’s report, the wet conditions and fragile vegetation means that the ground is being “churned up by the feet of walkers.” As a result, “people then begin to skirt round the affected areas further extending the damage.” Mr. Gibson predicts that “before long, a formerly narrow trail quickly becomes a wide, trampled area with problems of erosion and loss of vegetation.” The eroded track along the summit of Cuilcagh is currently 12 metres wide in places and Mr. Gibson said this “will undoubtedly continue to spread unless intervention measures are taken.”
He added: “While it was expected that the boardwalk might increase the number of walkers, the extent to which it has drawn in visitors from far and wide and in huge numbers could not have been foreseen. With numbers likely to increase, the erosion on the summit, which is being monitored closely, is likely to worsen with the possibility of affecting the favourable condition status of the Special Area of Conservation.”
€70,000 has been made available through the Collaborative Action for the Natura Network partnership, led by Ulster Wildlife, to assist in the conservation of Cuilcagh Mountain landscape in partnership with FODC and Cavan County Council.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the Council adopted Mr. Gibson’s recommendation that FODC provides a €7,500 financial buffer to allow Ulster Wildlife to recruit and provide an officer to lead the project, who will be based at the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark visitor centre.