AN influx in visitors to Cuilcagh Mountain over the last year has caused severe damage and large scale erosion to the natural habitat with experts warning that it is only going to get worse.
At 2,188 feet above sea level Cuilcagh Mountain at Legnabrocky in Florencecourt is one of the flagship sites in the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, and its popular wooden board walk is attracting thousands of people to the 2,500 hectare site every day.
But with as many as 3,000 people in one weekend this year alone the Cuilcagh board walk, which is managed by Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, has become a victim of its own success. 
In this special report by The Impartial Reporter we can today reveal the extent of the damage to one of our most treasured natural areas, including: 

  • Large scale erosion of the ‘fragile’ environment 
  • 50 metres, in some areas, devoid of vegetation
  • Rare, vulnerable habitat trampled over
  • Sections of the board walk splitting 

This newspaper can also reveal that Fermanagh District Council, as it was previously known, was warned about the potential “negative impact” of the board walk more than three years ago but did not accept the advice. Also in 2013, ahead of its construction, the Council claimed the board walk would “allow vegetation to grow underneath it and therefore there would be no loss or displacement of habitat.” In papers lodged with Northern Ireland Planning, and seen by this newspaper, the Council also suggested that once constructed the board walk would be “expected to have a minimum service life of 20 years and is expected to require minimal maintenance during that time.” However, that could soon change.

Impartial Reporter:

Helen Lawless and Paul Kellagher, Mountaineering Ireland, say Cuilcagh’s vegetation has been damaged as a result of intense footfall. Photos and video: Rodney Edwards.

The board walk, which was completed in 2015, was always intended as a conservation measure to protect the largest area of blanket bog in Northern Ireland from walkers. But Paul Kellagher, President of Mountaineering Ireland, the national governing body which represents hillwalkers, believes there has been “at least 20 years of damage in one year.”
The board walk ends at the summit plateau on thin, delicate terrain and is more than one kilometre from the summit itself, the highest point in Fermanagh and Cavan. There were chaotic scenes at the weekend as visitors criss crossed the saturated ground at the top of the board walk.
“We have an area of ground where the impact of trampling is very visible, we’ve lost the surface cover of vegetation, with an area of roughly 50 metres wide devoid of vegetation. With the next heavy rainfall some of that peat will wash down the mountain, that in turn will affect water quality,” he told The Impartial Reporter.
Further along Mr. Kellagher pointed out another badly eroded area. “What we now have here is large scale erosion in a very short period of time caused by a lot of people being funnelled into a very narrow area. We have a bottle neck where everybody is converging on the one crossing point of the fence and a five metre square area of vegetation is completely gone and getting wider by the day.  The fence has already started to become loose because people are climbing it,” he said. 

Impartial Reporter:

Helen Lawless and Paul Kellagher, Mountaineering Ireland, examine the damage to the habitat at Cuilcagh.

Across the fence, the damage is less obvious, but vegetation has been damaged along a line which in places is 30 to 40 metres wide. 
Fir clubmosses, primitive plants found in rocky habitats, moorland, bogs and mountains and with fossil records going back over 400 million years, have also been damaged. 
“This plant, along with lichens, mosses and heaths makes up montane heath, a rare habitat and one of the reasons Cuilcagh has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation,” said Helen Lawless, Hillwalking, Access and Conservation Officer with Mountaineering Ireland. “The volume of people is wearing away the wonderful diversity that makes up this special habitat.”
Furthermore, a multitude of discarded rubbish was spotted during our eight hour visit to Cuilcagh, including plastic bottles, crisp bags, aluminium cans, chocolate wrappers, an empty bottle of Buckfast, baby wipes, tissues, a car park ticket from outside the county and even rosary beads. We also observed six banana skins and a piece of bread dumped in one small pool near the board walk.
Mr. Kellagher, who has discovered everything from champagne bottles to cigarette butts, praised the ongoing effort by the Council to lift the rubbish several times a week. 
“Walkers who come here to enjoy the beauty of Fermanagh should be respecting the place,” he said.
Ecologist Alan Cooper, an associate researcher, with the University of Ulster published a report in December 2013 which advised the Council that constructing a board walk would likely “lead to increased pressure on the sub montane and montane habitats of the level, well drained Cuilcagh plateau above it.”
“Prescriptive measures are needed to discourage walkers from fanning out into the ecologically sensitive habitats of the plateau,” he suggested. 
In a letter to the Council objecting to the proposal in January 2014, Mountaineering Ireland said it was concerned “that the major path works “would have an unacceptable negative impact on the essential quality of the mountain landscape” and the work was “unsustainable; wholly inappropriate in materials and construction techniques for a mountain setting; out of proportion to any perceived ‘problem’ on the hill and seriously damaging to the high quality of the mountain environment.”
But the Council disagreed and in response wrote: “Fermanagh District Council do not agree that the works will be unsustainable, inappropriate, out of proportion or damaging.”
Both Mr. Kellagher and Ms. Lawless believe “further intervention” by the Council, to whom they wish to provide support and guidance, is needed to resolve these issues. 

Impartial Reporter:

Top right of this picture is how the vegetation at Cuilcagh should look. 

“It might be possible to create a viewing area using local stone, where people can pause to appreciate the view and have something to eat. On the stretch across to the summit light touch path repair techniques could be applied to contain walkers within a narrower line; this has been done successfully in places like Scotland and the Lake District.”
“If we continue to damage the habitat at the rate it is being damaged this is not sustainable. Those responsible, including Northern Ireland Environment Agency are going to have to be more open at looking how we can solve these problems effectively,” said Mr. Kellagher. 
 “I think it’s really important that we document all of the lessons, and there are many lessons to be learned from the management of Cuilcagh,” said Ms. Lawless.
Asked this week how it intends to address the damage at Cuilcagh, a spokesman for Fermanagh and Omagh District Council said: “As has been twice previously communicated to The Impartial Reporter, the Council is a partner in an EU funded project entitled Collaborative Action for the Natura Network (CANN). This partnership, led by Ulster Wildlife Trust, is primarily concerned with the management of Europe’s Natura 2000 designated sites which include Cuilcagh Mountain. It is anticipated that this project will lead to appropriate actions that will ensure the continued sustainable development of Cuilcagh as a tourist attraction and platform for education programmes and events, while protecting and conserving the fragile habitats and associated flora and fauna. This project is currently at the planning and scoping stage with mitigating activity and actions anticipated to commence 2018.”