Coillte

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What Now for the Wild Nephin Farce?

Coillte has exited, so what now for the ‘Wild Nephin’ farce?

Farce (n); a broadly humorous play based on … improbable situations; a ludicrous situation or action. [Collins]

And so, just 8 years on, Coillte has exited stage left.

Back in December 2009, Coillte’s internal Project Scope Document noted that Wild Nephin would provide “a real opportunity for Coillte to lead the way in a landscape scale transformation (and management) of lands”. The document further enthused that, thanks to its “considerable competencies in habitat restoration [and] its major land ownership in suitable areas”, Coillte had the potential to contribute to a response to the European Parliament’s call on member states to “look at setting aside lands as wilderness or ‘restoring’ lands to primitive qualities”. Indeed, one of the project goals was to “enhance Coillte’s environmental and social credentials”.

While it departs without having achieved anything of the sort, unfortunately the state-owned forestry company would appear to have managed to leave one tentacle inserted, apparently simply leasing the land to the NPWS, rather than selling it lock, stock and barrel.

Perhaps this might have something to do with the approximately 260,000 non-native conifers it has planted on the site over the last 3 or 4 years. One day, they might just want to harvest those trees. Heck, if they once more conveniently forget to seek a derogation from the Forest Service, sure they could re-plant conifers again thereafter. {1}

So, what now for the Wild Nephin farce? Here’s what I believe will happen over the coming years. Naturally, it’s only my opinion …

First, nothing will be done about invasive rhododendron, because the NPWS presumably doesn’t have the manpower, cash or equipment to do anything about it. Unless, that is, my suggestion below is taken up. Coillte would have had the resources, but never the interest. {2}

Second, having re-planted all the non-natives, the forestry company will indeed come knocking on the door in the future to harvest them. They will, presumably, be accommodated.

If you try to mix a timber harvesting, land owning monolith like Coillte with conservation, then sincerity and commitment are unlikely to be among the ingredients.

Here’s an excerpt from last month’s article in the Irish Environmental Network’s GreenNews.ie magazine (Dec 2017) :

In a statement, Coillte said that the removal of forestry has focused on “opening vistas onto the mountainous terrain and lakes” as well as improving boundaries between forests and adjacent open land and preparing areas for bog and riparian zone restoration.
“Forest regeneration, supported by tree planting, also aimed to encourage natural regeneration and harvesting activities which took place fitted within the overall objectives of improving landscape and habitat quality,” the statement continues.

Pure unadulterated rubbish.

Read the full article here.

In an article in the Irish Times earlier this month (Jan 2018), Michael Viney wrote that “some forest roads have been narrowed into backpacker trails”. I’m not aware of any that have. He notes, in what I would consider quite the understatement, that the “10- to 15-year conversion planned for Coillte’s forestry has been slow to get under way”.

Read this article here.

Not wanting to bore the reader by once again going over the details, suffice it to say that this area is now less wild than it was prior to this ‘project’. You can find such details in this previous post from 2015.

Ultimately, what we have here is institutional spin, Irish style. This spin emanates from the same gene pool that spawned Bord na Móna’s laughably cynical “Naturally Driven” advertising campaigns and Bord Bia’s “Origin Green” programme, recently described as a sham by the Irish Wildlife Trust.

We have a deep-rooted problem in Ireland with spin regarding the environment. I’m not sure what the reasons are. Does it have something to do with the almost total ignoring of the natural world in our primary and secondary school curriculums? Is it a legacy from the imperial days, manifested in an attitude of “now that we have possession of the land, we can abuse nature as we wish”? Is it the traditional man-is-superior-to-beast doctrine of the organised religions? Is it because of our inclement weather that people don’t interact with the outdoors much and are, therefore, oblivious to it?

So, what should happen now, if anything is to come of this joke?

Here are some suggestions :

Allow all local landowners and those with commonage and turbary rights within the area bounded by the bothy at Letterkeen – Keenagh crossroads – Bellacorick – Bangor Erris and down the spine of the Nephin Begs to harvest non-native trees for their own consumption only over the next, say, 100 years. With the sole exception of the nice Monterey Pines just beyond the bothy. But with two conditions. First, that all turf cutting within the same boundaries be 100% abandoned forever. Second, that the method and precise location of extraction be dictated to them by NPWS, e.g. using what I call the ‘waterdrop’ method to create open spaces within the plantation to allow in light and break up the stands. See image below. {3}

Remove immediately the 260,000 newly planted conifers, or let the ruminants in at them. Failing that, certainly don’t allow Coillte or any of its harvesting contractors back on site ever.

Remove all fencing, other than that which surrounds the pathetically small native tree stands and increase the number and variety of such stands.

Stop the building or installation of any further huts, shelters or other structures and let the ones in place rot over time (my personal preference would be to remove them immediately).

Ban the reinforcement of any existing tracks and the creation of any new ones.

Block all vehicular access, other than to locals only for the removal of felled timber under the conditions outlined above.

Restore the natural levels and behaviour of water on the site, by blocking artificial channels dug over the decades.

Allow volunteers in to remove the rhododendron, using uniquely environmentally sound means, i.e. no chemicals whatsoever, managed by experienced and competent people and insured by NPWS, Mayo County Council or other public body. Groundwork, perhaps?

Research the viability of introducing red squirrel and/or any other native species that can be shown through proper ecological research to be capable of establishing viable, sustainable populations.

Plant loads of native trees from local seed sources.

Otherwise, leave it alone.

Over to you, NPWS,

Notes

{1}

Coillte hid behind the Forest Service requirement to re-plant conifers where conifers have been felled and used this as its excuse for having re-planted conifers well after “Wild Nephin” was announced to the public back in 2013. This is bogus, because with both the People’s Millennium Forests of almost 20 years ago and the EU-Life Restoring Priority Woodland Habitats project of almost 10 years ago, they did not re-plant conifers where they had been felled. In other words, where there was a will, there was a way…
http://www.millenniumforests.com/about_intro.html
http://www.woodlandrestoration.ie/demonstration-sites-clonbur.php

{2}

Regarding Tourmakeady, one of the People’s Millennium Forests, Coillte stated that “rhododendron and laurel will be eradicated as they are invasive non-native plants.” This never happened.
http://www.millenniumforests.com/locationsite_tourmakeady.html

Gerard Murphy, MD at Coillte Forest, comically tweeted in 2017 that there’s a “significant invasive threat of rhododendron” at so-called Wild Nephin.

what now for the wild nephin farce - tweet
{3}

What I call the ‘waterdrop’ method involves removing some trees alongside tracks in a roughly semi-oval fashion to break up the wall of trees that is so typical of conifer plantations, then enough to create a ‘corridor’ a few metres wide into the deeper forest, then felling in a waterdrop shape within. Apart from allowing in light and breaking up the stands, this could also contribute to increased windfall of trees.

what now for the wild nephin farce

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Exposing the “Wild Nephin” Charade

Wild Nephin, states Coillte, would “involve taking 4,400 hectares out of … commercial forest operation and rewilding this land, improving habitat and landscape quality over a 15 year period. The eventual intention … protecting a landscape of scale with functioning ecosystems while providing an authentic ‘wilderness experience’ for those that visit.”

Minister Jimmy Deenihan TD, commented at the time that this project would “protect a large landscape from human artefacts”.

You can read this March 2013 press release.

The Wild Nephin area consists essentially of densely afforested and blanket bog Coillte lands to the East of Nephin Beg and Slieve Carr mountains in Mayo. These are huge non-native conifer plantations, typical of Coillte’s West of Ireland holdings.

Note that, contrary to Mr. Deenihan’s point, the Wild Nephin project team and associates have built human artefacts where previously there were none.

Wild Nephin steps

Steps in the forest : It doesn’t come any wilder than that !

This week I visited the area for the first time since last October. On my previous visit, I had not been surprised to see that felling of trees was ongoing and I was anxious to see if this was still the case in spring 2015.

Not only is tree felling still happening, but new non-native conifers (Lodgepole Pine) are still being planted. In addition, new fencing is being erected where previously there was none. Would you call this “re-wilding”? Does this sound like a true effort to develop an authentic wilderness experience?

Wild Nephin conifers

Bags of Lodgepole Pine waiting to be planted in Wild Nephin

Wild Nephin fencing

New fencing recently erected in Wild Nephin

Timber extraction machinery is also still on site.

Now, I never for a moment believed that Coillte was in some way going to simply abandon this site. The truth, I suspect, is that not the entire plantation is of such poor quality as to be uneconomical to extract. So it seems to me that they will continue to extract the parts they deem worthy of the work, while abandoning only the worst of it. But this week’s visit also suggests that they will, in fact, re-plant those areas that are capable of delivering a reasonable crop over future years.

Wild Nephin is, in my opinion, just a cynical PR exercise by Coillte. As somebody who’s hiked this area for 20 years, I can tell you that, in addition to the active forestry that has been going on for decades, the signs of human influence on this environment are in fact on the increase, rather than the other way around. There are now invasive huts and other structures, where previously there were none. Forest tracks for heavy machinery have been widened and strengthened over the last year.

Wild Nephin Beg Mountains

Our beautiful Nephin Beg Mountains have always been wild, but are now less so than before this project was devised. And the forestry operations continue. The European Wilderness Society, if it is serious, should review its ‘endorsement’ of what is going on here. [June 2016 Update : All references to this project have indeed been removed from the website of the European Wilderness Society.]

Read my previous post about Wild Nephin.

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The Western Way in Winter

I love winter.

OK, I prefer a dry, crisp, fresh winter to a sodden, rainy, mucky winter. But since we have far more of the latter than the former, I make do with it.

Today, I went on a 7-hour cycle and hike along The Western Way, through Ireland’s largest tract of land with no through road. It rained good and proper for the entire duration, with not a single minute’s reprieve. But not just any old rain, oh no. Blown by strong winds, this was the “wonderful” almost horizontal Irish variety. On the journey out, this was fine, as it blew into my back. But on the journey back, another story …

Western Way Mayo

The Western Way, Mayo, in winter

In this area, The Western Way is a forest track through Coillte land, with one section of around 2,100 m of boardwalk in the wettest part – a seriously slippy boardwalk in this weather. [Note to those responsible : You might have considered studding it] In all, it’s about 26 km of entirely off-road hiking and cycling, although I couldn’t manage that in these short winter days.

With the rain coming down, I cycled more in water than on terra firma, as the rain run-off likes to utilise the track bed as the path of least resistance in its relentless search for a river course. Between my outward journey and the return, all rivers and streams had impressively increased the volume of water they were carrying. On the drive home afterwards, there was flooding aplenty in the fields and bogs along the road. A lot of water fell in north Mayo today.

Western Way, Mayo, Ireland

Boardwalk on The Western Way

The wildlife count was poor today, as is to be expected in heavy rain. No deer and no raptors. Just four hares and one pheasant of note. Mind you, deep into the plantation forest, very large deer tracks are all around. I saw fox, otter and pine marten droppings, as well as those of the deer.

If you want a place to gather your thoughts and be utterly immersed in and subjected to the West of Ireland outdoors, this is a good place. Coillte likes to call it Ireland’s ‘big sky country’. With the conifers all around, I’m not so sure about that description, but you know what they’re trying to say. If it’s views you’re after, better choose elsewhere.

I made a video of this day which you can watch here.

You can view the entire Western Way on Irish Trails, both the Mayo section and that in Galway.

Western Way Gear Review

Despite 7 hours of continuous rain, my Meindl Vakuum GTX feet were bone dry, as always. My Helly Hansen Helly Tech head and torso ditto. I was particularly impressed that not a drop of water went down my back or even onto my neck. My North Face trousers could not withstand the rain, but, in fairness, that was mainly because I was cycling most of the time, so pumping thighs and a wet saddle didn’t help. My LifeVenture TiV vacuum flask disappointed. Billed as keeping water hot above 60 C for up to 12 hours, it didn’t deliver for even 6.

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Walking The Cong Clonbur Isthmus

Walking the Cong Clonbur Isthmus

Cong, at the very southern tip of County Mayo and the northern end of Lough Corrib, is one of Ireland’s prettiest villages. It is reminiscent of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in southern France, in that it is criss-crossed by numerous channels of the same river, with deep pools dotted all around. Cong even enjoys the added attraction of beautiful woodlands.

Cong is a wonderful place for walking, with good quality off-road trails that skirt along the edges of the great western lakes of Loughs Corrib and Mask. The trails meander through lovely woodland, a mix of native broadleaves and the typical conifers of the West of Ireland.

Two pubs in Cong are excellent – Danagher’s at the bottom of the village and Lydon’s at the top. Both are home to really good trad music sessions. Go there.

I have written before about Coillte’s native woodland restoration project at Clonbur Wood, on the Galway Mayo border. I’ve been walking down around Cong and Clonbur for maybe 14 years, often lamenting the overly dense conifer plantations on vast tracts of the old Guinness estate.

But with the advent of the woodland project, the area is already beginning to be even more attractive as a walking destination than it already was.

Cong boasts wonderful sights for walkers, including the (in)famous dry canal, a failed 19th Century engineering project. You can walk the ‘bed’ of the canal and take in small roadways between the village and Loughs Corrib and Mask. Find a lime kiln in excellent condition, or the various sinks in the highly porous limestone rock that provides the sponge linking the two lakes.

Good hill climbing in the area includes the formidable Maumtrasna mountain to the north, or the more easy going Benlevy, in between the two, which offers superb views over both huge lakes.

But the special walk here is the entirely off-road linear trail. Walking the Cong Clonbur isthmus trail is about 14 km, but will take you up to 6 hours at a leisurely pace. This walk, well sign-posted, will bring you through both conifer plantation and new regeneration areas, past the ruined Ballykine Castle, lost in a beech wood, alongside a beautiful little bay of Lough Mask, which Mute Swans share with Mallards, Tufted Duck and others and onto the amazing lakeshore limestone pavement. Visit Pigeon Hole sink and enjoy the wetlands of the Cong River. Here you might see some of the resident Grey Herons, or visiting Cormorants. Emerge into Cong at the Abbey and Monk’s Fishing House.

Walking the Cong Clonbur Isthmus – watch the video

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Schizophrenic Coillte

I regularly bring groups walking on Coillte managed land. Although virtually exclusively non-native afforestation, nevertheless these habitats do support a range of wildlife and afford good long off-road walking routes. You can ‘get lost’ in these huge conifer plantations, forget about the world outside for a while and enjoy the fresh air. 

If lucky, you might spot Kestrel, Merlin, Red Deer, Pine Marten, Otter, Red Grouse and small birds, like Coat Tit, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Pipits, etc. These are not the ‘dead zones’ some would like us to believe. Low in biodiversity they are, but ‘dead’ they certainly are not.

I wrote a reasonably positive blog entry some weeks back about the good native forest restoration work ongoing under the EU-Life project. While I know that positive work is currently being done in places like Clonbur Wood and other sites, I also know that very little good is being done on the so-called Millenium Forest at nearby Tourmakeady Wood, where the site is severely infested with Rhododendron. A decade back, Coillte brazenly declared on the signage within Tourmakeady that the Rhododendron was to be eradicated. Nothing of the sort has happened.  

I am a pragmatist who realises that commercial conifer plantations play a role in Ireland’s rural economy and that the state-owned Coillte is not going to stop its main business any time soon. I avail of their open door policy to walkers, cyclists and so on and appreciate that.  

My gripe, however, has more to do with the way it behaves itself. While on the one hand waving its flag about Clonbur et al, on the other hand it seems to have abandoned Tourmakeady.  

Eskeragh, North Mayo

Eskeragh, North Mayo

On Wednesday, I visited another restoration project, this time at Eskeragh, north Mayo. This EU-Life project is about blanket bog restoration. Here, Coillte openly admits to having virtually destroyed the natural habitat, through drainage and conifer planting in the 1980s. It has removed the conifers, blocked up drains in order to allow the site to waterlog once more and has even installed a nice attractive boardwalk with accompanying explanatory panel for visitors. 

Good for them, I hear you cry. 

However, no more than a few kilometres away, I then visited a vast plantation at Carrowkilleen / Carrowgarve. Here, you see the ‘real’ Coillte at work, away from the PR and the public.  

Felling has recently taken place here on a vast scale, far greater than what might be considered reasonable. The destruction is terrible, leaving a landscape of mangled tree stumps, broken branches, churned up ground, compromised water quality and heavy machinery tracks. I hear you say “well, that’s the price you pay for commercial forestry on a large scale”. I reiterate that it does not have to be on such a massive scale all at once.  

The problem here is wanton environmental damage being perpetrated at these sites. I found this upturned drum of gearbox oil dumped in a water channel. You can clearly see that the spout is open. Further along, Pipits and Wagtails dipped their beaks in oil-polluted puddles. A large tyre was dumped in another water channel. This is disgraceful behaviour and demonstrates clear disregard for the environment Coillte claims to care for at other sites.  

So, Coillte, go ahead with your commercial non-native plantations, but why not carry out your business in a responsible and environmentally respectful manner. Oh yeah, and give us more native broadleaves. Oh yeah, and hand over your bogland and forest restoration project sites to an independent body that might actually care and be focussed on sustainability, environmental care and biodiversity.  

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Coillte and Native Woods – Is It Possible ?

Coillte is the Irish state-owned commercial forestry management entity, controlling around 7% of the national territory. Almost all of the trees planted on the company’s estate are non-native conifers, including Sitka Spruce, Norway Spruce, Lodgepole Pine and others. Many of its sites in the West would be considered near ‘dead zones’ in terms of their very poor species diversity, both flora and fauna. We all know of sites where the sun does not penetrate to the monoculture plantation floor and where birdlife and mammal life is low in diversity.

In a remarkable move, however, Coillte became involved in an EU-Life Natura 2000 project back in 2006, with the aim of restoring small bits of its estate as priority native woodland habitats. This week, I attended the two-day conference, which closed this four-year, € 2.6 m project.

On the second day, attendees visited Clonbur Wood, on the Galway – Mayo border. Various Coillte personnel introduced us to the interesting aspects of the wood, which is associated with limestone pavement. Large scale removal of non-native trees has taken place and native species planted in their place. There is real hope that this site, of almost 300 ha, can return to being a wonderful, diverse native wood.

Native trees present include Ash, Hazel, Birch, with some Oak, Juniper and Yew. Animals present include fox, badger, pine marten, red squirrel, lesser horseshoe bat and otter.

As one part of my three- and five-day walking tours in Mayo, I bring small groups on to Coillte managed lands. In 2010, I will be adding this wonderful new amenity at Clonbur, where walkers can see first hand this impressive project to re-establish a native limestone pavement woodland in this part of the West of Ireland.

See here for information on Clonbur Wood.

For the EU website on the LIFE Project, see here.

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