Wild Nephin, Mayo - Wilderness or Wasteland ?

Wild Nephin – Wilderness or Wasteland ?

Wild Nephin is the title given to Coillte’s project to ‘rewild’ a large area of blanket bog and plantation forest to the east of the Nephin Beg Mountains of northwest Mayo. The State-owned forestry company aims to ‘create’ Ireland’s first wilderness over the next 10 – 15 years.

Indeed, the area would appear to have already gained the support of the internationally-renowned PAN Parks Foundation, as a “wilderness in a modified landscape”. [2014 update : PAN Parks has closed down, but the European Wilderness Society has taken the project on board. Read this article.] [2016 update : The above mentioned article has now been removed from the website of the European Wilderness Society, perhaps in the belief that the so-called ‘Wild Nephin’ is no more a rewilding project than the man in the moon …]

Lying immediately east of Ballycroy National Park, with which it shares the mountains of Slieve Carr and Nephin Beg, Wild Nephin occupies the second largest tract of roadless land in Ireland. Whether choosing here or the even larger area immediately to the north and across the Ballina to Belmullet road, this is the place in Ireland to come to, if it’s aloneness and wild country you seek.

Given the past history of aggressive afforestation in this area, however, it is valid to question whether this is, in fact, a wilderness or simply a rural wasteland.


Wild Nephin

The Wild Nephin Project, Mayo

Along with many other parts of the West of Ireland, the area to be rewilded was heavily planted with non-native conifer trees during the 1950s, 1960s and more recently. Of exceptionally poor quality, the land had to be extensively worked, digging ridges and trenches to help keep the densely-packed young trees somewhat dry. Chemical fertilisers were also employed in the early days, to supplement the nutrient-poor nature of the bog. While this work was carried out with the honourable aim of alleviating emigration from this very rural area, by providing employment in forestry, it has resulted in a vast area of wildness, certainly, but wilderness, hardly. What visitors observe today is a landscape massively impacted upon by modern-day humans. Much of the natural, barren Atlantic blanket bog landscape that will become Wild Nephin is smothered under a carpet of alien monoculture.

And yet, should today’s Coillte be blamed for the deeds of its predecessors ? Certainly not. Perhaps we should be grateful that a little sanity has come into the organisation – Ireland’s largest landowner, lest we forget. It should be acknowledged that Coillte has indeed managed a few environmental successes, notably the removal of many conifers at Clonbur Wood, in favour of the re-establishment of native woodland. Mind you, that job was only half-heartedly carried out, as many conifer stands were left in place. Neither should it be ignored that the organisation has singularly failed to eradicate or even control the invasive Rhododendron that chokes much of its lands, for example at the Tourmakeady Millennium Forest or here in Wild Nephin. Management of its felling sub-contractors also leaves a lot to be desired, as sites are often littered with hazardous waste post-intervention.


Wild Nephin, Mayo, Ireland

Lough Namroon in Wild Nephin

While the company moves into a phase of abandonment of the Wild Nephin area, it nevertheless has still been felling trees on a substantial scale in recent times. It appears to still retain one eye on extracting whatever it can, before letting go. It is, after all, a commercial semi-state. You see, the underlying reason for this new-found “commitment” to wilderness and recreation may well be nothing other than an admission that this forest is of almost zero commercial value. Basically, as I understand it, the timber is of terribly poor quality and its ongoing management too demanding. As they put it themselves, “Coillte owns large areas of underperforming crops in this area with … constraints … which add to management challenges”.

Nevertheless, let’s assume that the company is well-meaning in its intention to leave this landscape to the forces of nature, after successive decades of the polar opposite. Why then do they plan to build huts (bothys) and other infrastructure ? Surely, if they want to “develop a … wilderness” [sic], inserting new infrastructure should not be considered.

But let’s take a step back.

Which is preferable : ongoing management of the plantation forest or its abandonment ? Well, clearly the latter. However, is it preferable to put up signage, bothys and trails or not ? Again, I would argue that the latter is clearly better. The one thing they could do is try to, in some way or other, reduce the density of the conifers, in order to let some light in. Ideally, they could chop down every second row, but I appreciate that that would be nigh impossible to achieve on the scale required. Local landowners could be given permission to remove trees in this manner, for their own consumption. Sound riparian zone management should see the removal of non-native trees from along the banks of rivers, streams and lakes and the creation of a buffer zone. If they could do that, then at least there would be somewhat less the impression of wasteland to the whole place.

Wild Nephin – Get Out There

Is the Wild Nephin project exciting and positive ? Without doubt. Is there a beautiful feeling of aloneness while out hiking the hills ? For sure. Will I continue to walk and lead groups in the area ? Certainly and I would recommend you go there too. Just be aware of the history …

Read my follow-up article written after a visit in early 2015.

Posted in Blog, Walking in the West of Ireland | Tagged , | 22 Comments

22 Responses to Wild Nephin – Wilderness or Wasteland ?

  • dilbert said on January 21, 2014 at 22:23:

    There are some very valid points here. However, considering Coillte’s very poor past in encouraging native woodlands, Wild Nephin is outstanding.

    For Wild Nephin to reach its potential large amounts of birch, rowan and willow need to be planted. Some rarer trees too should be included, like sessile oak, bird cherry and aspen. I don’t think 10 years is enough. It would be great to see woodland charities invited in to organise volunteering camps to assist this.

    • Barry Murphy said on January 25, 2014 at 16:09:

      Thanks for your comments dilbert. I would, however, suggest that tree planting would surely be contrary to the concept of re-wilding.

  • Lenny Antonelli said on January 26, 2014 at 11:04:

    Thought provoking piece Barry. It’s interesting that the one thing about the project that provokes the biggest reaction is the plan to build huts and trails. I wrote an article for The Great Outdoors about Wild Nephin, and there was a letter in the following month’s magazine about exactly this.

    I have mixed views about it myself. I can understand the opposing views — that it’s too “American”, that it’d be better to leave the place alone and not build anything. However I can see the arguments on the other side too — that huts and trails might help to manage impacts on the land if visitor numbers grow, and that they might encourage people out into the wilds a bit more. As far as I know the huts will only be built in the area of the forest, not on the Ballycroy side. I hope the trail work is done sensitively, there seems to have been some upgrade work on the Bangor Trail done recently that makes it very obtrusive, but hopefully it will recede more into the landscape with time and wear.

    As for the rewilding, my understand is that the plan is, over 15 years, to thin the forest (to what extent I don’t know), create clearings around lakes and rivers, restore areas of bogland in the forest, and to do a little planting of native vegetation in order to help these species to recolonise. Rhododenderon clearance is planned too. The plan says that once that 15 year project is complete the place will be left alone.

    The last time I was out there, in August, I spent a day following the course of a stream from the forest up towards the Scardaun Loughs. This was the first time I really started to believe in the potential the rewilding project could have, as I had been relatively uninspired walking along the Western Way past areas that had been clear felled.

    But walking along the stream was the first time I got a sense of wildness in the forest: thick ferns and moss on the banks, the ground rich with vegetation wherever the sun could get in. The lodgepole pine here is very closely related to the scot’s pine, and I started thinking that maybe this landscape looked very similar in the past to the more wild areas of the forest, and maybe with rewilding it can be something like that again.

    I wouldn’t be in favour of too intensive management in any way. Planting some native trees is fine with me but in general I agree with the principal of doing a little work to give the rewilding process a head start, then getting out.

    Even though the forests are obviously planted with non native species, there are parts of them — and other Coillte forests — that I’m really fond of. Down beside the Altaconey River for example on the Western Way, where the pines are really mature and there are some clearings to let light through, and you get some ferns and moss and other vegetation. Hopefully in 20 years the whole forest can start to look like that rather than the industrial site it resembles in places.

    Personally I think the most exciting element of the whole project is the plan to close the forest roads to vehicles. Nothing impedes on the idea of it being a wilderness area more than having a huge forestry truck come past you when you’re walking. The roadless area west of Slieve Carr/Nephin Beg is pretty large and extending it so far further east is exciting.

    • Barry Murphy said on January 26, 2014 at 13:16:

      Lenny, I mainly agree with the points you make. As I suggested in the post, the idea of a wilderness is certainly preferable to the current situation of felling massive areas. Indeed, the two spots you mention – along the Altaconey and up towards Scardaun – are among the finer parts of this place.
      However, I would be sceptical on a few issues :
      1. I find it difficult to get past the issue of trails and huts. Is ‘wilderness’ supposed to equal ‘recreation area’? Surely not.
      2. Thinning sounds lovely, as does removing conifers from along watercourses, but I’ll believe it when I see it. In fairness to Coillte, this objective is mentioned in their West Business Area Unit Strategic Plan. “the requirement for the establishment of water protection areas (buffer zones), if not already in-situ, will be stipulated for all watercourses”.
      3. Coillte has no record of removing Rhododendron in any meaningful way in Mayo or Galway. Dedication to biodiversity, rather than commerce, remains unproven.
      It’s all fun and we’ll look forward to seeing this develop over the coming years.

  • dilbert said on February 14, 2014 at 23:29:

    It is true, tree planting is not a 100% purist approach to re-wilding. However if such an approach was taken, no effort would be removed to remove the rhododendron. Re-wilding is a great idea, but it needs to be balanced with ensuring the landscape is covered with Irish plants. We should be aiming for the sort of Scots Pine and Birch landscape that first covered the area prior to clearance and bog formation. Currently, it is entirely absent in Ireland so that is reason enough to recreate it once again.

  • Feargal Smith said on August 6, 2014 at 04:03:

    A chairde,
    Some years ago, I went to the island of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland. A fabulous place which appears as wild as it gets, but of course, it has been extensively managed for as long as humans have been there and more intensively since the clearances, but that’s another day’s debate.
    Alongside some fairly serious culling of deer, parts of the island have been fenced off from the various grazers that inhabit the place. Even after a relatively short period of time, 5-10 years, the results have been encouraging. Scots Pine, though largely absent from the island, has regenerated well and appears to be becoming the dominant species in the fenced off areas.
    It seems that there is little need there to introduce or help native species, as they are already there dormant and ready to go when the conditions favour them. Maybe the same could be true of Nephin!

    • Barry Murphy said on August 7, 2014 at 14:51:

      Thanks a million for your interesting comment, Feargal. I must admit I’d never heard of the Isle of Rum.

  • Derek Hollingsworth said on January 6, 2015 at 10:55:

    A chara,
    Very interesting indeed. Manchán Magan was very enthusiastic about the plan when reviewing the area on George Hook’s radio show. I can see a point to native replanting and limited human facilities. It would be nice for the project to have a bilingual name also to reflect the history and heritage of the area.

    • Barry Murphy said on January 8, 2015 at 13:56:

      Thanks for your comment Derek.
      You’ll be delighted to know that there is indeed bilingual signage – Néifinn Fhiáin as gaeilge.
      Le meas, Barry.

  • Conor McCarthy said on March 3, 2015 at 09:29:

    Very interesting and thoughtful piece. The Nephin Beg/Erris area is one of the most magnificent in the country, and recently capitalised on by the Wild Atlantic Way project.

    What the future of this idea of ‘re-wilding’, and the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ will be, however, given that Bord na Mona has extensive plans for large windfarms at Oweninney, to the west of the mountains, and at Bellacorrick to the north, is pretty debatable. There is a serious lack here of joined-up thinking between Coillte and Bord na Mona, and the tourist and heritage agencies that should be keeping an eye on both of them.

    All of this is leaving aside the horrors of the proposed pumped storage scheme at Glinsk, up on the north coast of the county.

    West Mayo is one of the jewels in the landscape crown of Ireland. It may be irrevocably damaged in the next several years.

    Conor McCarthy

    • Barry Murphy said on March 4, 2015 at 12:07:

      Thank you for your comment.
      At the heart of this debate is the argument between ‘development’ and ‘conservation’. For decades, west Mayo would have been largely ignored by ‘development’ agencies, other than Coillte planting and harvesting its non-native conifer forests and Bord na Móna cutting away our precious bogs. Now that these activities are slowing or ceasing (at least in certain areas), those same agencies are looking for something else to do with their land holdings. The Bord na Móna plans for Bellacorick / Dahybaun are enormous and potentially extremely damaging to protected species that inhabit that area. The Coillte “development” of a wilderness is a classic case of their inability to simply leave the place alone when that is precisely what their spin suggests they are doing.

  • Donal said on March 16, 2015 at 15:23:

    What about the reintroduction of wildlife, most notably the pine marten, Eurasian lynx and Scottish wildcat. Surely for a project to be considered ‘rewilding’, missing keystone species must be returned, to restore a natural, wild ecosystem and landscape. Does Wild Nephin have any plans on this?

    • Barry Murphy said on March 16, 2015 at 15:57:

      Thank you for your comment.
      Regarding the (re)introduction of wildlife into the Nephin Beg mountains, or anywhere else in Ireland, I would quote from the Natural History Division of the National Museum of Ireland, who state that “Any debate about whether an absent animal should be reintroduced to Ireland must be made in the full knowledge that the landscapes are now different as are the current flora and fauna. What needs to be stressed, both with alien invasive species and with animals that were here in the past, is that there are issues of balanced ecosystems, animal health and human health and safety. Just having been ‘native’ at some time in the past is not justification alone for a reintroduction.”
      I’m not aware of any concrete evidence to suggest Ireland ever had a “native” population of Lynx or Wildcat.
      Personally, I don’t believe there is sufficient biodiversity in Ireland (most especially the West) or space (even in the West) to support carnivores like Lynx, Wolf or other. Nor do I believe that there are enough Irish people who are ready or sufficiently enlightened to treat such mammals with respect. Look at the ongoing attacks on our birds of prey and incredibly under- or never-enforced wildlife protection legislation. Nor do I believe that the animals in question would gain anything themselves from such a (re)introduction.
      The Pine Marten, by the way, is relatively common in Ireland, including the West.

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  • Paul Lalonde said on March 25, 2015 at 03:06:

    I find the story of Ireland’s forests to be fascinating, considering that I am not Irish. Great blog. A couple of questions:
    1. Why would you assume that an area that has been impacted by human activity for hundreds of years would have the ability to re-wild itself by itself?
    2. When extraction and removal of non-native species is being discussed, is there any talk of allowing for dead wood lying on the ground or standing snags, both of which are considered essential elements of a healthy forest? It seems that the opportunity to re-establish nutrient cycling in these ecosystems is there for the taking.

    • Barry Murphy said on March 27, 2015 at 11:45:

      Thank you for your comment.
      I’ve no doubt that any area, even one impacted by human activity for hundreds of years, would indeed have the ability to re-wild. Just look at the surrounds of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as an example. Nature will certainly take over, through pioneering species.
      Yes, the project intends to leave dead wood lying on the ground to encourage invertebrates. Also, dead trees will be left standing, to provide shelter and nesting, etc.

  • corick bridge said on August 5, 2015 at 19:07:

    It is nice to see your concern for native species in the forests, but perhaps you might show some concern for all the natives from the whole North Mayo region who are scattered all over the world and try and come up with some proposals to encourage them to return to their native land. Most certainly this Wild Nephin project will not suffice.

  • david lydon said on May 24, 2016 at 12:17:

    Rewilding is the authorities finally owning up to the fact that they have deserted North Mayo and have no Use for the people of the area. These mountains are not suitable for walking and never have been – ask Preager. The ultimate aim of such a scheme is the removal of the remaining populace, not by a cull but by letting them die off.

  • Andy Duffy said on July 2, 2016 at 00:33:

    Thanks but no reply to David’s or Corick Bridge’s comments? They are valid, even if not conforming to the preservationist’s opinions. I myself do not accept David’s theory that returning the Nephin area to wilderness is abandoning NW Mayo and its people. If that is David’s theory he needs to present alternatives. The planting of these areas from the 40’s to the 80’s was an effort to put wilderness to economic use and from the point of view of those who worked there, there was a very valuable contribution to the people. I have heard myself men from similar areas say that forestry was the difference between emigration and staying home for themselves. For various reasons the effort at afforestation was not a long-term economic success. The 50’s/60’s were a different country to that which we have today. Preager may well have been right if he said that those hills were not suitable for walking, but he was talking for his time. He did not have the weather proof clothing which we have today for example. Bothys or other shelters may go a long way towards making the area more suitable for walking and, if properly located and designed, will not detract from the wilderness aspect. If an area is inaccessible what is the point of doing anything at all with it?

    I also disagree with much of your criticism of Coillte. Coillte has its brief laid down in legislation and it is a fairly tight and specific brief. You and others might well study it before launching your criticism. Coillte has an environmental aspect to its work, but that is incidental to its main purpose which is to economically manage the state-owned forests. You might well wish to change that brief and probably would, but there is no point in taking shots at Coillte. That will not change anything.

    • Barry Murphy said on July 2, 2016 at 15:39:

      Thanks for your comments, Andy.

      First of all, not all comments require a reply, I would have thought. I’ve given both David and Corick Bridge the platform to make their comments, as I have you, all of which are most welcome. Their points are self-explanatory. I wouldn’t block any comment that is not offensive to me or anybody else, just because I disagree.

      I would, however, appreciate if people commenting who have a professional bias (for example if they were employees of Coillte) revealed that in their comment.

      To your point about the “brief laid down in legislation and it is a fairly tight and specific brief”, you are perhaps referring to the Forestry Service requirement to replant non-native conifers where non-native conifers have been felled. You are perhaps familiar with the project from a decade ago, where non-native conifers were felled between Cong and Clonbur on the Mayo-Galway border and not replaced. Coillte sure did blow its trumpet at the time about this wonderful project, but somehow seems to have conveniently forgotten about it where Wild Nephin is concerned …

      In other words, a derogation was presumably won for PR purposes for Clonbur, but not for Wild Nephin. Considering Wild Nephin was first mooted several years before it “began”, there presumably would have been time.

  • kevan Hubbard said on September 29, 2016 at 23:09:

    Lynx are larger and eat things like deer. Scottish wildcats are much smaller and I’d imagine that they would tackle the same prey as domestic cats? I’m not sure if either were native to Ireland but there’s a debate at present about if Lynx should be reintroduced to the Kielder Forest in northeast England.

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