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Wild Nephin – Wilderness or Wasteland ?

Wild Nephin is the title given to Coillte’s project to ‘rewild’ a large area of blanket bog 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”. Read their piece.

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 and 1960s. 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 …

Posted in Blog, Walking in the West of Ireland | Tagged , | 5 Comments

5 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:

    Barry,
    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.


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