Newsletter No 28                                                            Spring 2006 

Editorial : Who needs rights when we can grovel

There are the ironic words of a leading member of the Enniskerry Walking Association when referring to access problems. In stark contradiction there is a school oh thought, all too common among walkers, which inclines to such sentiments as: "it's their land after all", "all we have to do is ask", and "ah, sure if we can't walk there we can always walk somewhere else". 

We, in KIO, completely reject such defeatist comments. 

"Its their land". 

We know that. However we should remember that farmers and especially marginal farmers on hill land could not eke out a living were it not for the generosity of the taxpayers of Europe and increasingly Ireland. They do not have to lift a finger to get their grant. Asking them to contribute something, not only to the taxpayer but also to their own community, is surely not asking too much. After all recreational users cause very little damage; certainly much less than the widespread erosion and destruction of uplands caused by excessive sheep numbers .

"All we have to do is ask" .

This is one of those seductively reasonably sounding statements but divorced from the real world. Presumably this does not mean that the would-be walkers go to the land registry, find out who owns what area of land they intend to walk including escape routes, and when all this is done and permission got from every landowner along the way then - and only then- would they set off. Not terribly practical, is it? So maybe it means that walkers are expected to ask every farmer - or someone who looks like a farmer- whom they encounter on their walk? And what happens if the very first landowner says no. Back to the cars and start again? This approach, allied to the idea that, for instance, local clubs are allowed to walk local mountains, but not the rest of us, is anathema to KIO. 

"We can walk somewhere else" 

Of course we can. But with more and more mountain areas being blocked off, with the IFA making outrageous demands to allow access, we can only be sure of being allowed to walk in National Parks (a mere 1% of total land area) and Coillte land. Is this where we want to end up? No, what KIO wants is legislation: freedom to roam on rough grazing land, rights of way in the lowlands and to get to rough grazing land. In all, a modest demand compared to many European countries.

 

Minister relies solely on persuasion

In a speech to the Irish Farmhouse Holidays Organisation in mid February, Minister O'Cuiv reiterated his basic stance on access to the countryside: dialogue only and certainly no direct pressure on farmers to open up their land, although he also reiterated that there are no grants available purely for access. He is relying totally on the goodwill of the farming organisations, on pressure from other rural dwellers who are trying to make an income out of agri-tourism and on the need for farmers to think 'outside the box'. He will not use direct pressure, and certainly not what he calls 'the heavy hand of the law'. The minister should realise that there is little to be gained by appealing to the community spirit of the main farming organisations, whatever about individual farmers. They have already given their answer in the form of the IFA's outrageous demands in their Walkways Scheme (€5,000 per km per annum, plus €1,000 per farm). The Minister's stance also calls into question the elaborate consultation exercise he has initiated in Comhairle na Tuaithe. What is the point of asking all and sundry for their opinions if he has already made up his mind?

The first of many (we hope)

Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Council have made a start to the way-marking of the recently confirmed legal rights of way. See photograph with our chairman, Roger Garland, at the newly erected sign at Tully Church, Carrickmines. We are hoping that the others will be way-marked later in the year.

 

Roger Garland, Chairman of KIO

 

Walking in the west - a step by step guide

One thing is certain: no matter how simple a job you give consultants they can make it seem like Einstein's Theory of Relativity. The unworthy though occurs that if they don't make it seem like that Theory the consultants might feel that their work might not be appreciated. So it is with the above report issued in July 2005 but only recently to hand. Here we have the usual glossy brochure with graphs, complicated charts, a wealth of conflicting numbering of paragraphs and chapters. We simple minds in KIO cannot begin to understand its full complexity. However we do note from it how the issue of access has been almost deleted from the consultants' minds and reduced to a few simplistic phrases about seeking agreement for access with landowners without money changing hands. One of the most bizarre statements in the report deserves more detailed notice. It states:

Note that in Ireland 'rights of way' are somewhat ambiguous in law and are not as clear-cut as in Britain. However, a recent court decision regarding public access along a track in Co Wicklow upheld the right of walkers to access that particular track...

We comment: "somewhat ambiguous" is a coy way of describing a jurisdiction where 'rights of way' don't have to be signposted, marked on the maps or even listed in county development plans. As for the 'recent court decision': local and national authorities stood idly by as the brave people in the Enniskerry Walking Association put their houses at risk to defend this right of way. Having done so we are now treated to the astounding implication that this somehow clears matters for other rights of way all over the country. Unfortunately, unless local authorities carry put their responsibilities by listing rights of way, each and every walking track in the country will have to be fought over in the Courts. We await results on the ground (where it matters) without an excess of optimism.

 

Irish taxpayers to pay more to farmers

Irish taxpayers will not be pleased to know that in the next year or so a lot more will be taken from their pay packets in order to benefit farmers and farming areas. Rural Development Funds from the EU have been severely cut (by 30-40%) due to the needs of the 10 new member states, so as the farmers continue to apply for money under REPS, Forestry and Less Favoured Areas Schemes, the taxpayer will be picking up the tag for the difference. Ironic isn't it? These farmers are represented by farm bodies which are so heedless of public opinion that they have done nothing to discourage farmers from denying access to the very people who they expect to support them - Irish taxpaying walkers and visitors upon whom the prosperity of rural areas depends. When will the farmers get the message that they will not be paid for access- full stop? Minister O'Cuiv has made it abundantly clear on many occasions. Not will Irish walkers countenance direct payment. Surely it is time for the IFA, ICMSA and ICSA to drop their outrageous demands, to think of the negative image they have created and try to regain public respect.

 

Irish Rural Link

We are pleased to welcome a new member - Irish Rural Link. This organisation represents most of the significant stakeholders in rural in rural Ireland including the farm organisations and non-farming rural interests. They are one of the participants in the National Partnership Talks. We hope to publish an article in the next newsletter setting out their agenda.

 

The Media

The Irish Times (4th January 06) had an interesting report about the future of farming in the present era where farmers got grants totalling €1.6 billion in 2005 without having to lift a finger. The report concludes Ireland's and Europe's farmers are going to find it difficult to defend the fact that they are literally getting money for producing nothing in the years ahead. Perhaps if farmers were to concede something on access an increasingly sceptical public might have more sympathy for them. Gillian Bowler, Chairman of Fáilte Ireland mentioned access to the countryside and the need to do something about it on RTE 1's Questions and Answers on 4th January. Unfortunately all she could offer was to throw yet more money at farmers. This facile approach is also favoured by the Heritage Council in a submission to Government in January. The Farmers' Journal (14th January) bemoaned the inability of the Government to revitalise rural tourism and in particular hill walking. It favourably mentioned the IFA's Walkways Scheme, which if implemented as the IFA demands and if it led to a reasonably comprehensive rights of way network would cost the taxpayer at least €630m per year - and that's before we start considering freedom to roam. The IFA might consider looking into its own heart to see if perhaps this attitude might have something to do with the difficulty of revitalising rural tourism. Malcolm Thompson of the ICSA gave his organisation's slant on access on RTE 1 radio on 11th January. He made the bizarre suggestion that farmers who suffer excessive numbers of walkers should get compensation equivalent to the value of a one-off house site. He went on to make the usual 'walkers should ask' demand which is discussed in our editorial. The Irish Examiner of 8th February had an article entitled 'Blocked Pathways taking toll on Tourism'. Its author, Damien Enright, is a good friend of KIO so the contents are predictable. He did however make two points that the general public may not be aware of. Firstly, it takes only one landowner to put an entire route out of bounds. Secondly, he referred to the need for all local authorities to reclaim all old rights of way before they are lost, otherwise we end up paying for something which was once ours by right. It hardly needs to be said that very few of the local authorities have the slightest intention of doing any such thing and in this they are backed up by the Minister himself. The Irish Times of 22 February reported on the provision by the Government of €5m to promote rural tourism and the comment by Fáilte Ireland's Chief Executive Shaun Quinn that while walking tourism presented opportunities for rural areas the issue of access to land for walkers would have to be addressed.

 

KIO meet Wicklow National Park Officials

One KIO and one Ramblers Club representative met WMNP officials on 10th January. The discussion centred on the need to extend the NP and on the undue emphasis on conservation rather than recreation in its Management Plan published last year. On the first point the NP representatives explained that they could not obtain compulsory purchase orders or even obtain land which no one claimed and all this made rational boundaries and the extension of the NP difficult. On the question of conservation, the KIO/Rambler representatives pointed out that car parking, signage, stiles etc could be uses to divert walkers away from eroded and into underused areas. However the NP realised the problem and would do what they could to address it. However, once again the NP's inability to touch land that they do not own was cited as a major stumbling block. With only one per cent of the State's land in NP control (a very small proportion by European standards) it is a shame that even this paltry area cannot be extended without running into the seemingly absolute rights of landowners.

 

Quad Bikes/Scramblers

 

The invasion of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains by these nefarious vehicles has now reached crisis proportions. Following our representations Coillte and the Wicklow National Park have both agreed to adopt bye-laws to ban these vehicles. The response to the high level of irresponsible and illegal use of trial bikes and quads should be a proactive one at national level with a view to confining riders to designated areas. The aim should be to create permanent facilities for their sport to reduce problems for the environment and other recreational users.

 

Correspondence

If you have any comments on the newsletter or any other aspect of our campaign or if you would like to describe your own problems with access to the countryside send correspondence to

The Secretary, KIO, 56 Pine Valley Avenue, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16 

or e-mail : info@keepirelandopen.org

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If you would like to inform us of any problems in your area please email us at info@keepirelandopen.org

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