Néifinn Fhíain - nádúrtha todhchaí fhásach in Éirinn

Wild Nephin – future natural wilderness in Ireland

ADDENDUM - March 2013

Wilderness in a Modified European Landscape: Conference NEW

It’s easy to plan a walking trip in the wilds of America. The wilderness areas, National Parks and National Forests (1) as well as State Parks and Open Space County Parks (2) are in public ownership and festooned with walking trails. It is especially easy in Colorado because of a series of books by Pamela Irwin on Colorado’s Best Wildflower Hikes (3). I used her first book in 2003 while walking the flatirons of the Front Range mountains, west of Denver, and in the Rocky Mountain National Park (4). I was back again in 2008, and her second book was my guide to the Park Range high country mountains of the continental divide (5). Her third book covers the San Juan Mountains of south-western Colorado, and it is inspiring me to plan a series of walks for next year that could take me into the wilderness areas of La Garita, Lizard Head, Powderhorns, Mount Sneffels and Weminuche, as well as the National Forests of Gunnison, Rio Grande, San Juan and Uncompahgre.

If only these opportunities existed in Britain. Few of Britain’s National Nature Reserves (NNR) are publicly owned (about 17% in England (6)) and while some of the woodland reserves are worth a walk, their accessibility is very limited (7). Forget about our National Parks offering a wildland experience. They are so out of step with the conservation measures of the National Parks of America (5) or even the rest of continental Europe: Britain is the only country in Europe where all of its national parks are based on farmed landscapes in private ownership (8). You would therefore be hard pressed to match the aspirational nature and recreational value of America’s or Europe’s National Parks by searching out our underwhelming opportunities, although it has to be said that the open access of our Public Forest Estate at least scores on recreation (9).

America is a long way to go for a walk, when I should be looking for the wildland on my doorstep in Continental Europe. I have written before of walking in Spain, Slovenia and Georgia (7, 10, 11). Then, my review of wildland in Europe for the Scottish Government turned up increasing evidence of national protected area systems that set out to maintain the wildness of protected areas, and which had a keen sense of what that meant (12). Early on in that review, I had found that Ireland had this completely different regard for their National Parks system, the six Parks totalling about 60,000ha being almost entirely under State ownership, and since 1970 with a commitment to abide by the criteria and standards for National Parks as classified under IUCN Category II (13, 14). The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in Ireland, is wedded to the recreational use of Ireland’s National Parks, providing wildlife and access information (15). They see them as:
“having one or several ecosystems that are not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation …….where steps have been taken to prevent or eliminate as soon as possible exploitation or occupation in the whole area and to enforce effectively the respect of ecological, geomorphological or aesthetic features which have led to its establishment…. Where visitors are allowed to enter, under special conditions, for inspirational, educational, cultural and recreational purposes”

The 78 statutory Nature Reserves in Ireland, totalling 18,000ha, are also within the purview of the NPWS (13). They too are principally state-owned and mostly open for access, with thumbnail descriptions provided on a county basis (16). Thirty-three of those Nature Reserves are primarily woodland (2,855ha (13)) and from amongst which, and from amongst the National Parks, I began to plan a walking trip of Ireland earlier this year.

The native woodlands of Ireland

Native and semi-natural woodland coverage in Ireland is desperately low, perhaps between 1.2 and 1.9% (17). However, in amongst those remnants of native woodland on the western side of Ireland were reputedly some of the best examples of a type of oak woodland that is rich in Oceanic ferns, such as Hay-scented Buckler Fern (18, 19) as well as mosses and liverworts - the bryophytes – and the lichens, the latter two forming thick carpets over rocks, boulders, fallen trees. They also clothe standing trees since the bryophytes and lichens do not have to root and can thus grow as epiphytic communities (19). Similar oak woodlands occur in Britain, confined to the western coasts of the Highlands with outliers in the Lake District and North Wales – the Atlantic oak woods (20). It is however the extent of this oceanic influence that marks out the Irish woods. The winters are mild, summers are cool and rain can fall throughout the year. The wetness from this hyper-oceanic influence, the mild temperatures, high annual rainfall, high numbers of wet days, wetness during the summer season, and the low potential water deficit, leads to such luxuriant growth that these woodlands can have a semi-evergreen appearance (19). I was pleased to see that some of Ireland’s Nature Reserves and National Parks contained woodlands of this type (21).

Ireland recently carried out an extensive mapping survey of its native woodland (17) which was then compared to historical maps and other accounts to identify the areas of ancient, long established and recent woodland (22) in the same way that this was carried out for ancient woodland in England (23). Ancient Woodland was defined in the Irish analysis as areas of woodland believed to have remained continuously wooded since 1660. That date was used because there is a mass of information from two surveys of the 1650’s, which were carried out to facilitate the confiscation of Irish lands following the Cromwellian conquest. As with the cut-off date of 1600 used in the English survey, the cut-off of 1660 precedes the publication of Evelyn’s Sylva (1664 (24)) in which the planting of new woodland by English landowners was encouraged. Not all the assignments to ancient woodland in the analysis were of high confidence, because the ambiguous nature of names and locations in much of the 17th century made it difficult to show evidence of continuous woodland cover since 1660. However, a total of 123 woodland sites were judged to be ancient woodland (AW) or possibly ancient woodland (PAW) a number of which are among the wooded nature reserves in Ireland, as well as in the National Parks, particularly Killarney National Park (22).

In this same study, the flora of these ancient woodlands provided an opportunity to identify indicator plants, as has been done for English woodland (25). Out of 359 wildflowers found in the ancient, long established and recent woodland in Ireland, 23 were strongly associated with ancient woodland, of which eight were woodland specialists and the rest were woodland generalists (22). There are a number of ancient woodland indicator plants that are common between Ireland and England, such as bluebells, woodruff, wood rush, wood speedwell, wood sedge, yellow pimpernel, pignut and wood sorrel, all of which I saw in the Irish woodlands. What is surprising though is the absence of some of the woodland geophytes from the Irish list that can be found on the list for English woodlands, such as Herb Paris, Solomon’s Seal, Moschatel and Lily-of-the-valley, as well as the common woodland plants Dog’s Mercury and Alternate-leaved Golden-saxifrage. These species are missing from Ireland’s native woodland flora, or in the case of Dog’s Mercury, it is only native in the Burren (26) such that Ireland's woodland flora is depauperate compared to that of Britain (27). In toto, Ireland’s flora with 815 native species is depauperate compared to our 1,172 native species (28). Britain’s native flora is by turn depauperate compared to France (3,500) because of the break in the return of species after the last glaciation when the land link disappeared as sea levels rose 7,500 years ago. That rise in sea level also cut Ireland off from Britain, but it is likely that it was not just the interruption of their return through geographical isolation that has left Ireland with less native species, but also that Ireland is so climatically different from Britain that some of the possible returning plants would not have thrived in Ireland anyway (28).

State forestry lands

There is also a publicly owned forest estate in Ireland, which is administered by Coillte, a state-owned company. It was established in 1989, taking ownership of the State's plantation forests, and which now cover over 445,000 hectares or about 7% of Ireland (29). The core purpose of the company is to commercially manage these forest assets, but 15% of the estate is managed with biodiversity as the primary objective (30) and with the intent to restore native woodland on the estate from out of the plantation forests where the opportunities arise (31).

Coillte has a strong emphasis on recreation on the estate, with over 2,000km of walking and cycling trails, more than 150 recreation sites, and 10 forest parks (30). To that end, there is a dedicated recreation website, Coillte Outdoors (32) that I was able to use to search amongst the recreation sites and forest parks, so that I could add some of them to my walking list. As will be recounted, it provided some very distinctive experiences, including an opportunity to look at a unique, large scale rewilding project that will fulfil a vision of a large area of wilder landscape in which people can enjoy walking, camping out on trail walks, and experiencing a thrill of being immersed in a natural freedom that has long gone from the overwhelmingly farmed landscapes of England. I first heard about this from Bill Murphy, Head of Recreation with Coillte, at a meeting on wild land in Brussels (33). I contacted Bill before leaving for Ireland, and we arranged to meet up in a small town near one of Coillte’s plantation forests in Co. Mayo, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Off and walking

With the planning done, I set out in May on a two week walking trip of Ireland. It spanned from Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve (34) a southern coastal woodland reserve near Skibbereen in West Cork, up the full length of western Ireland to Ballyarr Wood Nature Reserve (35) near to Rathmelton on the Donegal coast in the north. It took in nine nature reserves and four National Parks, but also a forest recreation area and two forests parks. It was not just about woodland, as the coast at Sheskinmore Nature Reserve in Co Donegal had sand dunes and a rocky shore, as well as marshes, dune slacks, oak and hazel scrub, and prostrate juniper (36). There was also the limestone of the Burren National Park (37) and Keelhilla (Slieve Carron) Nature Reserve (38) on the wider area of the Burren in Co Clare. As well as being a geological phenomenon, the Burren is a floral phenomenon from its unusual climatic regime, making it the only place in Europe where Mediterranean and arctic-alpine plants grow together (39).

Fortuitously, the western side of Ireland has retained a relatively high proportion of natural and semi-natural habitats, compared to the rest of Ireland, and compared with countries with a longer history of industrial development and agricultural intensification (13). It is awash with wildflowers that also include the Lusitanian species, and for which there is no conclusive explanation for their presence, as they are only found in Ireland, Spain and Portugal (40). They include St Patrick’s cabbage (it’s a saxifrage), strawberry tree, St Daboc’s heath, Irish spurge, and a very large flowered butterwort, all of which I found in and around woodland. The sand dunes and rocky coasts of western Ireland were astonishing, with sea holly, sea spurge and sea bindweed. Orchids were flowering everywhere – woodlands, marshes and dunes. My count of species was nine by the end, including bee, fly, and birds-nest orchids, as well as an uncommon helleborine (see later).

A particularly enchanting wildflower, Spring gentian, was in flower on the coastal side of the Burren, a beautiful blue. There was also Mountain Everlasting in flower there (which is called "pussytoes" in America because it’s flowers look like……) as well as Mountain Avens. These three flowers were growing at practically sea level, as was Mountain Everlasting in Ards Forest Park up in Co Donegal (41) whereas they are regarded as arctic-alpine flowering plants in Britain. So much nonsense is spoken by the conservation industry here when it serves their needs – for instance Spring gentian and Mountain Everlasting flower at Moorhouse-Upper Teesdale NNR in the northern Pennines, with Natural England saying that the blatantly depauperate landscape there is a remnant of arctic-alpine habitat (42). Nonsense – it’s a tree-cleared, sheep grazed waste land of sloppy peat that is revered in all this climate change rhetoric. A simple understanding of phytogeography and plant competition would explain why these plants can be found where they are (43).

The Wild Nephin Project

Nonetheless, I must bring myself back to the magic of the woodlands of western Ireland, which were different, and in different ways. They will form the backdrop to understanding that large scale rewilding project, and its importance for wildland in NW Europe. Bill Murphy very generously drove the three hours over from Dublin, and we spent a day travelling around the 4,600ha of the Nephin Forest (44). The townlands of the forest area are cupped in a hand formed by the Nephin Beg mountain range in Co. Mayo. Along with the adjacent Ballycroy National Park (45) it forms one of the largest unroaded and uninhabited areas of Ireland. Census returns for the townlands (a Gaelic system of land division) in what is now the forest area, showed falling populations over the nineteenth century, such that they were virtually uninhabited by the time the Forest Service bought the land in the 1940s. The prospect of successful forestry was not especially high, since the area was predominantly blanket bog (see later) but experimental planting started in the 1950s, and planting with Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine continued until the 1980s. The conditions of harvest are tricky, although some 700ha have been clear-felled and replanted. An EU funded pilot riparian native woodland has been established along the Srahrevagh river under the native woodland scheme. Based on the potential yield classes of what remains, Coillte has determined that they would make a financial loss if they tried to harvest conifers from the whole plantation.

It is for this reason that alternatives have been considered, with Bill drawing together a team under the banner of the Wild Nephin Project to develop a definition for Irish wilderness, and explore the idea of the Nephin Forest being designated an Irish wilderness. The definition is:
“A wilderness is a large, remote, wild (or perceived wild), protected and publicly owned landscape with good visual and natural qualities. A wilderness facilitates humans to experience our connections to the larger community of life through the enjoyment of nature, solitude and challenging primitive recreation, without significant human presence or the intrusion of human structures, artefacts or inappropriate activities while supporting a functioning ecosystem.

A wilderness is therefore generally free from human management and manipulation and is an area which allows natural processes to take place or where, through a process of rewilding, such natural processes are progressively restored, leading to increased stages of naturalness. A wilderness can include modified landscapes that no longer support long term human occupation and/or a viable managed landscape.

A wilderness should be a minimum of 2000ha offering opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation”

A comprehensive feasibility report was produced in Autumn last year (unpublished) in which a range of approaches were used to test the feasibility of the Nephin Forest being an Irish wilderness, including landscape character assessment, application of a Recreation Opportunity Spectrum, historical evidence of habitation, nature conservation, the economics of limiting timber production, the Public Goods value of Nephin becoming an Irish wilderness, the possible methods of protection that the wilderness could have, and potential sources of funding for the project.

The feasibility report is literally a ground breaking document. It is a technical and advocacy manifesto for a NW European interpretation of the wilderness experience of America. It is the first time I have seen a specific operational use of a Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) in a European context. Developed by the US Forest Service, ROS offers a framework for understanding the relationships and interactions between people and the various settings that outdoor recreation can provide (46). Thus there are those who seek easy access and highly developed facilities that offer comfort, security, and social opportunities, whereas others are not deterred by difficult access and few or no facilities so that the offer is a sense of solitude, challenge, and self-reliance. The project team have used ROS to divide Nephin up into Primitive, Semi-Primitive and Developed Natural Areas (see the schematic of the wilderness concept of Wild Nephin in (47)). The access roads into Nephin end in the latter, and there are car parks proposed, a camping field, and a toilet block. Lean-too shelters and primitive campsites will be the only facilities in the Primitive and Semi-Primitive areas, with new but primitive trails linking between them, and no other trail development. As will become clear later, the nature of walking trails is important to me. Thus I picked up in the report that these primitive trails are to be constructed to Ireland's National Standard for Class 5 Walking Trails (48). This impressive National Standard has five classes which grade between the multi-access hard surface of Class 1, through to the challenging, unsurfaced trail over variable ground of Class 5. I am not aware of any such intelligent offering on the nature of trails and trail building in Britain.

While the feasibility report was primarily about the Nephin Forest, there was a recommendation to seek inclusion of part of the adjacent Ballycroy National Park in the overall wilderness area (see the wilderness concept in (47)). Ballycroy National Park has exactly the same bog conditions as there are under the plantation, which in contrast to the forest is a large area of open, tree-less commonage land for sheep grazing. The extent of the blanket bog, and the three different types of lake habitat, have of course led to their designation as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Special Protection Area (SPA) (49). The sheep grazing of the commonages is likely to lead to some sensitivity in the arrangements for this co-operation between the National Park and the Nephin Forest. Ireland was prosecuted by the EU in 2002 for over-grazing the Owenduff/Nephin SAC/SPA that covers Ballycroy NP (50). Thus while the National Park is addressing the overgrazing by incentivising destocking on the commonages, they are unlikely to achieve a removal of all sheep from off any part of it, or necessarily want to since the sheep grazing at some low level of intensity probably maintains a “favourable conservation status” for the SAC. There has been no livestock grazing in the area of the Coillte forest, except from encroachment by sheep through dilapidated fencing, but the intention is to renew fencing and protect any new plantings as well as the naturally occurring vegetation changes that are also expected.

The lessons from Ireland's Oceanic oak woodland

There are a number of things about Wild Nephin that overcame my instinctual reaction about a non-native conifer plantation being a wilderness. Partly it’s to do with having visited Guagán Barra Forest Park in the Shehy Mountains on the Cork-Kerry border (51) and seeing how a plantation in an enclosed high sided valley with old red sandstone walls could be turned into an amazing wildlife and recreational experience, including cascading water and rocks, that ticked so many aesthetic and experiential boxes that I really did think I was in an “other” world. The valley, Com Rua (Red coum or hollow) is the source of the River Lee, and was farmed until the 1930's, when the Irish Forestry Service took it over and planted it up with conifers. The plantings were largely of lodgepole pine, Sitka spruce and Japanese larch, three species that thrive in poorer soils and stand up well to exposure. It was developed as a forest park in the 1960s. Some of the areas on reaching maturity were harvested, but they were replanted with a wider variety of species. However, a stand of Sitka spruce in the valley bottom was spared from harvest, and the trees have now reached 38m high - a rare opportunity to see these non-native trees in full maturity. Elements like this, and the spectacular views of the deep valley and its walled side, make it feel like walking in a state park at the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I should also mention the Pass of Keimaneigh (Céim an Fhia) that breaks through the Shehy Mountains on the road from Ballylickey to Guagán Barra. It’s a spectacularly wooded gorge-like valley about a mile and a half long, with high precipitous sides, and which is a fabulous native woodland complement to Guagán Barra. It is said that this beautiful pass was named after a stag leapt from one side to the other fleeing from a hunt, hence, Céim an Fhia (the leap of the deer).

While I went to Ireland looking for oceanic oak woodlands, walking Guagán Barra Forest Park was a treat and shifted my framework of reference. I have had this experience in England when visiting the Forestry Commission’s Southey Wood in Cambridgeshire, a conifer plantation developed as a recreational forest, and when compared to the dismal woodland experience of the nearby native woodland of Castor Hanglands National Nature Reserve, where the wood is “managed for biodiversity” and has no sensitivity to a recreational or wild experience (52).

There are two things that Bill and I talked about while we walked, and which link in to this. He wants to see the conifer plantation of Nephin develop into the “new” native Irish woodland, in the same way that beech, introduced to Ireland by the Normans, has already developed into a “new” type of native Irish woodland (53, 54). Bill argued in the feasibility report that conifer forests now constitute an important habitat type in the range of Irish ecosystems, and that the setting aside of lands where natural processes drive the changes will be an important contribution to the development of these habitat types. There is a strong element of reality in this. One “native” oak wood in particular of the NPWS reserves that I walked, was an astonishing example of this – Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve, down near Skibbereen. It’s a mixed broadleaf woodland that along with the oak has the non-native sycamore and beech, but it is the conditions of high moisture and something indefinable in controlling how the trees grow, which somehow results in much higher light levels in the understorey so that ground layers are absolutely lush with ferns, woodrush, Irish ivy etc., and the trunks and branches of the trees and every rock have a thick clothing of moss. For instance, holly is a tree in Irish woodlands, not a bush, so that it contributes to the canopy rather than the understorey. Is this historical evidence of pollarding management, or something else? Another distinction about Knockomagh was that it was the only woodland I walked that had much in the way of informal paths, off of the main routes.

Glengarrif Wood Nature Reserve (AW) (55) in Co Cork also had this lush, oceanic woodland, as well as the reserve itself being of sufficient size to fill a valley – a stunning sight from high level. The name Glengarriff is derived from the Irish Gleann Gairbh which translates as the rough or rugged glen, the woods nestled in this sheltered glen. It was rammed with woodland wildflowers, ferns, and woodrush. I had my first sightings there of the Lusitanian species, including the distinctive Irish spurge, St Patrick’s cabbage and the strawberry tree. It was also where I first came across the plague of the hard surface paths that the NPWS seem to favour in their reserves.

It is the case throughout western Ireland that the presence of a bit of shade anywhere will harbour woodland groundlayer species. In the limestone areas of the Burren National Park or Keelhilla (Slieve Carron) Nature Reserve, a few hazel of modest height constitutes a a low canopy, functioning woodland, containing helleborines, pignut, early purple orchid, hearts tongue fern, wood millet, sanicle, water avens, strawberry etc. A scrubby birch woodland is just like the hazel woodland. High canopy woodland flush with mosses only occurs in the lee of significant cliffs in this limestone, creating shelter from exposure, such as Eagle’s Rock, the massive limestone scarp in Keelhilla, and where the the main tree in the canopy is ash rather than oak, or the rocky hill-side bluff of Sheskinmore Nature Reserve in Co Donegal. Have you ever seen a juniper woodland surrounded by machair and sand dunes? All it takes is a bit of shelter from a hill slope at Sheskinmore! Elsewhere, in the boggy areas of many of the woodlands, such as at the eastern edge of Camillan Wood (see below) and at Knockomagh, a few alder or willow do likewise in constituting a woodland, and invariably harbour flag iris, sedge etc.

All the broadleaf woodland I walked had this Irish-ness in its understorey of high light levels, and high moisture that often turns into swamp if it can. You can actually see patches of sphagnum moss in some woodland understories, such as in Ballyarr Wood Nature Reserve (PAW) in Co Donegal (35). I don’t think I can remember any groundlayer that was bare of wildflowers anywhere, except in the pure yew forest of Reenadinna Wood (AW) on the limestone reefs of Muckross Island in Killarney National Park (56) and even then there were masses of moss. The adjacent mixed broadleaf, yew and strawberry tree of Camillan Wood (AW) on the red sandstone of the western end of Muckross was just brilliant, with masses of orchids, sanicle, hearts tongue fern etc., and with one of the more comfortable of walking trails through its interior. The oak woodlands of Killarney National Park, occurring mostly around the Killarney lakes, form the most extensive area of native, ancient woodland remaining in Ireland (57). It includes Derrycunihy Wood Nature reserve (AW) (58) described as one of the most natural oak woods in Ireland. It certainly had some of the bigger oak trees that I came across in Ireland, but it looked like parkland in some places that had filled in with natural regeneration. There was not as lush a ground flora that I saw elsewhere, but every rock and tree was covered in moss. If I had more time, I would have liked to have looked inside some of the other oak woodlands in the National Park, such as Tomies Wood (AW) and the wood on Ross Island (AW) (59).

A journey into woodland interiors

NPWS do manage bits of their woodland reserves, but this is usually near the path, or near the entrance to the wood. There is a big problem - and a virtue - in the approach that NPWS use to paths in their woodland reserves. They are always made of large-sized limestone gravel that walk you “around the edge” rather than “through or under” the woodland. It’s hard going and painful for old feet, and not the best way to experience the woodland. Dromore Nature Reserve (PAW) in Co Clare (60) was a particularly bad example of this, with only a small section of the woodland path system being on a simple (ungravelled) trail that went under the canopy and through the woodland (from the road on the Red/Blue trail to the Green Trail turnoff). Because the gravel paths are wide enough (too wide in places, becoming tracks, such as in Glengarriff) there is none of the broken branches associated with some mindless walkers in woods. Moreover, there is no trash or litter in their reserves, or parks, or in Coillte’s woodland, or on beaches. The commitment of Ireland to Leave No Trace really works! It’s essentially an Outdoor Ethics Programme that many organisations support, including Coillte, NPWS, and the Forest Service, to promote and inspire responsible outdoor recreation and reducing the damage caused by outdoor activities (61).

There are few or no informal paths in the woodland reserves, like there are in English woods, not even a great deal of evidence of critter trails. This means that if you do forge your own trail into the woodland interior, you are inevitably walking in non-intervention woodland – and it shows. I took every opportunity to do this, and was rewarded with a fabulous experience of wild woodland that is actually worthy of the IUCN Category Ia that a number of these woodland reserves are classified under (62). It is of course a vicious circle – if more people left the gravel tracks, then this undisturbed nature would disappear. A memorable example of this off-track venturing was in Brackloon Wood Forest Recreation Area (PAW) in Co Mayo (63). Brackloon was managed as a commercial conifer forest from 1964 to the mid-1990s, after which Coillte began to clear the conifers and stock-proofed the site to protect natural regeneration as well as the native trees planted in areas to the north and south of the site using saplings grown from Brackloon seed. There is a looping forest road for recreational access, but it was painful going. A journey off this road and into the interior revealed much better the canopy of downy birch, wych elm, hazel, willow and rowan in younger areas, with ash and oak in the older areas. All the trees were clothed in mosses, liverworts and lichens. The ground layer had carpets of hard fern or woodrush, or mixtures of both, and occasional areas of bluebells and sanicle. Where the ground got marshy, there were very neat and orderly shuttlecock-shaped tussocks of sedge along with sparse willow. I found the stunning Narrow-leaved Helleborine in one of the marshier areas while my boots were gently sinking - Ireland’s woodland can be almost as wet as its bogs! This orchid of damp woods has only been recorded in seven Irish sites, and has not been seen at Brackloon since 1982 (64). I suspect it has always been there, but it takes some adventure to find it.

Similarly, the wonder of Ard Na Mona Wood Nature Reserve (PAW) (65) and Ballyarr Wood Nature Reserve (PAW) both in Co Donegal, also required an informal venturing into their interiors, after leaving gravel paths too painful to walk. Ard Na Mona yielded up exemplary ground layers, under mature oak and many ash, rowan, hazel, alder and willow. The woodland floor was crammed with woodrush, hard fern and water avens, with as well bluebells, wood sorrel, wood anemone, sanicle, strawberry and violets. It also had Bird’s-Nest Orchid, an oddly striking, non-photosynthetic orchid found as a saprophyte in shady woodland. I got lost in Ballyarr, as a result of the disorientation that can happen within such an extensive and complex woodland interior, but the delight at the features of another ancient oak woodland balanced the apprehension about regaining the track.

Naturalisation of conifer woodland

The second issue that Bill and I talked about was that a plantation woodland would not be a mainstream choice of ecologists for a wilderness, especially when there is no intention to clear away all the non-native conifers. Thus Bill is aware of the sensitivities about a “biodiversity” or “naturalness” route for the project (not that it is the main motivation) and thus the involvement of ecologists is a complement to realising the recreational and wild attributes of the land. Bill has identified “biodiversity” assets within the project area, and the intention is to open these up by removing the conifers, and with perhaps some replacement planting of native species, so that they become destinations/features, such as riparian courses, bogs, and lakes, and that includes a couple of archaeological structures.

Becoming destinations is perhaps a key to everything that Bill hopes to achieve with Wild Nephin, since it sets the land in the context of recreation, and a primitive experience at that. There won’t be the gravel paths of NPWS, and there will be a phasing out and restoration of forest roads. Bill and a friend backpacked through the plantation for a few days to get a feel for what the experience could be. While they will put some trails in, particularly connecting the few primitive campsites and the odd lean-too shelter, it will be up to users to discover their own routes. As I found in Dromore Nature Reserve, and to some extent in Ard Na Mona Wood Nature Reserve, there is an enchantment in coming across and discovering a lake displaying its characteristic zonal vegetation and surrounded by woodland. With so many small Loughs (lakes) in the flat townlands of Tubridd and Altnabrocky, which are in the northern Semi-primitive area, this will be one of the delights of this new wilderness, as will be the riparian courses of the rivers Deela, Altaconey, Srahmore, Srahrevagh, Goulain, and the tributaries of the Oweninny that drain the forest. It is a 15-year plan to steer the forest towards a wilderness goal, and then it will be left to itself.

It must be recognised that the oceanic factor that shapes the western oak woods in such a positive way, can be a negative factor when the influence of human intervention is overlaid. Where the annual rainfall is high, the removal of trees leads to the soil profile remaining saturated for much of the year and promotes paludification (bog growth (66)). In Ireland this has frequently been accelerated due to the impoverishment of the soil by the activities of early farmers. In oceanic environments soils are seldom frozen and consequently nutrient leaching takes place throughout the year, which accelerates soil impoverishment. Iron pan formation from leaching and overgrazing can also contribute to water-logging, which hinders mineralization and nitrogen fixation. Thus in areas like Co Mayo, the former mineral soils with unimpeded drainage were gradually converted to bogs resulting in the abandonment of Neolithic and Iron Age farms. The most famous is the early Neolithic site at Céide Fields near Ballycastle, about 30km north of Nephin Forest, where an agricultural landscape with walled fields from 4000 BP was eventually buried under 4 m of peat (67). This makes for a landscape that is hard for trees to regain.

It is these factors that led a study of the potential natural vegetation of Ireland to identify the area of Co Mayo covered by Ballycroy National Park and the Nephin Forest as Atlantic and montane blanket bog (68). Potential natural vegetation is what would develop if all human influences on the site were stopped, and that a final stage in re-ordering of the vegetation had been reached immediately so that it reflected present day habitat conditions. The study did conclude that with the cessation of agricultural activity and grazing by domestic animals, forests would regenerate rapidly over most of Ireland, with probably more than 85% of the land surface being covered in some form of woody vegetation. Areas where woodland may struggle to regain would be the peatlands, mountain tops and exposed coastal fringes.

Thus the key issue for the transformations envisaged in the Wild Nephin Project will be the ability under Irish conditions, and with the remarkable extant sources of wild nature generally in western Ireland - including the existing areas in the Nephin Forest of native scrub dominated by birch and willow, the mossy mass of bryophytes, and the natural regeneration of the non-native conifers (see later) - to self-assemble into a new landscape, given a little tinkering at first (thinning and some opening up, plus strategic planting of native tree species from the region like birch, willow, rowan and holly) but then a massive reliance on non-intervention in the long run. The whole ethos is that non-intervention and self-assembly leads to an enhancement of wildness quality. Having seen how quickly a disused forest road had shrubbed over, I have every confidence that this will happen, in spite of that study on potential natural vegetation, and considering the issue of the conifers and naturalness. This is addressed in the feasibility report, where Bill says many will argue that the Nephins will never reach a wild or naturalised state given that it currently consists of mainly introduced species. This poses the question of whether there is a place for introduced species in a wilderness area? Bill, however, points to a definition of naturalisation in relation to planted forests in a report from the Forestry Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (69):
“Plantation forests of exotics were man made, however, if subsequent rotations regenerated naturally it was debatable whether the forests were man made or natural. It was generally agreed that naturally regenerated crops of exotics be considered man made forests up to 250 years from the date of original introduction. Beyond 250 years, the forest was considered naturalized. Not clearly man made or natural forest”

He then gives evidence that the conifer species in Nephin are already naturally regenerating - an important step towards naturalisation, and as I had seen there for myself. It can thus be argued that conifer forests now constitute an important habitat type in the range of Irish ecosystems (see (68)) and that the setting aside of lands where natural processes drive the changes will be an important contribution to the development of these habitat types. In an Irish context, and which also applies to the UK, Bill pointed to the importance of state ownership of land areas of sufficient size to allow those processes to occur, and to realise a recreational wildland experience. He is absolutely right.

A future natural wilderness

There were two high viewpoints that Bill took me to that exemplify the project. One was a long view across the central area of the adjacent Ballycroy National Park. It was a bit of a hack over moorland, but we passed by drifts of cotton grass and Loughs with flowering bog bean, and some where sphagnum moss was forming a carpet over the surface of the water. While I am no fan of upland secondary habitats, this view was exceptional in its coherence – a whole landscape of bogs with small lakes and water courses without any dominance of dwarf shrub heath and absolutely tree-less. As it is, there is no access to the National Park from the western side where the Park headquarters are based. Walkers access the National Park from the Nephin Forest side, if they do at all because it is not an easily walkable landscape. If the hope of having a portion of Ballycroy National Park involved in Wild Nephin is not realised, it will at a minimum be a viewing portal into this extensive bogland.

The other was a high level view over a substantial area of the plantation. It is massive, and I am a sucker for seeing whole landscape areas that are wooded (seeing the 850,000 acres of the White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire was breathtaking (70)). It is this view that sums up the project. It allowed us also to see openings in the plantation where there were particularly wet areas of blanket bog. The edges of these openings will be made less rigid, some native plantings will be made, and there will be more of these, as there will be around the area that has a series of small lakes, which unfortunately we didn’t have time to see. It was this overall view that made me realise that what I was looking at was a future natural wilderness in the making.

The woodland ecologist George Peterken first defined future-naturalness in 1981 as a way of understanding the degree of naturalness of woodland that would result if man’s influence was completely and permanently removed (71). He later refined the concept to future natural by considering what the legacy of prior human intervention would be in the subsequent removal of that influence (72):
“The state which would eventually develop if people's influence was completely and permanently removed. This recognises that the available species may be altered by extinctions and introductions, that further species may colonise, that soils may change as succession proceeds, and that climate will continue to change”

This definition echoes throughout the aims and ambitions of the Wild Nephin Project and which is entirely synonymous with an Irish wilderness: the acceptance of what has gone before; the phased removal of human management; confidence in a process of naturalisation; and a trajectory to a potential natural vegetation, albeit a new future natural vegetation. Above all, though, it is the strong linking of human fulfilment to an experience of this future natural wilderness, and the freedoms that brings, which must be an important lesson for the Public Forest Estate in Britain, and have currency in the whole of NW Europe.

Mark Fisher 22 August 2012

Wilderness in a Modified European Landscape: Conference, 14-16 May 2013 in Westport

Bill Murphy always hoped that he could hold a conference about the new wilderness he proposed for Nephin during the six months of the EU Irish Presidency this year. While draft particulars were circulating earlier in the year, much firmer details of the conference have appeared now that Bill has secured the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the adjacent Ballycroy National Park (see above). The memorandum commits both parties to working together to deliver the wilderness project, which includes the Coillte forest lands and parts of the Ballycroy National Park (73). Over 11,000 hectares in the Nephin Beg Range of North West Mayo have thus been designated as Ireland’s first wilderness area following the signing of the MoU between Coillte and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The official signing was marked by a visit to the area of the Prime Minister, Mr Enda Kenny T.D. along with Mr. Jimmy Dennihan T.D., Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, who has responsibility for national parks, and Mr. David Gunning, Chief Executive of Coillte. Gunning said (73):
“The Memorandum will see us working with our partners the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to deliver a free-willed landscape here in North County Mayo. Coillte has considerable competencies in habitat restoration and managing recreation and this project forms part of our core purpose of enriching lives locally nationally and globally through the innovative and sustainable management of natural resources”

Within days of the signing, both Bill and Denis Strong, park manager of Ballycroy NP, were interviewed from the Nephin site during a radio broadcast (74). Bill noted the uniqueness of the coming together of a commercial state forestry company and the nature conservation interests of the NPWS and agreeing to put land aside for the public good. Strong notes that the woodland area is a bastion for pine marten and long eared owl, and the river system has salmon and sea trout, as well as dippers. There is the potential for red squirrel introduction, and the hope is to attract nesting osprey as they currently travel by. Asked what will have changed 20 years into the future, Strong thought the transformation would be slow, but that there would be more open areas, increases in silver birch and alder, and hazel in the more fertile areas, and the area would become much more natural looking.

The conference is in Westport, County Mayo, on 15th May – 16th May 2013 during Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The conference website has now been posted, and registration closes at the end of April 2013 (75). The aim of the conference is to bring together current and possible future approaches to rewilding modified landscapes, particularly on former plantation forest areas like Nephin, and other impacted landscapes. Speakers include Jensen Bissell, Director of Baxter State Park in Maine. This State Park is a large area of permanent wilderness that sits outside of the state and Federal system (76). The Park was a gift to the people of Maine from Gov. Baxter, who used his personal wealth over a 32-year period from 1931 to purchase and donate the original 201,018 acres of the park. Access and use are strictly regulated in accordance with Gov. Baxter's expressed desire to keep the Park "forever wild", which is the same sentiment behind the wilderness of the State owned Forest Preserves of New York, set up in 1894 (77). A Scientific Forest Management Area forms part of the park. Forest managers use harvesting to influence the development of individual parts of a forest, orchestrating forest conditions over long time periods, to achieve management objectives such as protecting water quality, protecting biodiversity, providing wildlife habitat, and enabling a sustained harvest of forest products.

Olaf Johansson is Vice President of Sveaskog, a commercial forestry company owned by the Swedish Government (78). Sveaskog owns 15% of Sweden’s forests and in which there is a mix of nature conservation, recreation, and wood production. As well as 300,000 hectares of nature conservation forest, Sveaskog operates 36 Ecoparks as forests for outdoor pursuits, both areas being removed from production oriented forestry.

30 March, 19 April 2013

(1) Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data, Congressional Research Service for Congress February 2012 R42346 7-5700


(2) Public Land Ownership by State, Natural Resources Council of Maine


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(5) Wilderness experience and the spirit of wild land. Self-willed land September 2008


(6) Transferring management of Natural England’s National Nature Reserves

(NNRs) – update on current activity, Natural England NEB PU22 05 30 September 2010


(7) Walking the wild places, Self-willed land September 2010


(8) Threats to wild land in Šumava National Park, Self-willed land August 2011


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(13) Craig, A. (2001) The Role of the State in Protecting Natural Areas in Ireland: 30 Years of Progress. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 101B: 141-149


(14) Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories, IUCN 2008


(15) National Parks, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland


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(18) Dryopteris aemula (Hay-scented Buckler-fern) Online Atlas of the British and Irish flora


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(22) Perrin, P.M. & Daly, O.H. (2010) A provisional inventory of ancient and long established woodland in Ireland. Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 46. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dublin, Ireland.


(23) Nature Conservancy Council and English Nature: Ancient Woodland Inventory Dataset 1981-2002, The National Archives


(24) Evelyn, J. (1664) DENDROLOGIA:The First Book. ln  SYLVA: Or a Discourse of Forest Trees & the Propagation of Timber. Volume 1. Arthur Doubleday & Company LTD.


(25) Glaves, P. et al (2009) Appendix 4 Species listed on Ancient woodland Lists. In A Survey of the Coverage, Use and Application of Ancient Woodland Indicator Lists in the UK. A Report to the Woodland Trust


(26) Online Atlas of the British and Irish flora, Botanical Society of the British Isles and the Biological Records Centre


(27) Kelly, D.L. (2005) Woodland on the western fringe: Irish oak wood diversity and the challenges of conservation. Botanical Journal of Scotland 57: 21-40


(28) Webb, D.A. (1983) The flora of Ireland in its European context. Journal of Life Sciences, Royal Dublin Society vol. 3:143-160.


(29) About Coillte


(30) Environment, Coillte Forest


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(32) Search By Map, Coillte Outdoors


(33) “Rebuilding the Natural Heart of Europe”, EC Presidency Conference on Restoration of Large Wild Areas, Brussels 16, 17 November 2010, Self-willed land


(34) Knockomagh Wood Nature Reserve, National Parks & Wildlife Service


(35) Ballyarr Wood Nature Reserve, National Parks & Wildlife Service


(36) Sheskinmore Nature Reserve, National Parks & Wildlife Service


(37) Burren National Park, National Parks & Wildlife Service


(38) Keelhilla (Slieve Carron) Nature Reserve, National Parks & Wildlife Service


(39) The Burren: Flora of the Burren, Clare County Library


(40) Lusitanian Flora, Irish Wildflowers


(41) Ards Forest Park, Coillte Outdoors


(42) Rare and precious – words devalued by the conservation industry, Self-willed land May 2011


(43) Dahl, E. (1998) The Phytogeography of Northern Europe: British Isles, Fennoscandia, and Adjacent Areas. Cambridge University Press


(44) Nephin Forest (MO08), Forest Management Plan 2011 to 2015, Coillte


(45) Ballycroy National Park, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(46) Recreation Opportunity Spectrum Primer and Field Guide, US Forest Service


(47) Wild Nephin. Ireland’s first wilderness project. Coillte


(48) Classification and Grading for Recreational Trails, The National Trails Office


(49) Owenduff/Nephin Complex cSAC & SPA. National Parks and Wildlife Service Conservation Plan for 2006-2011


(50) Judgment of the Court (Sixth Chamber) of 13 June 2002. - Commission of the European Communities v Ireland. - Failure by a Member State to fulfil its obligations - Directives 79/409/EEC and 92/43/EEC - Conservation of wild birds - Special protection areas. - Case C-117/00


(51) Guagan Barra Forest Park, Coillte Outdoors


(52) England's Public Forest Estate - public ownership now and for future generations, Self-willed land Fevbruary 2011


(53) Beech. Irish Forest Species Sheet 3. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine


(54) Woodlands, Notice Nature, Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government


(55) Glengarriff Nature Reserve, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(56) Killarney National Park, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(57) Killarney National Park, Macgillycuddy's Reeks and Caragh River Catchment SAC Site Code: 000365, NPWS


(58) Derrycunihy Wood Nature Reserve, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(59) Woodland sites, Irish fieldwork, September 2011. The Crackles Bequest Project. University of Hull


(60) Dromore Nature Reserve, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(61) Leave No Trace Ireland


(62) Ireland’s Nationally designated areas (CDDA-1)


(63) Brackloon Wood Forest Recreation Area, Coillte Outdoors


(64) Brackloon Woods cSAC: Site Code 47. Co. Mayo. National Parks & Wildlife Service Conservation Statement  2009 http://www.npws.ie/media/npwsie/content/images/protectedsites/conservationstatement/CS000471.pdf

(65) Ardnamona Wood Nature Reserve, National Parks and Wildlife Service


(66) Crawford, RMM (2005) Trees by the sea: advantages and disadvantages of oceanic climates. Biology and Environment: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 105b, 129-139


(67) History of Céide Fields, Ballycastle, County Mayo, Ireland. Céide Fields Visitor Centre, Museums of Mayo


(68) Cross, JR (1998) An Outline and Map of the Potential Natural Vegetation of Ireland. Applied Vegetation Science, 1: 241-252


(69) White Mountain National Forest - lessons in landscape, Self-willed land October 2005


(70) Carle, J. & Holmgren, P. (2003) Definitions Related to Planted Forests. Working Paper 79. Forestry Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


(71) Peterken, G.F. 1981 Woodland conservation and management. London: Chapman & Hall


(72) Peterken, G.F. (1996) Natural Woodland - Ecology and Conservation in Northern Temperate Regions. Cambridge Uni. Press


(73) Ireland's first wilderness project launched, Coillte News 14 March 2013


(74) Bill Murphy on the Derek Mooney Show, RTE 1, 22 March 2013 (Minute 34:15 to 53:45)


(75) Wilderness in a Modified European Landscape, Conference programme, Coillte Forest


(76) Baxter State Park, Maine


(77) New York's Forest Preserve, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation


(78) Sveaskog, Sweden



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk