The Wild Country

Ireland has designated its first national wilderness: a vast area of mountain, bog and forest on the country’s wild west coast. But is a real ‘backcountry’ experience possible on such a small island?  

The Great Outdoors magazine, December 2013

You won’t meet many other walkers in the Nephin Beg mountains. You can kind of understand why. Only two of these hills peep over 700 metres, they get about four times as much rain as Dublin, and they’re a long way from most places.

But these hills guard the wildest terrain in Ireland. In 1937 – after 5,000 miles of walking through Ireland – the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote: “Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog. Where else even in Ireland will you find 200 square miles which is houseless and roadless...”

The Nephin Begs rise to the north of Clew Bay in County Mayo. West of their central spine is the immense Owenduff blanket bog; to the east are huge conifer plantations. The only roads out here are forest tracks. In March, Ireland’s national parks service, together with the state forestry company Coillte, designated 11,000 hectares of this landscape as Ireland’s first national wilderness area: Wild Nephin.

For hillwalkers and backpackers, the plans are thrilling. For the next 15 years the forests will be set aside for rewilding, forest roads will be closed and converted to trails, and ‘backcountry’ campsites will be developed. Wild Nephin project manager Bill Murphy, a passionate wilderness advocate, says the region “was never popular with the mountaineering fraternity, because it was too remote.”

I had hiked and camped out here before, but never for more than one night. Now I wanted to see if a more immersive wilderness experience was possible. On a grey August evening I caught a cab from Newport to the trailhead at Letterkeen. From here, I followed the Western Way into the Nephin forests. I had initially planned to rush this part, then make for the hills to the west. Who likes conifer plantations, after all? But Bill encouraged me to spend a night in the forest. “The going is hardish but well worth the effort to come into a clearing and see these superb lakes – could be northern Maine or Finland,” he said. So now my plan was to trek through dense forest and make camp beside a small lake.

But soon a logging truck passed me, and I could hear machinery coming from the forest ahead – a reminder this isn’t perfect wilderness yet. So as the light faded I changed tack, hiking to a quieter lake on the north-east side of Nephin Beg mountain.

I searched in vain for a good camping spot, but the ground was either soaking wet or thick with vegetation. I gave up and made camp on the damp lakeshore. I cooked some pasta, scoffed some swiss roll, then retreated to my tent to escape the midges.

After I started hillwalking three years ago, I became obsessed with finding the remotest places in Ireland. It was an odd compulsion: poring over maps to locate the most far-flung valleys, hills and coastlines, then hiking out to them. I visited the uninhabited Blasket Islands off County Kerry, the mountainous coastland of south-west Donegal, and the isolated cliffs and headlands of western Achill. But it was the Nephin Begs that really captured my imagination.

The American writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” The Nephin Begs are Ireland’s blank place.

The next morning I stepped out of my tent and, sinking into sphagnum moss, realised just how bad my camping spot was. Water rushed into my boots, my ‘dry’ camp pants got soaked, and the midges got worse. I cooked some porridge and broke camp as quickly as I could. I followed a gully down through the forest, startling a red deer on the way, and emerged back on the Western Way. I walked to a river where I made tea,collected water and cooked up some noodles.

Then I left the trail behind and followed streams through the forest. For the first time, walking on lush banks deep in the woods, I could grasp Bill’s vision of conifer plantation as wilderness. Rewilded forestry could offer a new type of outdoor experience in Ireland: you might camp on a riverbank under pine trees, sleep out in a clearing, or watch deer at a forest lake. Our islands haven’t got much woodland, but perhaps rewilding forestry can help make up for it.

The lodgepole pine that dominates the Nephin plantations is closely related to the native Scots Pine that thrived out here thousands of years ago. Coillte’s rewilding plan will now aim to naturalise these forests: to create more clearings, let more light into the understorey, encourage natural regeneration, restore bogland, and start the shift from plantation to woodland.

The aim will be to give nature a leg up, then let it take over. “It’s about natural processes driving the changes in the landscape as opposed to human, that’s what it means to be truly wild,” Bill says.

But hiking through the forest is tough. I crossed streams back-and- forth to avoid deep vegetation, and my boots filled with water. Fighting through thick grass, I climbed out of the forest and up to the Scardaun Loughs, two lakes in the saddle between Nephin Beg (627 metres) and Slieve Carr (721 metres). Hillwalkers regard the latter as Ireland’s most remote mountain.

I crossed the saddle, and on its west side a tumbling stream cut a steep gorge into the earth. Following it downhill, one of Ireland’s most gob- smacking views opened up: a panorama of the immense Owenduff Bog, drained by pristine rivers, and flanked by the Nephin Beg range. Not a road or building in sight. This is, I reckon, the wildest spot in Ireland. I disturbed a common lizard on my way downhill, and arrived onthe Bangor Trail. This rough track was used for centuries to carry people and livestock through the mountains. From the Letterkeen trailhead it’s 24 kilometres of isolated, boggy terrain to Bangor Erris – the longest stretch of Irish trail not to pass a road or house.

Local hillwalking guide Barry Murphy told me two legends: one says that a highwayman, Daithí Bán, would stalk the track would stalk the track from the mountains and rob travellers returning from market with their earnings. The more common version, however, says that Daithí Bán was a giant who lived in the hills and came down to fish in the salmon-rich Tarsaghaunmore and Owenduff rivers.

I followed the rough track south. It was early evening, and the sky was grey and lifeless. My goal for the night was the Lough Avoher hut, a timber shelter on the trail built by the voluntary group Mountain Meitheal. This is the first in a series of huts and campsites planned for Wild Nephin.

After 24 hours out here, the hut seemed like the essence of comfort. There’s a sleeping platform, rainwater tank and – rather thoughtfully – a spade. I could hang my wet clothes out, sit at the picnic table, sleep off the ground. When I finally got there, exhausted, I cooked pasta, put up my tent’s inner mesh, and ducked inside to escape the midges with my battered copy of Tarka The Otter.

In 1924, the United States designated a big swathe of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest as the country’s first wilderness area. Forty years later, a pioneering American law defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.

Wilderness might seem like an odd concept in densely populated, urbanised Western Europe, but the movement for it on this side of the Atlantic is growing. Campaigners are pushing for European countries to protect one million hectares of wild land, with projects like Wild Nephin at the forefront.

The next morning I headed for the hills. I crossed a patch of bog, hopped a stream and climbed the wet slopes of Glennamong (628 metres). The ascent presented false summit after false summit until, suddenly, I was standing on top. After three grey days, blue sky was finally breaking through.

I followed the ridge west to the next summit, Corranabinnia (714 metres, but unnamed on OS maps), and suddenly all the wild islands and mountains of Mayo opened up around me: Clare Island, Inishturk, Croagh Patrick, Mweelrea, the Sheeffry hills, Achill. But my plans for the day were thrown off course.

I had intended to follow the hills onwards to Claggan Mountain and camp there for my final night. But with the wind picking up, the razor- sharp ridge to Corranabinnia’s south-west top looked daunting. So I chickened out and zig-zagged down the steep – but relatively sheltered – south face of the mountain to forestry in the valley below.

Then thick mist rolled in, and my motivation to camp deserted me. I checked the map and realised I was only 13 kilometres from Newport, so I wimped out again. With a cramped shoulder, swollen ankle, and my knee starting to give in, I called it quits and walked to the town’s hostel.

Robert Lloyd Praeger may have deemed the Nephin Begs Ireland’s loneliest landscape, but he still found them uplifting. “You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature, and you may feel dimly something of your own littleness and your own greatness,” he wrote. The Nephin Begs inspired him to tell his readers to “go up to the hills, as sages and saints have done since the beginning of the world”.

It strikes me I’ve still only experienced a fraction of this landscape. There are dozens of streams and lakes in the forest I’ve yet to see, summits I’ve yet to reach, remote mountain valleys, spurs and lakes I’ve yet to explore. Walking out of the Glendahurk valley, I asked myself: have I just experienced real wilderness? It’s not for me to say. Come to the Nephin Begs, go up to the hills, and find out for yourself.