Many Irish wildlife enthusiasts have been asking one question over the past year – what’s going on with the Wild Nephin project? Lenny Antonelli digs a little deeper.
Irish Wildlife magazine, Winter 2016/17
Jointly announced three years ago by the State forestry company Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the Wild Nephin Project’s stated aim is to create an 11,000 hectare wilderness area in the Nephin Beg mountains of north west Mayo. The most exciting element is perhaps Coillte’s plan to take 4,000 plus hectares of lodgepole pine and spruce forestry out of commercial operation, and to ‘re-wild’ the plantation into a large-scale mosaic of mixed woods and bogland.
Coillte said this would be achieved by thinning out the dense conifer stands, introducing native trees, and blocking forest drains to restore bogland. Rather than take an intensive approach to management Wild Nephin, as the project is known, would take these initial steps – then stand back and let nature take over. Under the plans, the forests would be combined with the mountains and bogland of the adjoining Ballycroy National Park to create a large-scale ‘wilderness’ area – the first of its kind in Ireland. Forest roads would be closed to vehicles, and simple huts erected for backpackers, in a bid to facilitate ‘primitive’ recreation.
Soon after Wild Nephin was launched, I wrote about it in various newspapers and magazines, including The Irish Times and BBC Wildlife. The plans were, and still are, wildly exciting. The Nephin forests could become the first landscape in Ireland with a self-willed, hands-off approach to conservation, with nature given free reign to shape the site as it pleases (save, perhaps, for the removal of invasive species like rhododendron). Nephin could mark a radical change in Irish conservation, which tends to be obsessed with grazing, cutting, coppicing, and generally managing natural habitats in a fairly intensive way.
Even our wildest areas (our mountain ranges) aren’t really that wild at all, grazed as they are to within an inch of their lives. Nature conservation in the European Union is largely driven by the Habitats Directive. This has been vital for protecting wildlife, but in my view it has one major flaw - it does not allow habitats to shift and evolve over time, as they naturally tend to do, but insists on keeping them in stasis.
For example, if Ireland were to allow scrub to develop on protected grassland – say because a farmer stopped grazing it – we would technically be in breach of the directive. But succession is a natural process that has shaped ecosystems for millennia, and though it sometimes produces low biodiversity stages like scrub, this ultimately becomes woodland – and allowing succession in the long-term leads to diverse, resilient, dynamic ecosystems.
Wild Nephin has taken its cue from the US model of wilderness areas, which designates large areas of wild land free from all human activities, where nature is left to its own devices. Right now, Ireland has no such areas. In 2013 Coillte and the NPWS signed a memorandum of understanding for joint management of the site, after a large feasibility study was undertaken, and a steering group was established to oversee the project.
But Wild Nephin has recently come in for some criticism online, and among Irish conservationists. The main bone of contention seems to be that while the project was launched two years ago with much PR and fanfare – including a slick YouTube video featuring An Taoiseach Enda Kenny – little has happened on the ground. One blogger, hillwalking guide Barry Murphy of Tourism Pure Walking, called the project a “charade” in a blog post last year, and asked why commercial felling, re-planting of conifers and fencing work has continued (something I saw myself when I visited the site last spring).
Then in August this year, a letter published in The Irish Times encouraged the government to give Wild Nephin legal protection as a wilderness area (a term that would need to be defined under Irish law). This was sent by Bill Murphy of Greystones, a former head of recreation and environment at Coillte, and the man who essentially founded the project and brought it to fruition. In his letter, Murphy complimented Coillte and the NPWS for their vision, but wrote: “The Wild Nephin Wilderness has no legal status and will continue to be under threat from potential future development, be that telecom masts, power lines, forestry, wind farms or inappropriate visitor facilities.” He added: “Giving legal status to the Wild Nephin Wilderness would protect this landscape as an area where nature prevails and human influence is minimal.
The week before Irish Wildlife went to press, I spoke to both Denis Strong of the NPWS, and Coillte’s new head of recreation, Daithi de Forge, to ask for an update on the project. Both assured me the project was proceeding as planned. Strong is chairperson of the Wild Nephin steering group, and has said that the project will be managed collectively by the group, rather than the NPWS and Coillte each looking after its own parcel of land. The research and guidelines prepared by the steering group, and by Bill Murphy previously, are now set to be consolidated into a management plan, which is due to be finalised by the summer of 2017. A consultant was set to be appointed to prepare the plan by the end of 2016. One of the management plan’s key tasks will be to recommend ways that the project can engage with the local community and bring economic benefits to the area.
ON THE GROUND
Driving into the site now, signs welcome you to the Wild Nephin Wilderness Area. But walk deeper into the forest, and you will see evidence of timber extraction, new fencing, and recently planted pine stands. So why is commercial forestry continuing – and when can it be expected to stop? Daithi de Forge and Denis Strong both have said that Coillte is bound by the terms of their forestry licence to continue to harvest, replant and fence areas of forestry until they receive permission to cease doing so from the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture.
“We’re legally obliged to do it,” de Forge said. But recently planted conifer stands should never be harvested, he added. “Stuff that’s been planted in the last few years – it’s highly unlikely any of that would be harvested. That’s not what we envisage from the area,” he explains. Denis Strong added that he would not expect much commercial extraction to continue beyond this winter, though this has yet to be confirmed. There was an agreement from the outset, he said, that Coillte would extract certain commercially valuable areas of timber from the site before the conversion to wilderness began in earnest.
However, it is likely that some extraction will continue in the years to come, though the plan is to shift the nature of this extraction from commercial clear-felling to a thinning of dense pine and spruce stands, creating light and space for native species to move in. It remains to be seen if this felled timber will be left in place (rotting timber can support a high degree of insect and bird biodiversity) or extracted for commercial use. Thinning trials have already taken place in part of the forest, while planting of native trees like willow, birch, rowan and hazel is expected to provide a source of native tree seeds on the site.
Daithi de Forge was also open about the fact that little has physically happened on the ground. “It has been some time since we launched the idea of the wilderness project – without indeed a lot to show for it in the meantime,” he admitted. But he said the conversion process, from commercial forestry, through a process of re- wilding and restoration, to a final light-touch management regime, could take about 10 years. “We’re gradually stepping back from treating the forest in a commercial forestry way, and moving to a different regime, with a view to getting down to much more light-touch management intervention,” he says. Two members of the Forest Service have now joined the Wild Nephin steering group, which would appear to be a positive development in securing the end of large-scale commercial forestry operations on the site.
The biggest challenge Nephin faces may be the spread of invasive rhododendron, which is spreading into the southern part of the site. The species also poses a challenge to the project’s philosophy of light-touch management. “If you just closed the gates and walked away, we’d just have a monoculture of rhododendron,” Denis Strong says. But dealing with rhododendron will be expensive and labour intensive. Strong noted that once the management plan is published, one of his main tasks will be to canvas for funding to implement its proposals in earnest.
Meanwhile, there are still plans to close the forest roads to vehicles, though there is debate about whether to convert them to hiking trails by allowing vegetation to encroach, or maintaining access for emergency vehicles. Two camping huts have already been constructed to facilitate backpackers, though not all walkers I’ve spoken to are in favour of them. On the Ballycroy side of the site, there are also plans to rebuild a derelict bothy under Slieve Carr, Ireland’s remotest mountain, and to upgrade hiking trails. Recreation will be a big part of the project. de Forge says: “What do we envisage in terms of wilderness? What kind of experience do we want people to have? How can they can get their boots on and get out and experience wilderness?”
Of course, the real test will be when walkers and backpackers arriving to the site can begin to have a more genuine wilderness experience, and when the signs of large-scale commercial forestry start to fade into new semi-natural habitats. Understandably, there have been a few raised eyebrows about the project in conservation circles – driven perhaps by Coillte’s questionable environmental record. And indeed, even if everything proceeds as planned in the short-term, the project’s long-term future is by no means guaranteed, as Bill Murphy’s letter to The Irish Times pointed out. So we must continue to maintain pressure on the NPWS and Coillte – two public landowners after all – to deliver on its plans. But rather than be too cynical, we should support the project while continuing to demand progress, and continuing to ask questions – that’s how we can help to ensure that the plans for Wild Nephin do indeed become reality.