New National Park for Ireland

© Dan Bailey

The Irish Government today announced the creation of a new National Park, the country's eighth. Located on the Dingle Peninsula, Páírc Náisiúnta na Mara, Ciarraí (Marine National Park, Kerry) includes land as well as sea, with sites dotted around West Kerry including the rugged Conor Pass, the ecologically important Owenmore River and the sand dune system at Inch Peninsula. Pride of place goes to Mount Brandon, one of the most spectacular of Ireland's 3000-foot mountains, a large part of which falls within the park's boundary.

The Brandon massif from Conor Pass  © Dan Bailey
The Brandon massif from Conor Pass
© Dan Bailey

All the land within the 70,000 acre National Park is now in public ownership. Offshore, it covers Great Blasket Island and the globally significant UNESCO World Heritage property of Sceilg Mhichíl (Great Skellig), with its impressive rock peaks and unique early Christian monastic remains.

"With the iconic Conor Pass as the gateway, Ireland's first Marine National Park brings mountains, blanket bog, heaths, rivers, coastal dunes, limestone reefs, sea cliffs and some of the wildest land and seascapes in the country together in celebration of nature" said Minister of State for Nature, Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan, speaking at the launch.

"Alongside its seven sister parks, Páírc Náisiúnta na Mara, Ciarraí will be a flagship for the protection and restoration of these incredible places and the globally important array of wildlife that they are home to. The Páirc will also honour the island and coastal communities who live alongside it by ensuring that their unique tapestry of cultural and natural heritage is central to the future story of this special place."

The move follows the recent purchase by the state of lands at Conor Pass. After this area went on the market, a petition was launched for the Government to buy it in order to rewild it and establish a National Park. The petition gained over 20,000 signatures.

Páírc Náisiúnta na Mara, Ciarraí will be dedicated to the protection and restoration of its biodiversity and archaeological heritage. That it has been established proactively by the Irish Government stands in something of a contrast to recent rather lukewarm moves to bring about a new National Park in Scotland, where community groups have been left by Ministers to make the case on a voluntary basis for the benefits of new Parks in their areas, and where several area bids were recently withdrawn following a lack of Government support and amid vocal opposition from landowners, farmers and crofters concerned by the possibility that National Park status might entail rewilding and species reintroduction.

The new Páirc brings together a number of disparate sites that have already been designated individually for their biodiversity and heritage value, and while it recognises their collective value for the first time it will not entail any new statutory burden on their management.

Crags and lakes of Mount Brandon - the best bits of the mountain are just outside the new National Park  © Dan Bailey
Crags and lakes of Mount Brandon - the best bits of the mountain are just outside the new National Park
© Dan Bailey

So what do local hillwalkers make of the news? We asked photographer, guidebook author and mountain leader Adrian Hendroff:

"The news of Ireland's eighth national park (and Kerry's second) is a positive one and a step in the right direction, I am absolutely delighted with it" Adrian told us.

"Encompassing a mountain pass, a peninsula, a mountain, a river, a sand dune and some islands - there is certainly a good variety to it. As an author of several Irish walking guidebooks, including two on the Dingle Peninsula, the news is somewhat comforting as most of the land surrounding Mount Brandon is in public ownership and access, particularly to the beautiful area of the Paternoster lakes, has been increasingly questionable. I am keenly awaiting a more formal announcement from the National Parks and Wildlife Service as to the extent of the Páirc Náisiúnta na Mara. I really hope the formation of this new national park will protect the area's biodiversity and heritage, as well as attracting more recreational tourists such as hillwalkers and outdoor photographers to explore its rich landscape."

UKH contributor Stephen McAuliffe, who lives in the wider area, sounded a more cautious note:

"On the surface it is wonderful news" he said.

"The Conor Pass area is rightly famous for stunning scenery. The new park will be somewhat fragmented however, consisting of various land pockets in the area. The southwestern slopes of Mount Brandon that sweep to the sea are in the park, but it is the 3000 or so acres that include the Conor Pass that fires the imagination.

"While the general image of Ireland abroad is on a green, wild land, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most ecologically denuded countries on earth. Where once the entire country was covered in a rich and diverse temperate forest, today precious little remains of our native trees. What little forest there is consists mainly of commercial plantations that offer little in the way of biodiversity. In the nearby Killarney National Park the beautiful ancient oakwoods are being strangled by rhododendron and suffering from a rampant deer population. This neglect is decades old and is a national disgrace.

"Now there is the opportunity to do something wonderful. In the Conor Pass area, a complete ecosystem is ready for creation. This stunning place has it all. In between the high rocky mountain tops there sits a wide valley with several lakes and a river that flows gently to the bay. With good management this could become a wild and wonderful place where some vestige of ancient Ireland could once again be seen. Re-wilding is becoming very much in vogue and people are generally more aware of what has been lost. Hopefully the powers that be will not just see the area as a pretty place for tourists to visit, but will see it as the opportunity of a lifetime to create a patch of Eden. Time will tell."

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I am incredibly excited for this development as a local(ish) walker, climber & all round mountain fan. While we have some reason to doubt the government's wildlife strategy I think this is an amazing step forward to starting to get serious about protecting our incredibly valuable uplands & marine life. One of the large benefits being that the obvious desire the state will have to make it contiguous will likely convince landowners to sell the uplands on an ongoing basis. Regarding the lack of faith in rewilding efforts, I think that criticism is well grounded & reasonable. However, I firmly believe that the National Parks & Wildlife Service is on the rebound and with a stronger legal framework coming down the pipeline things can only get better.

26 Apr

Anything that makes Ireland's mountains more user friendly than they are at the moment is to be welcomed.

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