05 Jul

"Let us permit nature to have her way. She understands her business better than we do." 

Michel de Montaigne

In December 2017, it was announced that the Wild Nephin wilderness region in Co Mayo would be integrated into the Ballycroy National Park, boosting its total size to 15000 hectares.

The general idea was that the park's expansion should aid conservation efforts in the Nephin area, including the protection of habitats and significant species including pine martens, crossbills, and long-eared owls. The decision was to also assist the park's tourism,  which gets 40,000 visitors each year.

The “Wild Nephin Wilderness project was first conceived by Coiltes former head of of Recreation and the Environment, Bill Murray in 2012. It was his idea that he wanted to see the area converted into “a large wild landscape” free from human management within 50 years. The area would not be developed to provide facilities for tourists as in a national park or forest park but would provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature and wildness in all its raw beauty and hardships.

The project's goal was for Coilte, the semi-state forestry business, to agree to phase down its commercial sitka spruce and lodgepole pine plantings in the area while also reintroducing and planting Irish native trees like alder, birch and rowan.

However, it appears that little progress has been achieved in returning the forest landscape to its more natural state after 8/9 years. To allow nature recover the area, an initial period of ecological restoration was carried out only, but it needed a lot more work to have been done at that early stage of thinning plantations, the blockage of drains on parts of bog, and the planting of certain native trees in order for the project to flourish.
According to available information, Coilte has planted 260,000 conifer trees in the Wild Nephin area after the time “Wild Nephin“ was launched. During that time, a comparable amount was also harvested. (The scars of which you see today). Almost 90 per cent of the conifers planted since 2014 in the rewilding zone were non-native lodgepole pines. Sitka spruce plantings make up the remaining 12 per cent. Only 25,000 native trees have been planted to date mostly of the pre mentioned types of rowan, alder, birch and with oak and beech planted In a lot smaller numbers.

It's also worth remembering that Coilte has only leased the 4000 hectares they possess to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), and it's possible, if not probable, that Coilte will again return sometime in the future looking to harvest their 260,000 trees with all the consequences of what  that entails. !

Letterkeen Loop Walk

The Letterkeen Loop Walk is a 10-kilometer hike in County Mayo's Nephin Beg Mountains. This hike, located on the south-east boundary of Ballycroy National Park, gives visitors an excellent taste of what the West of Ireland has to offer in natural splendor. It is also part of "Wild Nephin," mentioned in the opening narrative above. 

The moderate to difficult hike involves trail, forest track, and boggy walking conditions in a "wilderness" setting and takes you up to the slopes of Nephin Beg mountain, where you can get some spectacular views, especially from spot height 311.

1. Bangor Trail

The hike begins at the Brogan Carroll bothy in the car park of Letterkeen trailhead.

Brogan Carroll Bothy

 By going over the footbridge on the Altaconey River near the car park and turning left, you can follow the trail along the river for about a kilometer until you reach another footbridge. By going over this bridge and turning right, continue on until the trail opens out into the countryside.

First bridge beside the car park 

For about 3 kilometers, the surface consists of a stone and rocky surface that is boggy in spots, with stepping stones sited in various places.

Second humped back bridge

The Bangor Trail is an ancient and much trodden path, which leads from Newport, across the Nephin Beg Mountains and blanket boglands, into Bangor Erris. In the summer months the trail is scattered with wildflowers and interesting carnivorous plants and heather.

The trail follows the Altaconey river 

When you arrive at the Mountain Meitheal shelter, make a stop to admire the view of the Coranabinnia and Glennamong mountains. You'll leave the Bangor trail here and begin hiking through the hills at the foot of Nephin Beg, towards the Western Way. This part of the Letterkeen Loop walk is known as "Sheep Pass.

2. Sheep Pass

The unspoilt Forest

You'll continue your hike from the Mountain Meitheal shelter and make your way to the Nephin Beg slopes. If the area is not shrouded in cloud, you can enjoy the first good view of the Nephin Beg mountain and the surrounding area from here. The Western Way Forest Walk trail can be found by turning right off Hill 311 and heading down into the woods.

Coming off hill 311 dropping down into the Forest

This downhill section of the path can be wet and muddy, especially in the trees, making it easy to slip. The final small section has rocky, uneven footing just before you join the Western Way.

3. Western Way

The Western Way is a long-distance walking trail in western Ireland that passes through stunning landscape in the counties of Galway and Mayo. The route starts in Oughterard, County Galway's and heads north to Maum. It passes through the Inagh valley on its way to Killary Harbour near Leenane

The Western Way enters County Mayo at Aasleagh. It then continues in a northerly direction, crossing the eastern slopes of Croagh Patrick, through Westport town to Newport.The trail passes through the Nephin Mountains to Derry, Bellacorick and Sheskin where it traverses the most remote landscape.

From Ballycastle in north Mayo it follows the coastline through Killala and Ballina and on to the County Sligo border near Bonniconlon, over 200 kilometres from the start.

Once you reach the Western Way, turn right to return to Letterkeen via the Forest Loggers Route. This is the shortest section of the circular walk because the entire path is flat and easy to walk on, and you'll be back at the Brogan Carroll Bothy in no time.

Overall, a very enjoyable hike and a worthwhile experience if you can overlook the devastation left behind caused by the harvesting of Coilte trees.

The sun hits the mountains highlighting the beauty of the place

And a final note of warning !

The invasive alien species Rhododendron has expanded so far in this area that the entire "Wild Nephin" experiment will be jeopardized if it continues to thrive and spread unchecked. Unfortunately, the Rhododendron has a horrible propensity of taking over and shading out many native species by spreading all over their natural habitats. Often more of a small tree than a shrub, it can grow as high as three metres forming dense thickets. The surprising thing is as far I have seen, despite the fact that the plant is on the current list of Invasive Alien species it appears that nothing is being done to eradicate the problem.

Carpe Diem

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