“There are more examples of poor uplands management practice than good examples.”
2 Territory: The centre point of this iconic uplands area is the village of Leenane (pop: 284 /Census 2011) which bleeds out to include Mweelrea (814m) rising from the northern shores of Killary Harbour, Maumturk Mountains (702m), Twelve Bens (729m), the Sheefry Hills (772 m) and the Partry Mountains (645 m). [Note: The Western Way (179km), a National Waymarked Trail, bisects the territory.]
3 Founded: Leenane Development Association (1985) / Leenane Development Association: Walking Sub Group (2012)
4 Genesis: Leenane straddles counties Mayo and Galway and is often described as the ‘Gateway to Connemara’ with picturesque mountains rising on each side of the 16km long Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord. It is noted for its exceptional fishing and notable geology made up of sedimentary, volcanic and metamorphic rocks.
The initial motivation for the overall group was to retain the local primary school, redress a declining population, and support local infrastructure and service enhancement. There was a significant capacity for walking but access issues were largely unaddressed. The development of two outdoor adventure centres of scale and capacity have been a major boost to the local economy and social fabric. Various development agencies were keen to support and facilitate progress. The formal addition of the Walking Sub Group and the immediate commissioning of a Feasibility Study (2013) examining outdoor recreation / developing an adventure hub in the area has put a spotlight on opportunities. Hill farming however remains in sharp decline with the migration, especially of the young, from the upland farms choosing lowland town jobs or emigration. [Note: The Leenane National School currently has 17 children and just retains its two teacher status. Not one of the children is from a farm family. The children of those working in the nearby outdoor adventure centres enable the school stay open.]
5 Vision: From a broad community perspective to stem the drift from the area by enhancing the local economy, improving services and facilitating greater community connection. From a recreational perspective it is to ‘support sustainable community and tourism participation in countryside recreation … and to maximise economic returns from these activities.’
6 Key Objectives:– Recreational: Secure designation as an adventure hub and pilot mountain access scheme; Drive the ambitious recreational work programme through a management group made up of all local stakeholdes; Emphasis will be placed on sensitive and continuous local consultation; Design a robust plan and secure the necessary resources to see it implemented. [Note: the four proposed pillars of the strategy are – secure formal mountain access; provide additional outdoor recreational amenities; improve trail infrastructure and deliver a communications strategy.]
7 Structure: The core specialist group comprises farmers (X1); Rural Recreation Officers, Galway & Mayo (X2); Tourism & Recreation (X2). All work is on a voluntarty basis, there is no designated administration. The financial and facilitative support of the two local LEADER companies has been significant. The sub group is formally constituted but is not a seperate legal entity as of yet. [Note: This work in progress was formally presented to Comhairle Na Tuaithe, the Countryside Council in 2014.]
8 Operational Management: There are no staff. Formal meetings are based on need to meet. Other partners especially the farming / landowning community are met on a regular basis. The folowing training needs have been identified by the group: Trail Development – Best Practice; Formal Planning Issues & Procedures; Negotiating Skills. The group have (and work hard to maintain) a good working relationship with all public partners. The group have access to 20 experienced volunteers which is most evident at festivals / events.
9 Annual Core Budget: No designated budget – to date the specialist group has worked with the LEADER companies to draw down funding on an initiative by initiative basis.
10 Sample Programming: Communications: The design and management by the overall group of the impressive village website which should inspire other upland destinations; Festivals: Local themes, well managed and sustainable and include Leenane Mountain Walking Festival (May) now into its 8th year which employs local walking guides, Leenane Autumnal Festival (September) celebrates and showcases crafts, heritage and food, Leenane 5 Mile Run (November) now in its 7th year, Leenane Blackface Sheep Show (June) now in its 45th year and, Leenane Ram Fair (October); Research and Planning: The sub group have commissioned the Leenane Killary Fjord Adventure Hub Feasibility Study (2013) and are now focusing on its implememtation.
11 Some Practical Problems Encountered: Presenting our case has taken up huge time for a voluntary group; In a time of scarce resources not all partners may agree with the prioritisation of all key actions; New planning regulations in designated areas are having a significant impact on the financial viability of some farms e.g. renew fencing with associated costs; The lack of dedicated resources to get things done … we have galvanised the community, assembled a capable team, done a plan but we are stalling due to lack of funds to get substantive things done.
12 Some Unresolved Issues: The two major issues are – mountain access and de-population.
13 Lessons Learned: Keeping the core group small and focused has proved efficient; There is no joined up government policy relating to the Irish uplands; There are 80 local shareholders with only a handful farming, this is similar all over the country; In relation to overgrazing of sheep on upland areas the group have learned from the Owenduff / Nephin designated Natura 2000 site in County Mayo where a programme of de-stocking from the commonage was a significant step in reducing grazing pressure on habitats and was a win win for all parties; Farmers are concerned about the environment and want to ‘do it right’; There is a growing problem with invasive species such as Rhododendrons and Wild Rhubarb; Although Leenane is in one of the highest rainfall areas of Ireland there has been no dramatic signs of the effects of climate change (e.g. increased precipitation); Upland sheep farming is a physically tough, time consuming and sometimes dangerous enterprise with marginal financial returns … without a radical rethink and re prioritisation this traditional form of farming will continue to fade away until we are eventually left with history.
14 Work Profile: Community Engagement 40%; Access Issues 30%; Environmental Improvement 20%; Administration and Fund raising 10%.