National Outdoor Recreation Conference Raises Important Issues

Having attended the first National Outdoor Recreation Conference at the Clayton Hotel in Sligo last week, it is evident that while Sligo really has upped its game in terms of the provision of trails in the county, there is still lots to learn and improve on.

Sligo County Council, along with its partners like Sligo Leader, Coillte and the many farmers and landowners who provide trail access, do lots of great (and often unseen) work to get permission to develop the many tracks and trails that are important for locals and visitors alike. Indeed, since we began to take a more in-depth look at the rise in popularity of walking in Sligo, it is really noticeable that, following a national pattern, people come to Sligo primarily to walk and explore.

Minister for Community and Rural Development, Heather Humphreys, at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference, in the Clayton Hotel, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly 27JUN24

At the conference it was related during one of the many interesting presentations that tourists coming to Ireland now want to do a much deeper dive into what the country has to offer than they used to traditionally. Now, instead of arriving in Dublin and staying in the city, or perhaps heading off to well-known tourist cities and towns like Killarney or Galway, the visitor now wants to lift the bonnet on the hidden Ireland and see what lies underneath.

And in this context Sligo has many advantages. As people who came up to speak with us at the Sligo Walks display during the day commented, Sligo has a huge amount to offer walkers. We have a relatively compact county, with our biggest town located right at its centre. So people who stay in Sligo have a relatively short trip to get out and about and explore the county more fully. Being on the Wild Atlantic Way is another obvious advantage, so there’s tremendous diversity in our walks, where coastal, forest and upland walks, for example, are all clustered close together. So a visitor can get a lot in within a relatively short space of time.

Minister for Community and Rural Development, Heather Humphreys, speaking to Micheal O’Domhnaill of Sligo Walks, at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference, in the Clayton Hotel, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly 27JUN24

But the conference also pointed out the many challenges that come as part of the sustainable development of walking trails. According to several speakers, one of the dangers of creating so much publicity about certain trails is overuse and over-walking, with negative impacts on biodiversity and heritage in particular. As soon as a tourist gets off a plane at Dublin airport they get bombarded with messages about the must-see things to do in different counties. Benbulben represents an immediately identifiable link to Sligo, and Queen Maeve can also be seen as you approach the arrivals hall at the airport. Little wonder then, that these two walks –  Benbulben Forest Walk and the Queen Maeve Trail, are Sligo’s two most popular walks. We can add to this at a local level. Huge amounts of photos and videos of both locations can be found on social media and we at Sligo Walks are also prone to highlighting these walks more often than many other walks around the county.

Minister for Community and Rural Development, Heather Humphreys, at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference, in the Clayton Hotel, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly 27JUN24

At one level, this is completely understandable. Of course we will highlight the most interesting and captivating walks. Who doesn’t want to walk in the footsteps of Yeats or visit one of Ireland’s greatest great Neolithic passage tombs? As we distribute walks maps and information to hotels and tourist offices around the county, we encourage people to visit these places, hopefully staying for a day or two longer to discover more about the county. Therefore, hotels and bed and breakfasts fill up, restaurants are booked and other tourism experiences are enjoyed too, all creating opportunities for people who work in the tourism trade here.

But in the longer term, we do need to ask ourselves about the challenges associated with rising numbers of people visiting these sites. Traditionally Sligo has been one of the lesser known spots on the Wild Atlantic Way, but recent advertising investment has led to increased awareness, and as the numbers inevitably begin to rise, what will this mean for our most popular walking spots?

One speaker at the conference described the remedial measures that have been put in place in relation to Croagh Patrick. Located just outside of Westport, which has done marvellous work over decades to build tourism numbers, nowadays they have very real challenges  in relation to maintain their trails in light of year on year increases in walkers, particularly during the Summer. Similarly, the new stone path on Mount Errigal in County Donegal has made access to the summit much easier for people. But a consequence is that lots of extra cars are parked along the road leading to traffic congestion. While Sligo has yet to attract the tourist numbers that Donegal or Mayo attract, the county’s increased profile in tourist campaigns means that we need to be cognisant of the need to future proof our most popular trails.

Minister for Community and Rural Development, Heather Humphreys with Coillte team, at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference, in the Clayton Hotel, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly 27JUN24

One way to do this is to encourage people to broaden their interest across the county and to visit some of the lesser known, but no less spectacular walks. From Aughris  to Raghly, Ladies Brae to Knocknashee, the Yeats Trail and beyond, we have so many diverse and beautiful walks that are worth a visit. Spreading walkers around the county means less pressure on walks infrastructure and on biodiversity. One concern that was raised time after time at the conference focussed on the loss of or changes to habitat.  Strong arguments were put forward on the need to protect our natural environment and that planning is required to ensure that numbers on trails are in some way controlled and regularly monitored.

Another issue that arose was about accessibility. Plans for modern trails are very different to trails that have existed for decades, but those legacy trails, as they are known, are among the most popular in the county. Yet people living with disability or older people, for example, may have difficulties accessing these walks. This can be due to features like kissing gates that might block access for some, or even the grade of gravel that is used along a footpath being too big for a wheelchair user to pass through.

Minister for Community and Rural Development, Heather Humphreys with Sligo Walks members at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference, in the Clayton Hotel, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly 27JUN24

Public transport was another challenge that got a lot of discussion time. And it’s interesting that while the local link service in Sligo has brought access to some of our best walks – you can access Carrowmore, Queen Maeve Trail, Union Wood and Mullaghmore (to name a few) by public transport, you still need a car for many others. More joined up thinking is needed in this area.

And what is the greatest challenge of all was discussed, that of climate change, which is having direct impact on everything we do outdoors. Sudden deluges of rain can wash wide tracts of ground away, including steps and paths. Coillte, who develop trails in woodland and forest areas around Sligo, have said that they plan to move certain paths away from water due to the likelihood of flooding. In the face of the challenges from Mother Nature, now more than ever we need to look at how our tracks and trails are developed, maintained and promoted into the future, and the discussions at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference unveiled the great depth and complexities of the challenges at stake. 

For information on walking trails in Sligo visit www.SligoWalks.ie.