Opportunities for people to enjoy Ireland’s mountains have suffered a blow. The attack on Co Wicklow hill farmer Pat Dunne by a man who took three dogs on to Pat’s land, against Pat’s wishes, was reprehensible and has done a great disservice to the hillwalking community; a community that shares a passion for the same hills which are dear to Pat, and which respects those who live and work there.
Pat’s decision to close the Zig-zags Agreed Access Route to the public has to be accepted and respected. He did not sign up to enduring abuse, and he definitely did not invite this recent physical assault. Not only has Pat facilitated access on his land, for more than 20 years he has made a very positive contribution to building understanding between landowners and the outdoor recreation community through his involvement in the Wicklow Uplands Council and as an IFA representative. We wish Pat and his family well in recovering from this distressing experience.
While we are not aware of any other physical assault on a hill farmer by a dog walker, last weekend’s incident could not be said to be entirely unexpected. As well as verbal abuse from other dog owners Pat has even had his home threatened. And this is not unique to the Glenmalure valley – landowners elsewhere have spoken of similar experiences and some of us who have challenged people with off-lead dogs on the hills have received verbal abuse too.
The trigger factor in the Glenmalure incident was the presence of dogs. Without dogs the walkers would have gone about their business, and Pat would have waved a cheerful hello as they passed, as he had done so many times before. Dogs are not welcome in most upland areas on the island of Ireland mainly due to the presence of farm animals. Dogs can also have a negative impact on wildlife, particularly ground-nesting birds.
The law on dogs is clear. Liability for injury or damage caused by a dog is the owner’s responsibility, and all dogs must be kept under control when outside their home, with the added requirement of a muzzle and lead for certain breeds. While landowners are legally permitted to shoot a dog they believe is worrying, or may worry, their livestock, it would never get to that stage if people respect signage and the requests of landowners.
[ Wicklow ZigZags closed: Landowner says he is ‘fearful’ after being attacked by hiker ]
Poor behaviour by some dog owners has to be considered within a larger picture – there has been a huge growth in hiking in Ireland. That growth accelerated during Covid, with high levels of activity maintained since. Many people have discovered the enjoyment of being in the mountains and the health and wellbeing benefits of hillwalking. Dog ownership also increased during the Covid period and, combined with the growth in hiking, this has brought more dogs into the uplands. Our long-standing position is that dogs should not be taken onto the hills without the landowner’s permission.
While some hiking or hillwalking takes place on marked and agreed walking routes, most is based on informal access. On the vast majority of popular routes – some of these used for many decades – access is customary, or de facto, but there is no formal agreement in place with landowners. That arrangement has worked reasonably well for both landowners and walkers, but in the context of increasing activity it is clearly not future-proofed.
The Zig-zags Agreed Access Route was established in 2007 as part of a pilot project to bring structure and clarity to access for hillwalking. Clarity for both landowners and the recreation community, with insurance and support for landowners if an injured person attempts to sue. The model of agreed access routes successfully proven in Wicklow was expanded into a national Pilot Mountain Access Project, which has gained fresh momentum over the last year with the publication of Embracing Ireland’s Outdoors, Ireland’s first national outdoor recreation strategy.
Hiking and other forms of outdoor recreation are no longer minority activities, and they are a vital part of many people’s well-being and they contribute to the economy in rural areas. In 2019 an impressive 2.7 million overseas visitors to Ireland took part in outdoor activities, with hiking by far the most popular.
Finding a workable national framework for access is essential to support the continued development of Ireland’s outdoor recreation sector and if we are to avoid further confrontations and access closures. Central to any framework should be protection for the landowners who are facilitating access for recreation on their land. Other important elements include investment in managing and mitigating the impact of increased recreation on fragile natural environments, the deployment of rangers to positively engage with the public in busy locations, and the development and delivery of a national public awareness campaign on responsible recreation.
The necessary investment will be repaid many times over in the multiple benefits to society of a flourishing outdoor recreation sector and a healthy, active population.
Helen Lawless is access and conservation officer with Mountaineering Ireland, the representative body for hillwalkers and climbers on the island of Ireland