Northern Ireland

Popularity of Fermanagh's stairway to heaven 'bad for the environment'

Cuilcagh mountain
Image caption There are growing concerns about the walk's popularity

There are concerns about the popularity of a wooden walkway in County Fermanagh.

The 'stairway to heaven' at Cuilcagh Mountain was designed to protect an environmentally important bog.

But there are growing concerns about its popularity.

It has caught the imagination of thousands of people on social media who have been sharing selfies on the 666m summit.

Image caption The amount of walkers has risen dramatically

It opened in July 2015 to protect the sensitive blanket bog and restore areas of peatland that had been eroded in a special area of conservation.

The amount of walkers in the area has risen dramatically from fewer than 3,000, before it was built, to 24,000 last year.

Image copyright Lisa Bartley
Image caption The car park can only accommodate 30 cars

That number is expected to be exceeded this year, with more than 1,000 people setting out along the path on Easter Monday alone.

The wooden boardwalk begins after a 5km walk along a gravel path from the car park, before winding across the bog to the wooden staircase up the side of the mountain to the summit plateau.

Conor Moran, from Dundalk, and Martina O'Callaghan from Newry came to the walk after seeing reviews online.

"We thought it looked pretty cool so we just came down for a wee stroll," they said.

"I'd definitely rate it 10 out of 10. It's a brilliant view but it's a tough climb."

Image caption Richard Watson, the manager of Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, says the popularity has brought problems

Neil Robinson and Jackie Cairns, from Portadown, said they wanted to see for themselves what all the talk was about.

"It's being broadcast everywhere all over the country, all over the world, basically," they said.

"Google search "stairway to heaven" and that's just what it's like, the view is absolutely astounding."

However, the walk's popularity has grown more quickly than the facilities available.

The car park can only accommodate about 30 cars, and hundreds of vehicles have been parked on verges along the road at weekends and on bank holidays.

Richard Watson, the manager of Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, said the popularity has brought problems.

"There's traffic-control issues on the mountain. It's only a small narrow little country lane really leading through here," he said.

"We're getting some localised erosion on the summit of the mountain as well."

Image caption Increased traffic is also causing him problems with farm entrances being blocked by parked cars

He said he has mixed feelings about the popularity of the boardwalk.

"I've been looking after this place for 25 years and I'm pretty passionate about it so it's great to see other people enjoying that.

"I am a bit dismayed by the behaviour of a minority of people who are a bit too casual with litter for my liking."

Farmer Jason Moffitt said the increased traffic is also causing him problems with farm entrances being blocked by parked cars.

"It's hampering us trying to get from farm to farm. There's ewes lambing at this time of year and cows calving and you can't get at them quickly and efficiently if you're sitting in a queue of traffic all the time," he said.

"If the road was widened enough that we could pass each other on the road and there was more car parking there would be no issue."

Robert Gibson, the director of community health and leisure at Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, said the popularity of the walk has been spread by social media.

"There's no stronger message getting out in the tourism sector now than Facebook and someone quoted the words "Stairway to Heaven" and that's what it is and that's why so many people are attracted to it," he said.

He said car parking is going to be a challenge but plans have been put in place for weekends and bank holidays with stewards directing traffic and trying to ensure people park responsibly.

"Car parking will be an issue going forward but we don't want to destroy what people are coming here to enjoy.

"Nothing would look worse than a huge blank car park sitting in the middle of this environment so we're looking at solutions that maybe smaller areas, hidden areas, areas that are not within protected habitat so that we can meet the needs as it goes forward."