Northern Ireland

Cuilcagh Mountain boardwalk visitors may damage peatland

Image caption Cuilcagh Mountain boardwalk was built to protect the environmentally-important bog from erosion

A County Fermanagh mountain has seen a 2,000% increase in visitors since a wooden boardwalk was built in 2015.

The "Stairway to Heaven" was erected on Cuilcagh Mountain to prevent erosion of the environmentally-important bog.

Visitor numbers have rocketed from 3,000 a year prior to opening to 70,000 in 2017.

Now an official report has said the increased popularity has "threatened to damage the peatland the walkway was built to protect".

Image caption Cuilcagh boardwalk has proved popular with visitors on social media

Cuilcagh is the second largest expanse of intact blanket bog in Northern Ireland and is a protected site.

Some restrictions are in place including a requirement for groups of 20 to have prior written permission before using the walkway.

Access to the summit of Cuilcagh beyond a viewing platform is not permitted.

The information is in a report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the value of peatlands for recreation, as a source of drinking water and for carbon sequestration.

The statistics show that in the UK walkers spent 179m hours on bog, spending £273m.

However, the reports said more research is needed to establish the true value of recreational use.

Image caption The boardwalk opened four years ago

Peatlands cover about 12% of the total UK land area.

In Northern Ireland, there are about 250,000 hectares but only only one fifth of it is estimated to be in good condition.

Peatlands are an important carbon sink, though damaged ones can emit large amounts of it.

Peat extraction for horticulture and drainage linked to farming are cited as the main impacts.

Peatlands are also an important source of drinking water and an EU-funded project is being run in Northern Ireland to improve raw water quality and limit treatment costs.

Image caption Groups of 20 people or more must seek prior permission to use the boardwalk

The ONS report suggests the bill for restoring the UK's peatlands could be £21bn over the next century but the benefits could outstrip costs by a factor of five when their improved capacity to store carbon is taken into account.

The report said decisions need to be taken now about the future of forests on bogs where the timber is of a lower quality and is harder to harvest.

The Committee on Climate Change, which advises government, has set an objective of have 55% of peatland in good status by 2050.