Increasing urbanisation and the health benefits of an active lifestyle have created a demand for outdoor recreation. Forests provide an environment where it is possible to escape from the stresses of modern life, to connect with nature and the countryside and experience tranquil and scenic places. Forests also provide wild areas where activities such as mountain biking, orienteering and other active and challenging sports can be pursued. The development of forests for recreation is seen as an important aspect of sustainable forestry and there is an increasing recognition of the wide ranging benefits that forests provide to society. Today, recreation is perhaps the most important non-timber service provided by forests.
Since the early 1970s there has been an active programme of providing recreational facilities in Irish state forests. Todate, some 150 recreational sites and 11 forest parks have been established in forests throughout the country. Most of these facilities were established by the Forest Service which today are being maintained and expanded by Coillte. In addition to the provision of recreational sites – picnic areas, trials etc., Coillte also has an Open Forest Policy that allows free public access to all parts of its 445,000ha forest estate.
While Coillte is the main provider of forest recreation in Ireland the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) also provide open access to native woodland areas in their national parks and nature reserves. Urban forests owned by County Councils and local communities are public forests primarily established and managed for recreation. These are relatively small in size but being located near population centres are popular and frequently used. Recreation in private/farm forests is limited at present, but there is willingness by many owners to develop facilities which will provide income from the forest in addition to timber.
Forests are a very valuable recreation resource attracting millions of visitors each year (estimated at 18 million visits to Coillte forests by Fitzpatrick Associates in 2005). Forests as tourism infrastructure contribute significantly to the economic output of the country. The public good benefits are also extremely valuable in supporting the forest industry by increasing the return on investment and gaining support for improved investment in forest-related activities.
Forest recreational areas are located in all counties in Ireland. The Coillte Outdoors website is the main online source of forest recreation facilities in Ireland which provides comprehensive information on recreation in Coillte forests. Recreation areas can be easily located by county and descriptions of the location of the site and facilities together with maps and description of trails etc are available to download.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) also provide recreation facilities in the national parks and nature reserves. Many of these areas contain native woodlands that are important for biodiversity and nature conservation. Walking trails are provided with interpretive signage giving descriptions of the native flora and fauna to be found in the locality. The national parks and nature reserves in Counties Kerry and Wicklow are of particular interest for woodland walks in scenic areas.
Stopping by Woods
In addition to the Coillte and NPWS websites information on forest recreational areas is to be found in the recently published book Stopping by Woods by Donal Magner. This is an attractive, well illustrated guide giving comprehensive information on 340 forests and woodlands open to the public throughout Ireland. It gives descriptions not only about the forests and tree species but also on their associated flora and fauna, history and heritage.
DEVELOPING FORESTS FOR RECREATION
The Forest Service has a policy of encouraging the use of forests for outdoor recreation and has undertaken two initiatives to help with their development and promotion:
The publication Forest Recreation in Ireland – A Guide for Forest Owners and Managers offers practical advice on developing woodlands and forests for recreation. It addresses the main topics likely to arise within the Irish context, and also points to other sources of information. It is aimed at forest owners and managers keen to develop recreational opportunities, and also at the other key players involved, such as local communities, outdoor activity and sporting interests, environmental groups, local authorities and other statutory bodies, etc.
The NeighbourWood Scheme is a forestry grant scheme aimed specifically at realising the recreational and wider social benefits woodlands and forests can provide. The NeighbourWood Scheme helps local councils and others to create ‘close-to-home’ woodland amenities in partnership with communities for local people to use and enjoy. These ‘neighbourwoods’ vary greatly in size and location, from forests in the countryside and on the outskirts of our villages, towns and cities, to woodlands located in our more built-up areas. Neighbourwoods invariably become a focus for real local partnerships involving people from all walks of life intent on enhancing their local area and environment. They become part of the local identity and ‘sense of place’, and the benefits they create are enjoyed by local people.
Research on forest recreation in Ireland is still at the very early stages. A report titled Forest Recreation Research Needs published by COFORD identifies current issues, gaps and the research required to support and develop this increasingly important aspect of the forestry sector.
Interest in the economic contribution that recreation makes to a forest enterprise and the wider society has been the focus of a number of recent studies. Key papers and reports are as follows:
There are very few published documents on forest recreation policy in Ireland. The Forest Service while actively encouraging and financially supporting the development of forest recreation has yet to publish its policy other than the recreation guidelines for forest owners and managers and the details of the Neighbourhood Scheme. Coillte, however, has produced a comprehensive document outlining its general position and philosophy behind the provision of recreation by the company. It can be accessed at: