Navigating the Uphill Battle: The Struggle for Land Access

March 05, 2024

In a recent interview with Gaelforce Race Director Mona Purcell, the challenges of securing land access for trail running and hill walking events in Ireland came to the forefront. The intricacies of dealing with multiple landowners and navigating through commonage issues pose significant hurdles for event organisers. This struggle for land access not only impacts the planning and execution of trail races but also threatens the existence of cherished running routes for runners and walkers alike.

One of the most significant challenges highlighted by Mona Purcell is the complexity of land ownership in Ireland. When scouting for trails, organisers often encounter situations where a single hill might have over 10 different owners, typically farmers. The daunting task of obtaining consensus from all these owners creates a logistical nightmare, leaving event organisers with no option but to abandon potential routes. 

The battle for land access extends beyond dealing with individual landowners. National Parks and Wildlife present another formidable obstacle for trail running events. Purcell notes the reluctance of these authorities to grant access to hills, potentially hindering the growth of the trail running and hill walking community. While Coillte, a state-owned forestry company, proves co-operative, navigating the bureaucratic landscape with other entities becomes a time-consuming and frustrating process.

In addition to the challenges of land access, Mona Purcell emphasises the critical issue of a shortage of trails in Ireland. Drawing a stark comparison with other EU countries where trails are abundant, Purcell notes that the scarcity of trails in Ireland remains a significant hurdle. While some progress has been made in creating trails over the last decade or two, the pace is frustratingly slow. A key contributing factor to this sluggish development is the lack of positive communication and cooperation between various national bodies. The absence of a cohesive effort to establish and expand trail networks further compounds the difficulties faced by trail running and hill walking event organisers.

Our conversation shed light on how European Union grant policies add an additional layer of complexity to the struggle for land access. Farmers rely on these grants for their livelihoods, and the fear that trail running events might adversely affect the land creates a sense of unease among landowners. This has led to the loss of previously accessible land, resulting in the cancellation of races and the disappearance of some beloved trails around Connemara.

The consequences of the struggle for land access are felt acutely in the trail running community. Mona Purcell reveals that several races, including the popular sky run around Connemara, had to be canceled due to the lack of land access. This not only disappoints the participants but also threatens the sustainability of trail running events in the region. The loss of access to once-thriving routes underscores the urgency of finding solutions to this pressing issue.

The chat with Gaelforce Race Director Mona Purcell offered a glimpse into the challenges faced by trail running event organisers in Ireland. The intricate web of land ownership, resistance from National Parks and Wildlife, and the impact of EU grant policies all contribute to the struggle for land access. As the community grapples with these challenges, there is a need for collaborative efforts between event organisers, landowners, and authorities to find sustainable solutions and ensure the continued growth and enjoyment of trail running and hill walking in Ireland.