‘Hands off our land’ say farmers over park proposal

FARMERS living in and around Benevenagh fear that their livelihoods will be threatened by further bureaucracy if proposals to include the area as part of a National Park go ahead.
Aghanloo farmers Brian Casey and Geoffrey Douglas. INLV1312-354KDRAghanloo farmers Brian Casey and Geoffrey Douglas. INLV1312-354KDR
Aghanloo farmers Brian Casey and Geoffrey Douglas. INLV1312-354KDR

The idea of designating one or more areas in Northern Ireland as a ‘National Park’ has been floated at Stormont as a way of attracting tourists to some of the spectacular natural scenery to be found in a wide range of locations.

The area around Benevenagh has been suggested by some for inclusion in a ‘Causeway Coast National Park’, including the Ulster Society for the Protection of the Countryside, who said that the inclusion of Benevenagh Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would be the “first and easiest option.”

Now, however, local farmers have spoken out against the idea, saying that their livelihoods are already being severely restricted by too much ‘red tape’, a situation they believe can only get worse if their land is to become part of a wider National Park.

Geoffrey Douglas owns a section of land at the foot of the mountain which is already contained within an ‘Area of Special Scientific Interest’ (ASSI) known as Aghanloo Wood.

He explained why he opposed to the plans for a National Park: “They took over the land a couple of years ago when it became a part of the Area of Special Scientific Interest. They said it wouldn’t affect us. That changed when they did take it over. There were a lot of restrictions that came into place, meaning I couldn’t even put a fence in.

“The boundary fence was an issue with me. Our cows were breaking out into neighbouring grounds and getting out onto the road down below us. It is at a bad bend and I would have been worried about there being an accident. I was told that it was basically my fault that the cows were getting out, but I wasn’t able to put a fence in because I wasn’t allowed any mechanical equipment.

“I would have had to take the equipment and materials up by hand because I wasn’t allowed to take it up with a tractor or a trailer, and I had to take what I didn’t use that day back down with me. I was trying to get a boy in to put the fence up but when I told him about all that, needless to say, he looked at me as if I had three heads.

“It would have been my fault if a cow was out but I wasn’t able to put a fence up to stop it happening.”

Mr Douglas continued: “Put simply, there are enough restrictions already with the ASSI, and a National Park would be even more red tape. There are enough people to tell us what we can and can’t do already without even more coming in.”

Another farmer who lives nearby is Brian Casey, whose mother Mary explained his difficulties with the number of restrictions already in place. She said: “Gregory Campbell, our MP for East Londonderry, was asking Minister Attwood about this. I was actually reading this in the Roe Valley Sentinel last week. Basically, the DOE Minister’s answer was ‘I’m not finished with this and I won’t know the outcome until I am finished. There seems to be a lack of accountability, consultation, discussion and public engagement. There seems to be a real democratic deficit. There is so much red tape already, we don’t want more. My son can’t do his own work on his own land because of the red tape. They say you can’t even put a path in. You can’t take a tractor up through it. When you go to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment, they can’t help you. Is this a joke?”

Local farmers, huge numbers of whom are also worried about the potential impact of National Park status for Benevenagh, have received the backing of the Ulster Farmers Union.

North West UFU representative Henry Reid added: “Farmers have enough restrictions to worry about as it is. Things are not easy for the farming community at the minute and more red tape is the last thing they need.”