Conor Pass bought by State for ‘less than €6m’, paving way for Ireland’s first marine national park

Details of Co Kerry amenity announced in Dingle to coincide with Earth Day

Ireland’s first marine national park was announced on Monday, incorporating seas off the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry and important adjoining onland areas including the scenic Conor Pass, which has been acquired by the State.

Details of Páirc Náisiúnta na Mara, Ciarraí were outlined by Minister for Nature Malcolm Noonan and Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien at an event in Dingle to coincide with Earth Day. The park is expected to boost outdoor tourism in the region and to provide better protection of its rich biodiversity.

The Irish Times reported earlier on Monday that the State had reached a deal to purchase 1,400 acres at the Conor Pass.

Confirming the purchase later, Mr O’Brien said the State paid significantly less than the €10 million that the American owner of the pass was seeking. Pressed further, the Minister said the State paid about half of what was being sought.

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Government sources put the figure at “less than €6 million”, saying “we got a good deal for the State”.

This is in addition to a suite of new sites that have been acquired by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) across the Dingle Peninsula, including lands at Inch beach, Mount Brandon and the Owenmore river – all of which have “exceptionally high biodiversity and heritage value”.

Ecologically important marine areas are also to be rolled into the country’s eighth national park, as well as a host of islands, including the Blaskets, with important populations of breeding seabirds, in collaboration with the Office of Public Works, Birdwatch Ireland and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

According to sources, no new designations are expected, as sites within the park are already heavily protected under existing biodiversity laws. Its aim is to maximise biodiversity protection in the context of habitats, while also supporting tourism. At 70,000 acres in total, it will be Ireland’s largest national park.

One of Ireland’s highest mountain crossings, the narrow twisting roadway through the Conor Pass runs for 12km between Dingle and Kilmore Cross on the north of the Dingle Peninsula. The lands are noted for spectacular mountain scenery and natural beauty. With sweeping valley views, the glaciated landscape is popular with tourists, walkers and cyclists.

The US-based owner Michael Noonan bought the property in parcels over several years and farmed it grazing sheep. Overlooking Brandon Bay, the lands comprise about 1,000 acres of grazing land, some 400 acres of forestry and three lakes; Lough Atlea, Lough Beirne and Peddlar’s lake.

Conor pass map

When it came on the market then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government was interested in buying the lands but only at a “reasonable price”.

The Dingle Peninsula is designated under the EU birds directive as a special protection area for rare and vulnerable species. Inch dunes have significant Natterjack toad populations, the Owenmore is an important habitat for freshwater pearl mussels. The Conor Pass and Brandon is rich in blanket bog, while puffin, storm petrel, razorbill and gannet are valuable bird species on the islands, and sharks and rays are considered among its most important marine species.

Pressure on the Government to enhance protection off the west coast coincides with a newly-designated “hope spot” off the Greater Skellig coast, an area noted for high conservation value.

Hope spots are scientifically identified as critical to the health of the ocean and designated by marine conservation movement Mission Blue. The 7,000km2 of coastal water stretches from Kenmare Bay in Co Kerry to Loop Head in Co Clare. Led by oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earl, the initiative has listed 148 hope spots globally. Through designations of special places for conservation it seeks to inspire public awareness and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas.

Mr Noonan said Ireland’s first marine national park brings mountains, blanket bog, heaths, rivers, coastal dunes, limestone reefs, sea cliffs “and some of the wildest land and seascapes in the country together in celebration of nature”. It will be a flagship for the protection and restoration of these incredible places and the globally important array of wildlife that they are home to, he said.

The park will also honour the island and coastal communities who live alongside it, he said.

Eight years ago a community group, An Clochán Greenway Community Group, commissioned an environmental and engineering feasibility study on the development of a looped walkway from Dingle town to and from An Chonair Brandon and Mullach Béal.

Most of this route now will form part of the new national park owned by the State.

The longest serving councillor in west Kerry, Seamus Cosaí Fizgerald, a farmer, keen walker and a leading member of the group for the development of the looped greenways, hopes the purchase of the land will make it easier to advance the 2016 plans.

“Before we were dealing with a number of private land owners – it should be easier now to develop a walkway through State-owned land,” the councillor said.

Marine biologist Kevin Flannery, founder of Mara Beo sea attraction in Dingle which works closely with the fishing industry in Kerry, said he welcomed the fact areas such as Inch dunes – a golf course was once planned for the dunes – were now in State hands.

However, he said local fishermen had not been consulted and were unsure what the designation would mean for their industry, mostly lobster and crab fishing.

Last week Kerry County Council confirmed it was again working with Fáilte Ireland to put in place a one way traffic system for Slea Head on the Dingle peninsula to ease traffic congestion for locals.

Mr O’Brien said sustainability was at the core of the new designation and this meant balancing the needs of tourists and locals.

A national park was “the highest form of protection a state can offer”, Mr Noonan said. The next stage would be collaboration on a master plan with local communities.

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