Farmers opposed to geopark plans

Farmers opposed to geopark plans

13 March 2019

PLANS to secure world renowned tourism branding for an area stretching from Strangford Lough to South Armagh have been dealt a major blow this week.

As Newry, Mourne and Down Council prepares to submit a bid to secure prestigious UNESCO geopark status for an area taking in the Mournes, Ring of Gullion and the Strangford and Lecale Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has labelled the proposal a “non starter”.

Consultants have been working on the council’s bid for geopark status ahead of a formal application being made this November.

Supporters of the ambitious plan insist that securing geopark status is primarily about environmental sustainability and trying to increase economic revenue in a part of the world already revered for its stunning beauty.

Geopark branding is one of the key planks of the local authority’s tourism strategy with those involved in the process confident it has the potential to increase the number of international visitors to the area.

However, the Ulster Farmers’ Union — whose representatives met recently with local authority officials and representatives from Geological Survey NI — says farmers are “unanimously opposed” to the geopark.

While it has been suggested that securing geopark branding could potentially be worth in the region of £3m for local tourism, the farmers’ union says it is “far from impressed” at the assertion that the designation will bring increased recreational opportunities and promote social inclusion.

UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt said farmers in the Newry, Mourne and Down area were were “far from impressed” with promises made by officials they met recently. 

The UFU official continued: “I would like to remind these officials that farmers have been the custodians of the land for hundreds of years. Imposing a designation on this area will affect their livelihoods which will have a knock-on effect on all ratepayers in the area.  

“Council officials believe and are promoting that this designation will not restrict the operations of any farmer. This is unrealistic and their approach is disappointing.

“We are 100% opposed to these plans and I would urge the council to meet our members, listen to their concerns and reconsider their plans to progress with such an application.”

Mr Chestnutt is encouraging local authority officials to provide figures to UFU members to support claims that geopark branding will help grow farm businesses, confirming that until farmers see the figures in black and white, they will continue to dispute any such claims.

The UFU vice-president said with local government elections fast 

approaching, the organisation believes the time is right to review any proposed geopark application.

He continued: “The UFU has made contact with each of the parties and all independent councillors who currently hold seats on Newry, Mourne and Down Council and it is disappointing that only a very small number have taken the time to listen and engage with us. We have many members residing and working in the area and some councillors have missed a genuine opportunity to engage with their constituents.”

The senior union official said the “stigma” around the Mournes national park debate a number of years ago is still very much at the forefront of farmers’ minds, explaining that at the time, UFU members were united in their opposition to the proposals. 

Mr Chestnutt said the UFU believed that farmers who live and work in the area should decide whether or not an area is suitable for national park or global geopark status.

He said the council had put nothing on the table to reassure members and encourage them to reverse their position.

With tourism one of the key drivers behind the geopark branding, Mr Chestnutt said Tourism NI was “visibly absent” from any discussions.

He said farmers believed tourism in the area could be developed without the need to introduce a special designation. 

“The funding and resources the council has earmarked for the development and operation of the proposed new geopark should be redirected to the general promotion of tourism and infrastructure development. We are in favour of economic development but securing geopark status is not the way to do it,” he declared.

Mr Chestnutt added: “Our message is simple and direct – farmers in the area are strongly opposed to the geopark proposal and I would urge all councillors, council officials and the Geological Survey of NI to fully and meaningfully engage with us.

“The best course of action would be to rethink the geopark proposal and focus tourism investment into wider promotion of our beautiful countryside.”

A spokesman for Newry, Mourne and Down Council said the geopark had the potential to make a “significant contribution” to local communities and tourism in the Mourne, Ring of Gullion and Strangford and Lecale areas.

“It is important to understand that a geopark is not a legislative designation and will therefore not place any restrictions on economic activity within the proposed areas, including on any farming practices,” he said.

“The introduction of a geopark will not introduce additional planning restrictions and instead will simply provide an globally recognised accreditation.

“The geopark will only include sites which already have public access and the geopark will not promote any access to private land, unless the landowner in question wants to work with the geopark.”

The spokesman added: “The process to achieve geopark designation is ongoing and it is not until 2021 that an accreditation would be confirmed as part of this ongoing process.

“In the meantime, the council will continue to deliver events and activities to increase awareness of what the project represents and how it can grow our tourism offering and support our local communities.”