You could say we’ve been branching out. Over the past year, Ireland’s forests have been gifting us a lockdown lease of life; breathing a much-needed dose of dúlra and solace into our daily grinds. From nature trails with the kids or bonding time with our dogs, to pushing through those 5Ks, Ireland’s woods have become our natural wellness escapes. We’ve watched red squirrels forage, seen buzzards soar, and enjoyed the real-life page shift of Ireland’s nature calendar as wild garlic flourished; and then bluebells; and later, conkers. But as we’ve grown to incorporate woodlands into our daily lives, could these open-air amenities become more rooted into our national getaway psyche. Could forest breaks become the new coastal getaways. And yes, could beech become the new beach?
This week, Coillte revealed that in 2020, 2.2 million of us laid tracks in one of their 260 recreational woods located across the country. Visitors to the forests of the Dublin Mountains doubled, Curraghchase Park in Limerick saw its numbers triple, while in West Cork, Gougane Barra Forest Park saw numbers jump from 19,000 to 36,000. “We’re delighted so many people are using their local forests more during this difficult and prolonged Covid lockdown,” said Imelda Hurley, Coillte’s CEO. “Healthy forests are not only beautiful to look at but provide a much-needed physical and mental wellness boost.”
But enjoying leisure time (not to mention the idea of overnighting) in an Irish forest may not be as accessible as you think, with Ireland falling well behind our EU neighbours in terms of tree coverage and as a consequence, tourism amenities. While historically shrouded in native oaks, Ireland dipped to just 1% forestry in the 1920s; we’re up to 11% a century later. That figure still sees us lagging behind on the tree table with both Finland and Sweden sitting at about 70%. However, the Irish Government has ambitious plans to plant 440 million trees by 2040; that’s about 8000 hectares (or 20,000 acres in old money) of woodland per year. With both reforestation and afforestation, plus a focus on embracing native species versus more biodiversity-sapping spruce plantations, Ireland’s forest fortunes now look a little more budding.
How can this all impact Ireland’s tourism industry? While there are some exceptions, like Lough Key Forest Park in Roscommon and more recently Cabu by the Lakes in Cavan, there has never been a massive cabin culture in Ireland, nor myriad options to steal away to forests for a wilderness weekend. But this new appreciation of our woodlands together with green initiatives could see Ireland’s forests becoming a sustainable tourism niche for the future. Who knows? Maybe the next generation of Irish tourists will see a Center Parcs in every county or be able to spot a re-introduced wolf in the oak forests of Kerry? From these little acorns, a new niche of woodland tourism can surely grow. But while you wait for those saplings to take hold, here are three all-budget suggestions to get you inspired for your forest fix this summer.
Castlewellan Forest Park in County Down was one of my travel revelations for 2020. The 460-hectare forested estate, located on the foothills of the Mourne mountains is backdropped by a stunning castle, a postcard lake, as well as one of Europe’s most significant arboretums. And best of all, you can overnight at Castlewellan’s fully serviced campsite. Once pitched up, enjoy a range of outdoor pursuits such as kayaking and e-biking, with super facilities here giving the experience a very well-oiled feel. Pitching rates from €17 per night; book via nidirect.gov.uk
On my list this summer is another trip to Gougane Barra Forest Park — one of Cork’s true wild highlights, often bypassed by tourists veering for the coast. A hiker’s heaven, the park features a number of trails, from short woodland walks to the more strenuous Slí na Sléibhe route, which bags some incredible mountain views. To stay, Gougane Barra Hotel, overlooking that gorgeous lake and chapel, offers an almost monastic sense of retreat — with luxury — while lunch and dinner menus are a mouth-watering hat-tip to locally sourced produce. From €150 per night; gouganebarrahotel.com
The Ballyhoura region and the Munster Vales have been emerging tourism brands in recent years, but the great outdoors movement may see their popularity going up a gear this year. Nestled within the region’s foothills and forests, Ballyhoura Mountain Lodges remain something of a secret; their highly-rated cabins are sensitively designed with above par interiors and great views framing nature. Beyond them, you can enjoy forest loops, Ireland’s longest mountain biking trails, and regional attractions from Ballyhass Lakes to Limerick’s soon-to-launch greenway. Also dog-friendly. Summer rates from about €700 per week; ballyhouramountainlodges.ie