ONE YEAR ON The gates to the Visitors Centre at Ballycroy National Park were closed last April. The centre itself is closed this April too but the vast National Park itself has remained open.
In the few short weeks since the 5km travel limit was lifted, Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park has noticed a significant increase in visitors.
The vast expanse covers 15,000 hectares of some of the most remote parts of this county and has proven quite a draw in recent weeks.
Staff at the National Park monitor counters on the spectacular Claggan boardwalk, hugging the Atlantic on the meandering N59 road north from Mulranny, and at the wild and beautiful Letterkeen Loop Walks, at the eastern end of the park, north-west of Newport.
Prior to April 12 and the 5km limit being in place, the counters registered 1,500 ‘passes’ a week. Since then, that figure has swelled to over 2,500 per week, an increase of over two-thirds.
“We’re expecting it to keep going up in the weeks ahead,” William Cormican, Regional Manager for Ballycroy Visitor Centre and the Wild Nephin National Park for the National Parks and Wildlife told The Mayo News.
Yesterday (Monday) saw many outdoor visitor attractions reopen but the sheer vastness of the park has meant it never closed during the pandemic.
However, their visitor centre and café remains closed.
“We hope to be able to open both as soon as it is safe to do so but we’ve no date for that at the moment,” Mr Cormican explains.
The only limitations that were placed on the rest of the 15,000 hectare park were the closing of car parks at various locations during the 5km travel limit.
“We had to close the car parks so that we were not encouraging people to go beyond their 5km. However, now, all our car parks are open and people have full access to the national park,” he added.
For while the area is vast, its remoteness does mean few enough people live within the 5km limit.
But with the variety of walks from its western edges in Ballycroy to the eastern end at Letterkeen and Keenagh, north to Bangor and Bellacorrick and south to Mulranny, mean that few places are better catered for social distancing than Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park.
Drive from Newport to Mulranny, north to Bangor, east to Bellacorrick, onto the Castlebar road and back down to Newport and the majority of the territory to your right on that loop is the national park. Put it this way, if you got lost in the middle of it, you could be there a while.
It expanded from 11,000 hectares when they acquired 4,200 hectares from Cóillte on a long-term lease. It’s on the eastern end of the park, incorporating the Nephin forest and includes Letterkeen. It is an uninhabited wilderness dominated by the Nephin Beg mountain range. The Owenduff bog, at the park’s western end, is one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in western Europe. It’s also home to the Mayo Dark Sky Park, which has drawn huge crowds over the years to witness the glorious night skies in that part of the county. Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park, Ireland’s sixth, was established in November, 1998.
Its visitors’ centre and café, located beside the village of Ballycroy, were open last year under Level 2 restrictions up to October but it is a waiting game this year to see when they might be in a position to reopen.
But in the mean time plenty of people looking to explore Mayo after the easing of travel restrictions are hitting for Ballycroy and Wild Nephin. It’s hard to blame them.