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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 09:25 GMT
The end of the road for NI walkway?
Part of the Ulster Way goes through the Mournes
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By Mike McKimm
BBC Northern Ireland environment correspondent

The future of a 600 mile walking route around Northern Ireland is in the balance.

The Ulster Way was set up in the mid-1970s by keen walkers at the behest of the Department of Environment and the Sports Council.

However, since its launch, it has often been under fire over land ownership and whose responsibility it was.

A new organisation, the Countryside Access and Activities network, an umbrella group representing those interested in recreation, has been set the task to decide if the Ulster Way is viable.

Ulster Way: The 600 mile walkway is under threat

There are two key problems to consider - the lack of ownership of the route and the access it provides.

Some say bits of the route have already been abandoned or closed because of lack of use or disgruntled landowners.

Some parts of the route around Belfast have actually disappeared and even local people cannot agree where the paths start and end.

When the Ulster Way was set up, no specific ownership was agreed.

Custodial duties were shared out between some government agencies and local councils.

'Super routes'

Added to this was the fact that, where the route crossed private land, permission was often assumed rather than set down as fact.

That is coming back to haunt the future of the Ulster Way.

Meanwhile, a dozen new 'super-routes' have been launched around Northern Ireland.

Aimed at those looking for the shorter day-long walks, they are on controlled paths and each one is owned and maintained by a local council who even provide insurance for those who use them.

Ironically some of the new routes follow the same paths as the Ulster Way.

The reason for the new routes was to cater for the family who wanted to have a brief walk through the best of the local scenery instead of the long distance adventure.

Final decision

It also seems that fewer people are travelling to Northern Ireland to use the longer Ulster Way and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland has received an increasing number of complaints from visitors who could not find parts of the route they wanted to walk along.

As a result of this, some groups want to abandon the Ulster Way.

To keep it going would require a lot of financial assistance and a renegotiation over the use of private land.

Some landowners have already made it clear they don't want the Ulster Way running through their property.

The only option would be to come up with new bits for the route, which would defeat the purpose of the original Ulster Way.

Unlike other parts of Britain and Europe, much of the land in Northern Ireland is under private ownership.

Ireland has no history of long-distance paths so they have have to be artificially created and promoted.

A small population and a lack of tourism because of the civil unrest made it hard to develop such a major project and that will be in the minds of those who have to take the final decision.

Curiously, at the last minute there has been something of an upswelling of support for the Ulster Way from local walkers, indignant that it could be closed.

However, the real test will be by those who vote with their feet and walk along it.

BBC NI environment correspondent Mike McKimm reports
"Is it the end of the road for the Ulster Way?"
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