Geopark a non-starter, says UFU

The Ulster Farmers’ Union says farmers in the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council (NMDDC) borough are unanimously opposed to the council’s plans to submit an application to UNESCO to attain UNESCO Global Geopark status. The proposed area would stretch from just north of Killyleagh in County Down to Silver Bridge in south Armagh.

The comments were made following meetings with NMDDC council representatives and representatives of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland who claimed Geopark status would bring increased recreational opportunities, promote social inclusion and create healthy bodies and minds.

UFU deputy president, Victor Chestnutt said, “UFU members were far from impressed with the promises being made by officials. The Geopark application is based on the geological status of the area, coupled with the beauty of the landscape. 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 farmers’ 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 within the borough. This is unrealistic and their approach is disappointing. We are 100% opposed to these plans, and this in itself speaks volumes. I would urge the Council to meet our members, listen to their concerns and reconsider their plans to progress with such an application.”

The area around Cuilcagh Mountain and the Marble Arch Caves in County Fermanagh is currently the only region in Northern Ireland with UNESCO Global Geopark status. “Officials need to recognise that the viability as farmland of the UNESCO Global Geopark area in County Fermanagh is very different when compared to the proposed Geopark area in County Down and south Armagh.  The council must provide the figures to our members to support their claim that UNESCO Global Geopark branding will help grow any farm business.  Until our members see these figures in black and white, they will continue to dispute any such claims.” said the UFU deputy president.

With local government elections, fast approaching the UFU believes the time is right to review any proposed application to UNESCO. “The UFU have made contact with each of the parties and all independent councillors who currently hold seats on NMDDC. It is disappointing that only a very small number of elected representatives have taken the time to listen and engage with the UFU.  We have many members residing and working in the area and councillors have missed a genuine opportunity to engage with their constituents,” said Mr Chestnutt. 

The stigma around the National Park debate in 2011-2012 is still very much at the forefront of farmers’ minds. At the time, UFU members were united in their opposition to these proposals. Mr Chestnutt says the UFU believed then, and believes now; farmers who live and work in the borough area should decide whether or not an area is suitable for National Park or UNESCO Global Geopark status.

Mr Chestnutt says he has spoken to a number of farmers in the NMDDC. “I spoke recently with a UFU member from Attical, one of the areas included within the proposed Geopark area. This member voiced real concerns in terms of bureaucracy, additional restrictions, governance, access, liability and the impact on the social structure of the area as a whole. As well as the possibility that this may lead to bigger issues such as the progression of this designation to National Park status.  At present, the council have put nothing on the table to reassure members and encourage us to reverse our position.

Tourism is one of the key drivers behind this proposal, however, the UFU says Tourism NI is visibly absent from any discussions. “We believe tourism in the area can 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 UNESCO Global Geopark status is not the way to do it,” added Mr Chestnutt.

“Our message is simple and direct – farmers in the NMDDC borough are strongly opposed to the council’s Geopark proposals.  I would urge all elected councillors in the area, council officials and the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland to fully and meaningfully engage with farmers in the area. The best course of action would be to rethink the Geopark proposal and focus tourism investment into wider promotion of our beautiful countryside,” said Mr Chestnutt.