Changes are afoot for one of the island’s most popular scenic walks as the effects of last year’s snowfall continue to be felt.
The snow that hit the west coast in March 2013 took a huge toll on Glen Helen, with around 100 of the glen’s large trees toppled or felled for safety reasons by the Forestry Directorate during the months of clean-up and repair work that followed.
‘Glen Helen was one of the glens worst affected by the snow, along with Tholt-y-Will and Bishopscourt glen, and the worst in terms of the amount of trees lost’, explains Peter Keenan, southern area forester for the Department of Food, Forestry and Agriculture.
‘To look at it now you wouldn’t believe the state it was in. You couldn’t walk through parts of the glen, it was just a mass of timber.’
Besides the felled trees, which had taken away swathes of the banks, the greatest hazard was hanging branches, which could fall without warning.
‘We had to close the glen off as it was just too dangerous to allow access to the public,’ continued Mr Keenan. ‘It caused a few complaints, but we have a duty of care to ensure that everywhere that is open is safe to go into.
‘It’s a very popular glen and the public have been very patient, which we really appreciate. We are getting things back to the way they were but it’s taken some time because of the damage that’s been done.’
The entrance to the glen was cleared by the end of May 2013 with the help of a minidigger, but beyond that point there was no chance of bringing in machinery and the rest of the three-quarter-mile route to the Rhenass waterfall was manually cleared by a small team of tree surgeons.
The Forestry Directorate’s Jimmy Lee described the challenges: ‘The tree surgeons had to make sure the path was clear, ensure the river could flow and climb all the trees to clear the hanging timber, which is what really took the time.’
The main path, on the northern side of the river beyond the Swiss House restaurant, was reopened as far as the waterfall in November 2013. But it now appears the damage is beyond repair on the southern path which allowed walkers to complete a loop around the glen.
Mr Lee added: ‘There are trees on the banks that have either been blown down, or collapsed under the weight of snow, that have taken out parts of the southern path completely. The damage isn’t just to the path, but above the path as well’.
Mr Keenan said: ‘We think it would be easier in terms of time and resources to open a new path and maintain that, than spend our time trying to clear the existing one.’
Working from a map created in 1870, the search is on to find a new route based on the original network of routes that passed through the glen.
‘At that time it was riddled with paths, but it’s only the main ones that have been kept open,’ added Mr Lee.
‘What we’re looking at now is the possibility of reopening one of those to create a new loop.
‘They’d take a lot of work to reopen, but some of them have proper drainage and stone bridges already built into them.’
In the meantime the Forestry Directorate is planning to create a temporary loop by restoring access to a higher path which traverses the lower slopes of Beary Mountain and leads walkers back to the car park via the Eairy Moar farm road.
The route was originally cleared two years ago but remains closed due to significant snow damage.
The team must install new steps, improve the drainage, replace the boardwalks in the wettest areas and, inevitably, remove the windblown trees after the latest round of gales and storms.
‘We had it cleared just before Christmas, but since then we’ve had more trees down due to the wind so we’ll have to get back up there to clear it again,’ said Mr Lee.
When will the path be open? ‘As soon as possible is all we can say at the moment’, Mr Keenan said. ‘We’re here to encourage public use and the enjoyment of the glen. It’s just resources and time that we need.’
Mr Lee added: ‘With the small gangs of men we have and the limited amount of resources, we have to prioritise things. We have opened the glen as far as the waterfall, and the top path is our priority at present.
‘But this is only part of the work that we do: we have to deal with not only the glens, plantations and the wind-blown trees, but also with disease and emergency work.
‘If we get more wind damage near the roads we will have to stop and take care of that first. We thank the public for their patience, but we just need a little more time to get this work done.’