Eco-tourism is finally coming of age. All the attention on global warming and the impact of human activity on the planet is finally having an impact on the choices people make when they travel. Once you begin to understand the damage that our everyday activities can cause to the environment, it is difficult to ignore. We have tried very hard to make changes to our lifestyle that not only limit or eliminate damage, but also to take steps to redress the balance in favour of nature. This principle has been the foundation stone of the development at Nire Valley Eco Camp. From the very start we were determined to create a business that was successful as well as promoting ecologically sound principles, sustainability, biodiversity and eco-tourism.

Design

There is nothing accidental about the design of the Nire Valley Eco Camp. Everything was carefully thought through. The land use, water use and waste water treatment, cabin design, materials and construction, site layout, waste disposal, light pollution, visual impact, environmental impact, local and community impact, wildlife and biodiversity, were all considered as important to the design of the site and its amenities. The amazing thing is that, with all the constraints that such considerations can place on a project, we have not had to compromise in any way with the standard of accommodation or the level of comfort in the cabins. Where there is a will there is a way to sustainability.

Land management

Our site is predominantly semi improved, dry-humid, acid grassland. That is a bit of a mouthful, but basically the soil is acidic and no fertilisers have been used on it for many years, allowing a varied but increasingly rare flora to take hold. Due to modern farming techniques and afforestation, this particular type of grassland now makes up a tiny proportion of the land of Ireland. It is currently only found in North and West Cork and West Waterford. We cherish our grass meadows and all the flora and fauna that thrive in it. We have been experimenting with various methods of mowing and grazing to find a model that increases biodiversity and sustainability.

Our hedgerows, made up of native trees such as hawthorn, blackthorn, holly, rowan and elder, are up to 10m deep in places, and they also provide a valuable habitat for birds and small mammals. Two, three-metre stretches of hedgerow were removed during the construction of the site, out of over a kilometre in total.

Construction

Our cabins are built on posts anchored to concrete padstones, reducing the use of concrete foundations by as much as 80%. They are built around a timber frame and are clad mainly in Cedar. The decks are built from Larch. We chose these materials because they are very resilient and resistant to rot. Therefore we have not needed to paint or preserve them with any chemicals. The interiors are clad in rough sawn Douglas Fir and the planks are caulked with jute. As well as a rather pleasing look it gives a really warm and cosy feel to the cabins.

All of these materials were sourced from a saw mill less than thirty kilometres miles from here. All the timber is Irish and mostly locally felled.

The cabins are solar powered and electricity comes from a battery. As such, people have to adapt their expectations for what they can power up while staying. Lights are fine and charging phones or laptops is no problem. Hair dryers are NOT going to work. Nor are electric kettles.

Hot water for showers and for heating in winter comes from a gas boiler. This is the biggest compromise we have had to make. We took the view that biogas is becoming more available and as a renewable product, when it comes from decomposition of organic waste, it is the least of many evils. Having said that we continue to explore our options, especially for hot water in the summer time, and we are experimenting with several low-tech alternatives, such as solar showers.

Although heating in winter is still going to be an issue (stoves are not an option) we have ensured that the cabins are well insulated, so that the heat requirement in winter will be low. When they get warm they stay warm for a long time. They are also designed to take advantage of passive solar heating, with large west facing windows that face the evening sun.

Integrated Constructed Wetlands

As we have showers and toilets in our cabins we had to find a sustainable way to treat waste water. Our research lead us to the Anne Valley near Waterford City where the concept of ICWs has been developed and improved over the years to the extent that they are now an accepted and very ecologically-sound method of treating waste. We have created a number of small wetlands on our site and these ensure that we have no impact on our environment as a result of the water usage on site.

We harvest rain water to help maintain water levels. The dense vegetation in the wetlands absorbs the nutrients and the water itself never enters the surrounding land, and is instead dealt with by evaporation and transpiration.

The wetlands constitute another ecosystem that complements the biodiversity of the grasslands and hedgerows.

Biodiversity

Fallow deer, rabbits, foxes, field mice, hedgehogs, red squirrels, white toothed shrews(non-native), pipistrelle and long-eared bats, pine martens and stoats are all present in and around the site. It is not unusual for a herd of wild deer to be found grazing in the middle of the day. The dry-humid acid grassland, with its wide variety of grasses, sedges and wild flowers, supports an abundance of insects and these in turn support other creatures, especially birds. As you walk through grass in summer you will often notice the resident swallows will swoop in front of you to scoop up the insects that are jumping out of your way.

We regularly see long-eared owls, barn owls, kestrels, falcons, buzzards, and any number of smaller species such as meadow pipits, jays, finches and tits. It is also possible to see some rarer species from time to time, and walkers in the mountains can often see hen harriers and the occasional eagle.

We are especially happy to see a number of bumble bee species, though not as many as we would like. We are exploring ways to promote their welfare by creating suitable habitats for over-wintering and planting bee friendly plants.

Education

While not wishing to preach, we are always happy to explain to people why we do what we do here to promote biodiversity and sustainability. We are still learning ourselves and it is a fascinating journey to be on. We like to think that while people will come here to relax and unwind, some might leave a little better informed about the world they live in and what they can do to improve it.

We are also big fans of the “We are the Ark” initiative, because sometimes sustainability is just not enough, and we have set aside many areas in our site for re-wilding or plant and animal refuges. If people are expecting a perfectly manicured landscape they will be disappointed. We do cut some grass but not much, and we mow the meadows in late summer when they have flowered, but other than that we pretty much let well enough alone. Nature IS perfect. You can’t improve on perfection.