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Ulster University has today announced it is working with Donegal County Council to protect popular trails across the county from environmental harm and destruction, as the COP27 world leader climate change conference begins to draw to a close in in Egypt.

Part of a wider EU project, Trail Gazers has seen the university take the lead in Ireland and create a dashboard that maps the level of footfall on trails across County Donegal via a sensor network. The data and insights this generates are then used to inform and future-proof trail management and maintenance plans.

Through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Ulster University is able to provide the council with forecasts of visitor numbers based on present and past use of particular trails. As a result, and in addition to its obvious green credentials, Trail Gazers is also generating customer insights which is enabling the council to develop a range of business-to-consumer initiatives and services in the local area. This will enhance visitor experience and increase dwell times, delivering a boost to tourism for Co. Donegal.

Alongside Donegal County Council, the university has been looking at environmentally-sensitive trail sites, such as the Inch Levels Wildfowl Reserve in Burt, Co. Donegal, where footfall levels on certain areas of the trail need to be controlled throughout the year to minimise the possibility of adverse environmental impact.

Speaking about the work, lead researcher Elaine Ramsey, Professor of Innovaton at Ulster University, said:

“The Trail Gazers project has provided the foundations and pathways to future trail development and sustainability within and across the Atlantic Coastal Area. The technical products developed in the project, including the footfall dashboard, have helped to identify optimal future trail management strategies, in particular around sustainability.

“Overall, the project has successfully established how recreational trails can be used as catalysts to support the economic and social development of small rural economies and communities in an environmentally sustainable way.”

Catherine McLaughlin, Planner and Research Officer at Donegal County Council, said:

“Working alongside Ulster University on the Trail Gazers project has provided a collective platform that has brought us closer to nature and the environment, trail users, surrounding communities, including local SMEs, and as such, has achieved a socially inclusive approach. The data and key learnings and knowledge generated from the project will better inform the development of future community trail plans and strategies.”

Lee McDaid, Wildlife Ranger, National Parks and Wildlife Service, said: 

“The footfall sensors at Inch Wildfowl Reserve play a crucial role in identifying and responding to potential environmental pressures on the site. The functionality within the Trail Gazer dashboard now enables us to understand user patterns in very localised areas at particular times of the year. This evidence base will directly inform our site management plan and drive location specific conservation actions for example, new measures to safeguard roost sites and feeding grounds for overwintering waterfowl.”

More information on the project can be found here.