No doubt about it, our Sperrin Mountains are breathtaking. Though I live a long way from them now, on a good clear day I can still see their outline from my windows, a sight which takes me back to my childhood home in south Derry. Living much closer to them then, they were, in turn, shades of grey, gold, blue and purple, and during winter snowy periods, bridal white.
I inherited my love of mountains after my late father one of whose favourite songs was the Mountains of Mourne which he would sing to us occasionally. He was happy to sit outside the family home on a summer evening and gaze at the Sperrins in the distance, the inevitable cigarette in one hand, a habit which, sadly, greatly shortened his life.
I was wondering the other day what he would have thought of the row brewing over the Sperrins which, according to the Canadian company Dalradian Resources, have enough gold in them to create 350 full time jobs once an extraction mine is set up which, in itself, would create 300 construction jobs initially.
Prospecting activities have been going on there for six years and this has shown that there are more than four million ounces of gold in the local ground which, according to the company ‘could produce 120,000 ounces of gold each year’. It believes there are decades of work to be had.
The company has made representations to Derry and Strabane Council about its proposals and chairman of the Save Our Sperrins group Cormac McAleer is not happy, concerned, he says, about “the damage to what is an area of outstanding natural beauty’’. An understandable concern.
Mining for any precious commodity can leave a devastated landscape – think of the diamond mining in parts of South Africa, Brazil and India. Canada’s gold rush two centuries ago despoiled large chunks of its beautiful outback but would modern Canada be as prosperous now if that gold had not been discovered? But how will the Sperrins survive extensive prospecting? Will parts of them be left gouged and bare, observed as large dark areas from a distance? My father would probably turn in his grave at the sight. Yet advancement brings prosperity, jobs and homes for the people.
I think too of this week’s judicial decision to allow the A6 upgrade in Co Londonderry despite the best efforts of ornithologist and environmentalist Chris Murphy who believes it will destroy the wintering ground of the whooper swans, an area eulogised in the poetry of the late Seamus Heaney. In my childhood that particular area of south Derry was deprived and without much hope.
During the Second World War when the area had been requisitioned by the military, prosperity was temporary. When the war was over local men in their droves left for England to work on the fruit and potato farms.
Despite the upheaval of the war – and it was considerable - the whooper swans obviously returned and have been going there ever since, proof, if it is needed, that they can adapt.
Still, I think, Chris Murphy’s efforts are important and the message he is sending out is that we should treasure our special areas – and I think the Sperrins too is a very special place. Yet we cannot live without advancement using nature’s resources even when they are utterly beautiful.
The people of south Derry deserve to have good roads to enhance job prospects and the rest of us are also entitled to be able to get to our beloved city of Londonderry without having to negotiate B class roads.
After all, magnificent new roads enable us to drive from Belfast to Cork in just under six hours and few could say the reconstruction of the landscape in the process has been detrimental.
I cannot vouch for the wildlife except to say that as a frequent traveller to the south I’m not aware of a shortage of common birdlife. The southern and northern areas of the county of Londonderry are sharing their treasures with us. It is up to us to look after them.