Disabled boy 'barred' from forest rambles as NI Water blocks wheelchair access
A teenager with cerebral palsy was advised by Northern Ireland Water to enter Woodburn Forest via a pathway that is inaccessible to wheelchair users after other entrances were blocked off.
Family and friends had raised £2,500 to buy Greenisland teenager Ross Hedley McCaffrey a new wheelchair that could be used on forest paths after he joined the Commons Rambling Club in Carrickfergus.
But when the group gathered at Woodburn Forest for a ramble in January they found almost all the entrances had been blocked off with earthen banks.
Local residents have been appealing to NI Water ever since, asking it to unblock the access routes so that the popular forest can be used freely by elderly and disabled users as well as families with buggies - but to no avail.
The company, which is responsible for the forest around Woodburn reservoir, said it had erected the barriers at access points on Paisley Road and Councillor's Road to prevent "vandalism, fly-tipping and unauthorised vehicle access".
The move came in the wake of a heated row over forest access after residents were barred from the Paisley Road forest route while it was being used by a consortium carrying out exploratory drilling for oil and gas.
Since the InfraStrata-led consortium withdrew from the forest last year after failing to find anything, vehicular access at Paisley Road has remained blocked off.
Ross's mum Saskia Hedley had contacted the Equality Commission to make a complaint of unlawful discrimination against NI Water, but has now been told that it will not be taking the case on.
She and her four children enjoy going for forest walks when they are visiting the north coast, so they had joined the local Commons Rambling Group and found it very accommodating of Ross's disability.
"The biggest thing for Ross is being outside. We had raised £2,500 to get him a buggy that is easier to push on the likes of these walks - and then you hit these obstructions when you are out," she said.
"It takes four men to lift him over.
"We try to do things outside. They are all outdoorsy kids and the rambling group have changed a lot of their routes on a Sunday, which is good, so they end up walking on roads through places like Monkstown Forest so that Ross can join in."
Saskia said they had gone out with the ramblers in January, only to find the earthen barrier blocking the way.
"Even for females with buggies it's hard work, never mind anything else," she added.
John McDermott of the Commons Rambling Club said there were also a few elderly members of the group who were able to walk on the flat ground, but were unable to negotiate obstructions and banks.
"We highlighted it to NI Water and they told us to use the anglers' car park and walk to Woodburn," he said
The alternative for walkers is a route that has a low barrier across the pathway.
Ulster Unionist MLA John Stewart said the access routes had all been free to the public prior to the drilling, but had never been reopened.
He said NI Water had been willing to have talks about talks, but things had hit a brick wall.
"If this is meant to be publicly accessible then it's not disability-friendly. NI Water are saying there is a car park that is accessible for everybody - what about the other seven or eight that aren't?" he said.
"I would say to NI Water, please return the access for the public to its original state.
"I don't think it's right that young people who are in wheelchairs can't enjoy access.
"I think there needs to be access for everybody to what is a very popular site."
NI Water said it did not wish to prevent the public from accessing the forest.
"However, our priority is to protect the catchment area and also to discourage those intent on using the area for unlawful activities which has been a problem over the last couple of months," it added.
"This may on occasion require that access be restricted.
"There are safe parking areas off the Woodburn Road, adjacent to Woodburn Presbyterian Church, and also adjacent to Lower Middle South reservoir, which provides pedestrian access into that part of the Woodburn Forest.
"There is also a car park in the vicinity of North Woodburn reservoir, which can be used by members of the public if they so wish.
"NI Water has been liaising with the local council regarding a variety of issues at Woodburn Forest, which includes access, fly-tipping and the use of scramblers.
"These discussions are ongoing in an effort to resolve these matters."