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You might not have heard of this park - but it's one of Ireland's top free attractions

Doneraile Wildlife Park in North Cork has been named as one of Ireland’s best free to visit attractions.

Image: Doneraile Online

A WILDLIFE PARK in North Cork is one of Ireland’s best-performing tourist attractions.

And while the natural beauty of the park may be the main attraction for visitors – many more people are hearing about it now, thanks to a decision made a few years ago to simply count the number of people entering the grounds.

The large entrance gates under the Triumphal Arch mark the formal entrance to the landscaped estate of Doneraile Wildlife Park. The park’s 166 hectares of land are full of mature groves of deciduous trees – and deer can be viewed from along the many pathways within the estate.

Doneraile Wildlife Park was named this week as Ireland’s fourth-most-popular ‘free to enter’ attraction of 2016 by Fáilte Ireland, attracting over 480,000 visitors last year. This was an 11% rise on the visitor numbers of 2015.

The annual Fáilte Ireland list of top attractions is eagerly anticipated within the tourist sector each year – and receives widespread attention from the national media.

Alongside Doneraile in the top five for 2016 are much better-known locations like the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin city centre and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham.

And though it’s regarded as a local treasure in Cork, Doneraile may not be a household name elsewhere in Ireland. The park made it into the top five ‘free to enter’ attractions in 2014, but fell out of the list in 2015.

Interestingly, it wasn’t actually eligible for inclusion in the Fáilte list before 2014 – because no-one could be sure how many people were using the park.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie Myra Ryall of the Doneraile Development Association explained that her group, working alongside Cork County Council, decided to install counters so they would have a tally of visitors.

“That’s how we have the official data of the figures,” she said.

It wasn’t being promoted before 2014. There was no counters, there was just a couple of locals saying we needed to gather together and get the counters.

The majority of the garden design and architecture of the park was completed in the early 18th Century, when it was home to the St Leger family.

The estate is regarded as a perfect example of an 18th Century landscaped park in the ‘Capability Brown’ style. Brown was known as one of England’s greatest gardeners.

“It’s a beautiful sight and speaks for itself. It draws in the crowds,” Doneraile Park superintendent Hugh Corrigan said.

The landscape draws people into the park, the fact that you’re away from the traffic. For families, the playground is a star attraction, the tea rooms as well.

“There’s something in Doneraile for everybody; if you’re a walker, if you’re a landscape enthusiast, or maybe you have an interest in garden history. The Georgian style landscape is very prevalent there, that is a major attraction in itself,” Corrigan said.

The culture and the heritage that’s there is fantastic and probably unparalleled in terms of the history of the site.

A lot of work and investment has gone into keeping up the historical beauty of Doneraile over the past few years and this has helped boost tourist numbers.

2013 saw the completion of conservation works to the Triumphal Arch in Doneraile Park. The Arch was conserved following a survey that found the structure was in a failing condition.

“We’re trying to grow tourism in the North Cork area. We have made significant investment in Doneraile, with playgrounds, walking routes and tea rooms in recent years,” Corrigan said.

Going forward, we are hoping to invest further into it to keep the growth going.

Read: Irish chaplain patrolled 1917 frontlines with a shovel, gave last rites and then buried the dead

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