DONAL HICKEY: Address the burning question

Fire in Killarney National Park, Kerry. Picture: Radio Kerry.

People living in the foothills of mountains where gorse fires, many illegal, burn dangerously close to their homes are again waiting with trepidation to see what the forthcoming burning season will bring. Wild animals and birds for which this rugged terrain provides natural habitat could again be threatened by out-of-control fires in the next few months, writes Donal Hickey.

Under the Wildlife Act 1976, it was an offence to burn between March 1 and August 31, but the new Heritage Act 2018 relaxes the law to allow burning in March in certain circumstances and locations. This marks a significant change.

The 1976 legislation was then seen as progressive in the way it offered protection to endangered wildlife and preceded the EU Habitats Directive 1979. Now, many environmental and heritage groups see the new act as regressive.

At the time of writing, Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan has not made an announcement, but a spokesperson at her department said it is expected she will make a decision on whether to allow burning in certain areas before the end of this month.

That decision will take account of 30 submissions received from groups such as An Taisce and Birdwatch Ireland and prevailing weather conditions, the spokesperson stated.

However, the law has for years been treated with contempt by people who are determined to set fires any time they feel like it. The legal burning season has not yet started, but we’ve already seen fires on the hills this year.

Reporting on such fires for decades, I became accustomed to officialdom saying investigations would be carried out by gardaí and wildlife services. However, nobody ever seemed to be prosecuted and the perennial fires continued.

Four years ago, an Air Corps helicopter had to be called in to assist numerous fire brigades by spraying water on a fire which threatened thousands of acres in Killarney National Park, including some of the last remaining remnants of ancient Irish oak woods and a wide range of animal and plant life.

The new heritage legislation has been controversial from the start, amid concerns that burning in March will be damaging for some of most extinction-threatened species, especially birds which begin nesting in March. These include the curlew and the hen harrier. The Irish Wildlife Trust, which says we should be strengthening, not weakening, safeguards for nature, is not confident burning can be carried out in a way that protects habitats and is in line with conservation law.

“These guidelines will do nothing for upland farmers in Ireland or the protection of the environment upon which they depend,” says the trust’s Padraic Fogarty.

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