A “get tough” approach is to be adopted by a new multi-agency task force which is aiming to stamp out the potentially lethal practice during the traditional dry spell between March 1 and August 31. It is illegal to set fires during this period.
In the first three weeks of last month, 54 illegally set fires were recorded in West Cork, most of which occurred in the Bantry area.
In addition to being illegal, the fires take up valuable time for fire brigades and gardaí.
Last year three elderly farmers died in the country after getting caught up in fires they illegally started. One of them was from Kerry.
“A lot of elderly farmers set fire to scrubland where sheep are grazing. It’s embedded as tradition under the mistaken belief that it will stimulate growth before the rains come. Teagasc say it has minimal benefit,” Inspector Tony Sugrue said.
He said the multi-agency task force, which includes gardaí, fire brigade, the National Parks & Wildlife Service, Coillte and the Association of Irish Forestry Consultants, was aiming to stamp out the practice.
“Resources are tied up as a result of these fires and it could mean delays in getting to other emergencies. Fires can get out of control and pose a threat to human life, they can also destroy forests which have been acquired by pension funds,” the inspector added.
He said if farmers didn’t stop the practice then the authorities would use a bigger stick to deal with the problem.
Under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act (2002) a conviction for a first offence can lead to a €634.87 fine and/or up to three months in prison. A third offence carries a maximum fine of €1,904.61 and/or up to 12 months in jail.
Only a handful of farmers have ever been prosecuted.
“Those penalties are minor. If somebody lights a fire and it gets out of control it could lead to a charge of reckless endangerment. That can carry a sentence of up to 10 years,” Inspector Sugrue said.
He said authorities were concerned that more fires could be lit in the forthcoming days as the weather was set to get even drier.
“We are appealing for any members of the public who see fires being lit to contact their local garda station immediately,” he said.