Under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976, it’s illegal to set fires on farm and hill land from Mar 1 to Aug 31.
However, despite risks such as losses of life or livestock and serious damage to property — especially with high winds if the land is dry — many landowners in areas such as West Cork ignored the regulation.
Gorse and other undergrowth is traditionally set on fire to generate new growth.
In the past, fire brigade have attended upwards of 100 illegal fires each year especially around the Mizen and Beara peninsulas as well as Bantry and Drimoleague areas.
Between mid-February and May 2010, gorse fire call-outs cost the fire brigade in excess of €340,000.
Such was their proliferation, the fire service and gardaí got together with Coillte, Teagasc, National Parks & Wildlife Service, Department of Agriculture, the IFA and Community Alert to encourage farmers to desist from the illegal practice.
Figures released yesterday by the gardaí have, however, showed an improved level of co-operation with the regulations.
The number of call-outs fell to 77 in 2011 and dropped further to 39 last year.
Cormac Daly, chief fire officer for the Bantry area, said the fire service was very pleased with the reduction and the level of cooperation from landowners. He said costs to the fire service had been reduced by a six-figure sum.
“The charge per crew per hour is €480. We could have three crews out for a whole weekend fighting one fire alone,” Mr Daly said.
“It was a very poor use of our resources. If crews were up a mountain then populated areas were left with reduced cover and it would take longer to get to a serious traffic accident or a house fire,” the chief fire officer added.
Sergeant Ian O’Callaghan, the region’s crime prevention officer who was one of the driving forces behind the initiative, said everybody agreed burning land during the permitted period was good for regeneration.
“It is effective as a land management tool. But it should be done in a controlled fashion and only when the law allows it. The gardaí have an obligation to investigate fires if they have breached the Wildlife Act,” he said.
Under the act, a farmer convicted of breaches can face a fine of up to €50,000 and two years in jail.
“The IFA is encouraging farmers lighting fires during the allowed season to contact fire brigade control before they do so. That way they can check with somebody on the ground if it has got out of control and see if they need assistance,” Sgt O’Callaghan said.
During the course of a number of discussions with farmers, it emerged that they wanted an extension of a couple of weeks in March for burning and a letter is to be written to the Government seeking this.
Sgt O’Callaghan said that suggestions have also been made that fire beating equipment be stored in community centres around the region.