Illegal gorse fires still burning issue

IN spite of a promise of long-awaited action by state agencies and farming organisations against illegal burning on mountains and upland areas, such burning is continuing unabated.

Fire services in western counties, including Cork and Kerry, have been called to gorse fires, usually started by farmers seeking to burn off old vegetation. Worryingly, fire officers believe up to a quarter of these fires are set by arsonists.

BirdWatch Ireland is “delighted” that from this year there will be a greater focus by the authorities on illegal burning, something also being welcomed by other wildlife organisations. Alan Lauder, BirdWatch Ireland’s chief executive, says in spring the scourge of scrub burning on Irish farmland spells disaster for vulnerable nesting birds and wildlife. “Thousands of chicks are burnt in their nests, and those birds that manage to escape the flames are still faced with a lack of both the food and the shelter that they need to survive,” he says.

This destruction reflects a barbaric disregard for the landscape, leaving our most scenic areas scarred and blackened. What impression does it convey to visitors who come here to enjoy the scenery and environment?

There seems to be a mysterious, destructive urge in the Irish psyche, underlined by the damage done to the countryside during the economic boom. We have been left with a legacy of terrible planning decisions, buildings all over the place, roads that run through sites of irreplaceable heritage value, and general destruction of an attractive environment.

An urge to destroy is also shown in the poisoning of eagles, kites and other birds being reintroduced in Ireland, something that is causing us embarrassment and showing us up in a poor light internationally. On a recent visit to Kerry, the Norwegian ambassador, Oyvind Nordsletten, referred to the benefits such birds could bring to tourism.

Eagles are a popular attraction in Norway and their presence there is evidence of a healthy environment, he said.

Despite poisonings, the Norwegian wildlife authorities are still donating white-tailed eaglets for release in Killarney National Park and Mr Nordsletten welcomed a tightening up of our laws on the use of poisons for killing pests such as crows and foxes — the poisons consumed by the eagles that died.

The pledged action on gorse fires, meanwhile, is certainly not before time. Last year, for instance, was one of the worst on record for such fires in Ireland, as we highlighted in a recent column in advance of the annual burning season, which runs from February to May, even though it is against the law to start these fires between March 1 and August 31.

Issued jointly by the Department of Agriculture, An Garda Síochána, Teagasc, the Forest Service and the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, a notice says severe penalties may be imposed on farmers who break the law, including loss of their Single Farm Payment. They can also be liable to fines of €1,900, or imprisonment, and county councils can charge property owners for fire brigade call-outs.

In the wake of rampant fires on land and in forestry, last year, a Working Group, with representatives from a broad spectrum, including farmers, the forest industry, the fire service, gardaí, the Defence Forces, Coillte, Teagasc and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, was established by the Department of Agriculture. The group has since made recommendations to the minister. Spring is unsuitable for burning vegetation, due to dry conditions, strong winds and the presence of dead and dry vegetation, especially in upland areas, which makes burning particularly dangerous and poses a real threat to general safety.

For example, Coillte reported damage to thousands of acres of forestry last year, three times in excess of the annual average.

The working group recognises that under certain circumstances, and based mainly on tradition, the burning of land to clear scrub and other unwanted vegetation has become an accepted farm management practice.

However, as numerous cases during 2010 have illustrated, there is a lack of knowledge and expertise regarding controlled burning among some farmers and landowners, not to mention ignorance as to the legality of some of their actions.

Based on 10 recommendations, an educational campaign is now underway to change the mindset of those who light such fires. It also aims to train farmers how to burn in a controlled way. Members of the public are also being urged to report instances of illegal and uncontrolled burning activities to the authorities. Similar campaigns in France and the USA have proved successful.

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