The unusually dry spell has led to a spate of hill fires over the past month with farmers taking advantage by burning off gorse.
But the legal time-frame for burning uplands expired on March 1st. We are now heading towards the end of April and most wildlife has already begun breeding. Numerous bird species are reliant on upland habitats, including critically endangered hen harriers and curlews, which nest out in the open.
Illegal fires have been making headlines all month. Last week a huge conflagration lit up Bantry Bay and the previous week the issue was highlighted here. But it seems that some farmers are not getting the message, or do not care about the consequences of their actions. Others are facilitating this indifference by not standing up to them.
This is leading to high levels of anger amongst members of the public with many condemning those who set the fires and those who acquiesce by not objecting, or reporting them. While the department of agriculture has issued statements threatening land-owners with losing entitlements on scorched land, the IFA has probably only encouraged farmers to set illegal fires. This is because by focusing on the need to protect forestry and property without emphasising that farmers should not be burning at this time of year, they have given the practice their implicit approval.
This is a foolish road to take and could result in an unprecedented backlash. Farmers should not under-estimate the level of anger these fires are causing. Previously indifferent politicians will soon realise that illegal fires are a major issue for voters and might instruct Gardai to investigate them more thoroughly. This should lead to a vast increase in prosecutions this year.
On Twitter on Sunday night, Collie Ennis, a science officer with the Herpetological Society of Ireland shared a picture from Gougane Barra with the comment: “The 'custodians of the countryside' setting our natural heritage alight yet again. Absolutely sickening.” Ecologist Daniel Buckley wrote, “What little is left of Gouganbarra forest park after @coilltenews clear felled will likely be torched tonight. Tragic.”
Earlier this week the Irish Wildlife Trust shared a picture showing large clouds of smoke obscuring the view of Bantry Bay, tagging Irish tourism organisations including the Wild Atlantic Way and Fáilte Ireland. While deliberately drawing the attention of potential tourists to Ireland's domestic issues is an extreme measure to take, they probably felt they were forced to do this because all of their efforts to get the issue dealt with here have met with the same indifference.
Perhaps the most risky aspect for Irish farmers is that reportage of these fires is going global. Facebook and Twitter are international platforms from which millions of people now get their daily news. The pictures from Bantry Bay and Gougane Barra have been seen all around the world. Ireland's farmers are being internationally denounced for not caring about the destruction of our beautiful natural habitat. Our good name is being badly tarnished by a few brazen cowboys and the rest of us are letting it happen.
Dramatic photographs of a large fire in the hills overlooking Gougane Barra forest park have been going viral overnight. The images were shared by Gougane Barra Hotel and show the famous beauty spot lit up by an arc of flames covering the hills.
This has been the worst year for wildfires we have seen so far, mainly because it has been such a dry spring. If predictions about climate change are correct we might begin to see a lot more dry springs. We will have to learn to be more responsible. Nobody in the farming community seems to realise that the reputation of Ireland's farmers is at stake. With all the chaos of trade deals that lies ahead, Brexit and the clamour for international markets, we cannot afford to tarnish our good name by destroying the last vestiges of our endangered wildlife, through short-sighted spring burning.
We are a small open economy with a reputation for beautiful landscapes and pleasant friendly people. Out food is advertised internationally as being ethically produced from lush green fields. Just as Malta has lost credibility as a result of illegal bird hunting and the false arrest of the BBC's Chris Packham last week, now it is Ireland that is being dragged through the mud by the actions of a foolish cohort of hardliners. Ironically, they will suffer alongside the rest of us if we lose trade deals in the future because of this.
The issue of entitlements is of course part of the problem here. Currently farmers are only paid for productive land. The sooner a payment system is put in place to protect scrub the better for everybody.
Main Photograph shared by Bantry Fire Brigade on Saturday: “Yesterday #bantry and #castletownbere crews dealt with a gorse fire which came close to houses nr #glengarriff”