Burning of uplands has been a controversial issue this Spring, with good reason. Well over 60 large fires have taken place since the legal deadline in March 1st, half of them in national parks or conservation areas. This is despite numerous warnings from fire services which have not changed over the years. The advice of Co Clare Chief Fire Officer Adrian Kelly in 2014 still holds true: “The highest risk period occurs between March and June, when ground vegetation is dead and dry following the winter period.”
On Friday night a renowned project to save grouse on Boleybrack Mountain in Co Leitrim was put in jeopardy by a large fire. This took place the same day as James Moran, an ecologist from Sligo IT, had been there discussing fire risk with local landowners. These farmers assisted in trying to douse the flames, but clearly the message had not hit home with everybody.
Earlier in the week fires raged out of control in Sligo, Dublin, Roscommon, Kerry, Galway and Donegal. A fire on Killery mountain in Sligo rampaged over 4,000 acres. It was filmed by drones and the footage shows a wide arc of flame creeping towards forestry and houses. A major bog fire burned for days near Frenchpark in Co Roscommon, while last week a fire in Carraroe in Connemara destroyed the main power supply line for the Aran Islands.
The ongoing dry spell is obviously too much temptation for some. In addition at this point it's a case of devil may care for those who set a fire. We are so deep into the breeding season and so many fires have already caused destruction this year, that those setting them now will not take the risk of sticking around. This means that almost inevitably any fire set now will go out of control. It's a highly irresponsible thing to do, but it only takes a second of madness to do it.
Fires in these windy dry conditions will soon leap and fly so it is very lucky that no one has yet been hurt by them. Fire crews are working around the clock to control them and aren't getting much sleep. They have appealed repeatedly for people to stop the burning. By taking up their valuable time, gorse fires mean they will be slower to respond to other emergencies. The impeded response time for emergency services could still cost somebody dearly. In addition wildfires have come close on a few occasions to doing serious harm.
Residents of Fintown in Co Donegal had a close escape on April 30 when a large gorse fire swept through the village. One local described it as a scene like Armageddon, when a gorse fire suddenly appeared opposite the village. Joe Brennan told the Donegal Democrat: “The fire had spread and crested the hill opposite Loch Finn in less than a half hour.” He said it was “very intense and frightening.”
So much for the impact on people. Birdwatch Ireland released a statement last week entitled “Carnage in our mountains and hills, yet silence from our Government”. Head of communications, policy and engagement Oonagh Duggan outlined the pitiful response from government to the spate of illegal fires, concluding that it might be either “because nature has not been of high importance on the agenda of most public representatives,” or, “maybe because some vested interests have the ear of government”.
In any case, the lack of prosecutions for setting illegal fires can be attributed to a number of factors. It is difficult to pin the blame for illegal burning on any individual. Unless evidence exists to show that a person wilfully set a fire, how can they be blamed for it? Forensic investigators can pin-point the source of a fire quite easily, but Gardai do not seem to consider out of season gorse burning to be a serious enough offence for them to divert resources into investigating it. This is where government is needed.
Wildlife groups want to see these investigations prioritised as a deterrent to landowners. If the person on whose land the fire was started could be punished by withholding entitlement payments, landowners might think twice about burning after March 1. Birdwatch Ireland sees it as “a chronic lack of political will to protect and financially invest in our natural heritage and to put in place long-term resourced plans for our wildlife and nature.”
There is an overarching problem of upland management. The fact is, many of these habitats are man-made. Responsible management of uplands requires regular seasonal burning in order to renew the cycle of life. Small flowering plants benefit from scrub fires every five or six years. What has happened in Ireland and elsewhere is many hill farms have been abandoned or neglected. Regular burning has not taken place, allowing layers of detritus to build up on the ground while gorse and heather have grown leggy. This not only smothers the diverse range of rare plants that are vital to large numbers of insects and birds, it also creates a timebomb of highly combustible materials for when a fire does break out.
Burning after the closing date of March 1 does not qualify as responsible management because at this point the hills can be too dry and fires will easily go out of control. Fast-moving fires are devastating for all wildlife, as the photograph of a charred frog posted by Bantry Fire Brigade demonstrated. In addition, wildlife has already started to reproduce. Ground-nesting birds such as grouse, hen harriers and curlews are sitting on their nests. Once they have lost their offspring to fire, they are unlikely to nest again that year.
All this only exacerbates the issues that have plagued species such as linnets, skylarks, curlews, harriers and a range of other birds. Birds are not the only ones to suffer. Rare plants whose precious seedlings have just emerged are scorched, preventing them from setting more. At a time when they need all the help they can get to survive, we are burning these rare species into extinction. This is why it is so important that a system of controlled burning takes place in the off-season between September and February.
The EU is also becoming more aware of these issues. A study published this week outlines the risks of farm abandonment*. The authors found that in order to preserve many kinds of grassland flora and fauna, farmers would need to return to later season hay-making to allow ground-nesting birds to fledge, and grassland plants to set their seeds.
Lower quantities of artificial fertilizers benefit native fauna, while pesticide use should be minimised or halted in sensitive ecological areas. The report recommends the employment of traditional management techniques such as periodic upland seasonal burning. The problems with traditional grassland management from a farmer perspective are loss of yield and lower quality of grass crops.
To combat these disincentives the authors recommend financial supports be put in place: “To help avoid abandonment, [the authors] suggest that more dialogue is needed between conservation and farming stakeholders in order to form a better understanding of each other’s views regarding the value of grasslands, and to maintain farmer interest in traditional management. Financial compensation to farmers, for example as part of agri-environment schemes, may also enhance farmers’ motivations for involvement.”
But throwing money at a problem does not necessarily make it go away. Our delicate uplands must be managed much more sensitively than at present, or we will lose a lot of diverse species. The impacts of this might not be felt immediately, but they will be felt. From selling our country as a tourist destination, to the ecological services that flora and fauna provide, we rely on having a broad diversity of wildlife for our social and economic well-being. Achieving this at present looks like accomplishing some kind of revolution in how we regard these places.
I have often advocated for grants to aid aspiring smallholders in their desire for a piece of ground. So many people would love the chance to go farming on a small scale, providing artisan produce to the growing demand for organic or ethically-produced food, but are denied the chance by prohibitive land prices. Perhaps the solution to upland management is a scheme to allow new entrants to take over these abandoned farms and manage them in the right way, as it seems their current owners are unable or unwilling to do.
*McGinlay, J., Gowing, D.J. and Budds, J. (2017).The threat of abandonment in socio-ecological landscapes: Farmers’ motivations and perspectives on high nature value grassland conservation. Environmental Science & Policy, 69: 39–49. DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2016.12.007.