air corp, gorse

Almost half of gorse fires since March deliberately started, says Agriculture Minister

May 10th, 2017

Almost half of all gorse fires since the start of the prohibited period on 1 March 2017 were deliberately started, the Minister of Agriculture announced yesterday evening.

Minister Creed’s comments come after a series of large fires raged over the last week. Various fire brigades, together with the Air Corps and Defence Forces, were called upon to deal with major fires in counties Cork, Cavan, Sligo, Galway, Kildare, Mayo, Monaghan and Wicklow in recent days.

It is an offence under the Wildlife Act to burn any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated from 1 March to 31 August.

In a joint statement with Minister for Heritage and Rural Affairs, Heather Humphreys TD, Mr Creed said that his department has issued a series of Fire Danger Notices to the forestry sector since March. These fires were then monitored using satellite date, leading to the detection of over 50 illegal fire locations by 21 April 2017.

This represents just under half of the total known fire locations to that date, a worrying indication of the “scale of the problem” of illegal burning, the Minister added.

Both ministers said that landowners and any member of the public found to burn vegetation within the prohibited period can be prosecuted by An Garda Síochána or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Mr Creed also stressed that land found to be burned is not eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme, except where controlled burning is carried out in full compliance with relevant environmental legislative and after consultation with Gardaí and local fire services. “This is clearly stated in my Departments literature on land eligibility issued to farmers,” he added.

Poor Enforcement

However,  documents released under Freedom of Information legislation to the Irish Wildlife Trust reveal that the use of satellite images to monitor burning on farmland has not led to any prosecutions since introduced in March 2016.

Since 2007, only eleven prosecution cases have been brought by Minister Humphreys’ department under Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts for illegal burning of vegetation. Fines were imposed in most cases.

According to Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland (BWI), there has also been little or no enforcement of the existing regulation to protect wildlife and habitats, including those with special EU protection.

Two active Hen Harrier nests were destroyed earlier the week in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area (SPA) shared between Counties Monaghan and Tyrone. The endangered Hen Harrier is an internationally protected species and reliant upon SPAs for its protection.

“Thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat have been destroyed already this year, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests, or animals which find themselves caught between flames and fences,” said Ms Duggan.

€6 million Bill

Data received by BWI through Freedom of Information legislation reveals that it cost ten local authorities over €6 million to tackle almost 6,000 gorse, forest and bog fires from 2010 to 2015. These costs mainly relate to the wages of fire service personnel only, and do not include costs for the likes of deploying helicopters, and costs to the Air Corps, Defence Forces and other services.

“There is no doubt that we all value the essential work of the fire service in tackling gorse fires, which are often in difficult and inaccessible terrain, and which puts their lives at risk,” Ms Duggan added. “There is also no doubt that these fires are diverting the attention of the fire service from urban centres and other emergencies and costing the exchequer a substantial amount of money.”

Ms Duggan also called on Minister Humphreys to scrap her proposal under the Heritage Bill to allow for the burning of gorse during March, which she said would be “reckless.” “It will bring further havoc to breeding birds and do nothing to stop fires like those witnessed since March,” she added.

The passing of the Heritage Bill would only lead to more serious gorse fires in the future, Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan also said yesterday. “On the back of these fires, Minister Humphreys must reconsider her obsession with extending the burning season through the Heritage Bill,” she said.

The Bill passed through the Seanad last month and will now go before the Dáil for further debate, where Ms Sullivan’s expects her party colleagues to seek amendments to the Bill.

Over 30 active fires

It is estimated that 30 fires were active at the start of the week. An out of control fire in Cloosh Valley, Co. Galway was still blazing this morning, putting thousands of acres of forestry at risk. Coillte and Air Corps helicopters are being used to fight the fire in the 4,000 hectare forest.

The fire spread beyond Coillte land yesterday due to a combination of high winds and warm temperatures, according to a statement from the company,  “threatening the welfare of many homes and local communities, as well as causing devastation to vast areas of wildlife habitat”.

Gerard Murphy, managing director of Coillte Forest, said the Cloosh fire is the biggest he has witnessed, stating that he believed most of the 100-plus serious gorse fires in recent weeks were started deliberately. “I’m quite confident to say that most of them are deliberate.”

According to the Department of Housing, Community and Local Government, the fire services dealt with over 21,000 gorse, forest or bog fires from 2010-2015.

The public are urged to report any suspicious activity to An Garda Síochána, and report any uncontrolled or unattended fires immediately to the Fire and Emergency Services by dialling 112 or 999.

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