International experts have joined forces with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to investigative the origin of almost one thousand gorse fires which raged across Northern Ireland last month.
Operation WildFire will team the NIEA, PSNI and Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS) with a team of international wildfire investigators from the European Forest Institute and European Forest Risk Facility (FRISK).
The NIEA attended 983 gorse fires in May, 801 of which took place from the first 12 days of the month alone.
The NIFRS said that it dealt with 221 gorse fires by May 8, over 90 per cent of which were started deliberately.
Many of the fires spread rapidly due to dry ground conditions following a period of warm, dry weather.
Welcoming the new joint operation, Colum McDaid who leads the NIEA work on wildfire control said that identifying perpetrators is an essential first step in any successful fire and may help lead to prosecutions.
“The vigorous and thorough investigation of wildfires is the key to catching arsonists, and can be critical in identifying serial arsonists before they can move on to bigger targets,” he said.
It is illegal to set fires in Northern Ireland between 15 April and 31 August, and should only be carried out under controlled supervision at other times of the year. Landowners are also required to obtain consent for prescribed burning within designated protection sites.
The Irish Minister of Agriculture, Michael Creed, TD recently announced that almost half of all gorse fires in the Republic since the start of the prohibited period on 1 March 2017 were deliberately started.
Minister Creed’s comments came after a series of large fires raged in counties Cork, Cavan, Sligo, Galway, Kildare, Mayo, Monaghan and Wicklow in last April and early May.
Two active Hen Harrier nests in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area (SPA) shared between Counties Monaghan and Tyrone were destroyed in a fire in May.
The endangered Hen Harrier is an internationally protected species and reliant upon SPAs for its survival.
Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland decried the damage that scrub and forest fires have caused to wildlife across the island of Ireland in 2017.
“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,” she said.
Constable Darryl Johnston of the PSNI said that he hopes the operation will help the authority to pin down the origin of a number of fires and provide solid evidence for any potential court cases.
He called on any member of the public with information on perpetrators to come forward so that the authorities can “pursue them through the courts”.
“Not only do these fires cause widespread damage to our precious countryside, but they can also put lives at risk,” he continued.