Illegal gorse burning penalties ineffective, say campaigners

Published by Niall Sargent on

12th April, 2017

Penalties for the unlawful burning of gorse are ineffective and do nothing to stop perpetrators says campaign group following a series of illegal fires across the country.

Fifteen wild fires were recorded last month in counties Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Galway, Donegal, Louth and Mayo, eight of which were in protected areas.

The Wildlife Act currently prohibits the burning or destruction of gorse between 1 March and 31 August.

Over 50 prosecutions have been made in recent years for breaches of the Act, with defendants fined between €50 and €600 and ordered to pay legal costs and expenses in some cases.

Yet, according to Rory Jackson, founder of Stop Gorse Fires, this “deterrent isn’t strong enough” to combat illegal burning.

The group has around 700 members and was set up in 2007 to raise awareness of the damage caused by gorse fires and to push for a nationwide ban on burning.

Many members come from Mr Jackson’s native West Cork or Kerry where illegal burning is a “common occurrence”.

Mr Jackson said that the fires can cause extensive damage to properties and have forced people to evacuate their homes.

“It [the fire] could be miles away, and with the winds blowing into the local town, the smoke is getting into every part of your house,” he added. “You can’t avoid it.”

After a spate of incidents in Cork and Kerry last year, the Department of Agriculture warned farmers and landowners that land burned outside of the legal season would be ineligible for payment under Department schemes.

Heather Humphreys, Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, also recently acknowledged that the main source of gorse fires is the deliberate starting of fires “without concern for the consequences”.

Speaking in the Seanad in February, she called on the public, including landowners and farmers, to act responsibly and “appreciate the value of our natural heritage”.

“We can see how homes and lives can be threatened and we can also see the damage to the landscape and to valuable habitats,” she added.

“It is critical that everyone realises the damage that can be caused to property and the health and welfare of family, neighbours, the wider community and the responding emergency services.”

She added that her Department will continue to work closely with the Department of Agriculture and An Garda Síochána to investigate the causes of wildfires and hold those responsible to account.

Mr Jackson, however, said that very little has changed in recent years except for the “ludicrous” proposal to extend the burning season in the Heritage Bill.

“I think that it is extraordinary that they would consider extending the burning season given the impact that it’s already having,” he added.

The proposal – announced by Ms Humphreys in December 2015 – outlines plans for a two-year pilot project to allow fires to be lit within the existing closed period.

The tourist industry will suffer from any extension of the season, according to Mr Jackson, a licensed skipper and tour operator.

He added that he frequently has to navigate through thick smoke and is often at a loss to answer questions from alarmed tourists. “It impacts on the image we’re giving to the tourists, that we are scorching the land all the time.”

Just last weekend, the Bantry Bay Fire Brigade responded to several gorse fires along the Sheep’s Head Way – a European Destination of Excellence.

The Heritage Bill, which also looks to ease the ban on hedge cutting, was scrutinised in the Seanad last month.

An amendment to limit a proposal to cut hedgerows in August solely to roadside hedges passed during the heated debate.

Senator Alice Mary Higgins was disappointed, however, that the issue of  gorse fires was not also addressed, pointing to the impact on nesting birds and the environment.

She also stressed the cost to fire services responding to fires and the impact on vital infrastructure, such as recent damage to electricity supply cables to the Aran Islands caused by uncontrolled gorse fires in Carraroe, Co Galway.

“There is a concern that, if we open the season further, the danger, jeopardy and cost to the public will be increased,” she concluded.

To date, over 27,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the Heritage Bill.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London