State imposed fines of €2,250 for illegal fires despite damage worth millions

Ministers accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to enforcement of rules on vegetation fires

Thousands of gorse and bog fires occur each year, many  during the prohibited period between March and the end of August.

Thousands of gorse and bog fires occur each year, many during the prohibited period between March and the end of August.

 

The State has imposed a total of €2,250 in fines for unauthorised fires over the past decade despite damage running to tens of million of euro.

Information on fire service call-outs, as well as satellite data available to the Department of Agriculture, has confirmed the outbreak of thousands of gorse and bog fires each year, many occurring during the prohibited period between March and the end of August.

In the past decade there have been 11 prosecutions taken under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act which prohibits illegal fires in the closed season. Nine of them resulted in prosecutions and the average fine has been about €200, according to information obtained by Birdwatch Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act .

The locations involved were: Cork (four prosecutions); Kerry (three); Waterford (two) Leitrim (one) and Offaly (one).

The largest fine was €600; two were €100 and one was €50.

Farmers who start gorse fires are also liable to lose a portion of the basic farm payment for areas burnt by fire, under cross-compliance rules supervised by the Department of Agriculture.

Vegetation fires

However, Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan claimed yesterday that not a single farmer had lost a payment arising from this.

A spokesman for the department disputed this, saying farmers had lost payments as a result of setting fires. However, he was not in a position to supply any data on how many farmers had been affected.

According to the Department of Local Government, the fire services were called out to tackle a total of 21,000 vegetation fires between 2010 and 2015. This does not represent all the fires.

The figures obtained by Birdwatch Ireland show that in the same period, the cost of tackling fires in 10 of the 30 local authority areas amounted to €6 million, mostly in wages. The three local authorities where most fires occur – Galway, Donegal and Wicklow – were unable to supply figures.

Air pollution

Ms O’Sullivan and Birdwatch Ireland’s policy officer Oonagh Duggan yesterday criticised the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed and the Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys. Ms O’Sullivan said they were “turning a blind eye” to enforcing the rules, regulations and laws on fires.

“These fires are no longer about the birds and the bees. They are affecting homes, farms, wood production and are costing millions of euro of damage,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“All the trees burned down this week in the Cloosh Valley [in Galway, where 4,000 hectares was lost] mean they can not be used to as carbon sinks to mitigate greenhouse emissions. The fire also caused air pollution in Galway.”

Ms Humphreys has come under criticism from conservation groups for earlier this year seeking to extend the burning season to include March.

Ms Duggan said: “It is reckless of the Government to propose legalising burning in March as the panacea for wild fires.”  

Mr Creed said this week that people were illegally burning foliage and, if doing so outside the burning period, were liable to prosecution by the Garda Síochána. Ms Humphreys has also pointed out that it is proposed to increase the maximum fine for a first offence for illegal burning from €1,000 to €5,000.