Councils spending more than €1m a year fighting gorse fires

Freedom of information documents show 10 local authorities paid €6 million in five years

 

Ten of the State’s local authorities spend more than €1 million a year tackling wildfires, according to newly released figures.

Documents obtained by Birdwatch Ireland under freedom of information show about €6.1 million was spent fighting gorse/forest/bog fires between 2010 and 2015.

The money was spent, mostly on fire-service wages, by county councils in Cork, Cavan, Kilkenny, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Meath, Sligo, Tipperary and Kerry fighting 5,889 fires.

Already this year, illegal wildfires have devastated vast swathes of counties Galway, Cork, Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon and Kerry.

Birdwatch Ireland was unable to obtain figures from many local authorities, including Galway County Council. Therefore the total cost of fighting gorse fires is likely to be significantly higher than €1 million a year.

Information from the Department of Local Government shows more than 21,000 gorse and other wildfires were tackled by the fire services across the State between 2010 and 2015.

No arrests

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs said the problem was caused by illegal attempts to clear vegetation. A Garda spokeswoman said no arrests have been made in relation to the gorse fires of the past week or so.

The Central Statistics Office does not have any data on the number of people who have been arrested or charged for starting illegal fires but Birdwatch Ireland said only 11 people have been successfully prosecuted since 2005. Ten received fines of between €50 an €200, and one person was fined €600.

It is illegal to burn vegetation from March 1st until August 31st. The ban is designed to encourage biodiversity by protecting bird and other wildlife habitats during nesting and breeding season. But conservationists have for many years complained about widespread burning and cutting within those dates.

Birdwatch Ireland acting head of policy Oonagh Duggan said many gorse fires are started by landowners trying to clear vegetation but it is difficult to initiate prosecutions unless they are caught red-handed.

“A lot more time and energy should be put into the investigation of when fires start and who started them,” she said.

She added that proposals contained in the Heritage Bill to allow the burning of vegetation in March were “reckless” and instead the Government should focus on encouraging controlled burning outside of the nesting season.

Gorse fires will kill wildlife unable to escape, such as chicks and eggs, frogs, lizards, hares and leverets. The impacts also include the destruction of habitat in which birds forage to feed themselves and their chicks. Birdwatch Ireland said species likely to have been most badly affected by recent fires include the hen harrier, red grouse, skylark, curlew and meadow pipit.