The Irish Wildlife Trust has complained to the European Commission about the Irish Government's failure to tackle illegal gorse fires.
The conservation charity said intervention is needed to prompt the Government to protect wildlife habitats from the fires.
Between March 24th and May 22nd this year it recorded 97 illegal wildfires in rural areas. In 39 cases the fires were started in special conservation areas protected by EU habitats legislation.
The trust said one key cause is the requirement for farmers to keep vegetation at grazeable height in upland areas, which some do by lighting fires.
Pádraic Fogarty of the charity said the increase in gorse fires has led to Irish uplands being “replaced with scorched land”. “Irish mountains have suffered an ecological catastrophe over the past 50 years. They are no longer the beautiful, wildlife-rich places they once were. This has happened not because of lack of resources or uncertain science but because of a lack of political will.”
The wildlife group said the practice of starting gorse fires has pushed several species of bird towards extinction, among them the curlew, golden eagle, ring ouzel, nightjar, twite and hen harrier.
“Dismantling existing protections”
The Green Party Senator Grace O'Sullivan said that the Government was "taking inadequate measures to protect our precious natural heritage" and that changes proposed by Minister for Heritage Heather Humphreys would further "dismantle existing protections".
The Heritage Bill 2016, which would extend the period when farmers can burn uplands into March, is heavily opposed by wildlife groups. The legal burning season currently runs from September to February.
Ms O'Sullivan said she welcomed the Irish Wildlife Trust's complaint. "It looks like it will fall on the European Commission to make Fine Gael act in the interest of our environment."
A Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht spokeswoman said it is “not a firefighting agency” but co-operates fully with fire-service and Garda investigations of illegal gorse fires.
“The Minister has repeatedly urged members of the public, including landowners and recreational users of publicly accessible land, to act responsibly at all times . . . and to appreciate the value of our wildlife and natural heritage.”