‘Year after year, we see fire after fire at the same time’

The Lakes of Killarney and the lands around them will be destroyed unless gorse fires are stopped, say environmentalists

A fire currently burning in Killarney National Park. Not a single prosecution for illegal burning has ever been brought by gardaí or any department in charge of the park. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

A fire currently burning in Killarney National Park. Not a single prosecution for illegal burning has ever been brought by gardaí or any department in charge of the park. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

 

Looking at the damage caused by a gorse fire in Killarney’s National Park, which destroyed thousands of acres of habitat, local solicitor and environmental campaigner Pat F O’Connor is visibly angry.

“We have some of the most wonderful scenery and natural habitats in the world and every year it is criminally and sacrilegiously destroyed,” he says. “In truth we do not deserve it for the way we have forsaken it.”

Thousands of acres were destroyed in a fire in 1984. Every year since there have been smaller fires. Not a single prosecution has ever been taken for destruction caused by fires immediately around the lake.

The same complaints made in 1984 are made again today – the national park does not have enough staff; it gets nothing from the local tourist business it has played no small part in creating.

Unesco ranked

In all, it has just five rangers to inspect and protect the 10,236 hectare (25,293 acres) Unesco-ranked biosphere reserve, while the much smaller 707 hectare (1,747 acres) Phoenix Park has 11.

Before the pandemic, one million people visited Killarney, spending nearly €500 million locally, according to a 2019 Killarney Chamber of Commerce report on the value of the tourism industry.

Little of that benefits the national park, which is the heart of much of the success of lucrative businesses including boating, jarvey, cycling, accommodation, pubs and restaurants.

Jarveys pay just a €65 licence fee, but that money goes to Kerry County Council and not to the park, while permits for boating and other activities to the park are just nominal sums.

Following the fires overlooking Killarney, local social media donation campaigns started up, with local businesses directly offering money to the park. It could not be accepted, under State rules.

Speaking in Killarney afterwards, Minister for Housing and Heritage Darragh O’Brien ruled out the idea of a local bed tax, which has been put forward locally in recent years to finance the ailing park.

Nothing that happened, however, was new, or could not have been predicted, or could not have been prevented if existing laws were properly enforced, or if minor changes were made to them, says O’Connor.

No national politician has ever taken up the baton and properly condemned the fires, or the neglect that happens annually, he said, adding that it is now time to complain to the European Union.

Four years ago, local conservationist Padraic Fogarty warned about the dangers in his book Whittled Away, when he wrote, “Killarney has ceased to be a functioning ecosystem.”

Environmentalist Kevin Tarrant on burnt ground at the Upper Lake, Killarney National Park. ‘You can set your watch to when these fires will start ,’ he says. ‘It is always after a dry spell and before rain comes. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan
Environmentalist Kevin Tarrant on burnt ground at the Upper Lake, Killarney National Park. ‘You can set your watch to when these fires will start ,’ he says. ‘It is always after a dry spell and before rain comes. Photograph: Valerie O’Sullivan

Overgrazing

Fogarty says the problems caused by decades of overgrazing by deer and sheep and the smothering effects of invasive rhododendron are well documented.

Kevin Tarrant, a founder member of the 1980s Killarney Nature Conservation Group, and who helped to fight the recent fire with the volunteer Meitheal group, agrees that nothing has changed since 1984.

“Year after year, we see fire after fire at the same time. You can set your watch to when these fires will start – it is always after a dry spell and before rain comes,” Tarrant says.

Ranger patrols throughout the park during the day and at night in spring and early summer, and particularly towards the end of dry spells, would prevent much of the problem, he says.

Meanwhile, willing volunteers should be taken more seriously by the State and by park authorities: “Immediately, the heaps of dead rhododendron piled up in the oak woods must be taken out,” he says.

Three theories are being put forward to explain the inferno – the deliberate burning of gorse, self-combustion, or arson. No one subscribes to the self-combustion theory.

Annual pattern

In late spring and early summer gorse fires follow an annual pattern around the lakes. Smoke goes up in one part and suddenly fires are lit elsewhere; latter day Indian smoke signals, to quote one local wit.

There were no sheep on the park’s hills the weekend of the fire, deer stalkers and rangers noted. Images of just one blackened and confused sheep was captured by well-known photographer Don Mac Monagle.

With growth very much back this year, and as the lambs began to arrive, the dry weather made for ideal burning conditions. Once the fires began, they took days to bring under control.

The 2005-2009 Killarney National Park management plan – which deals with the land, since no later one was ever drawn up – describes “sheep trespass” as a perennial problem.“While there are no grazing rights in Killarney National Park, there is a continuing significant problem with in excess of 1,000 sheep trespassing regularly on national park lands,” it notes.

Illegal burning

Most burning spurs new growth. Not a single prosecution for illegal burning has ever been brought by gardaí or any department in charge of the park. And there are too few rangers to chase sheep out.

Supt Flor Murphy, who heads the Killarney district, says the Killarney fire is being treated seriously. Four officers from the Garda Technical Bureau have been sent.

However the investigation is still a fact-finding exercise, and not a criminal one, Supt Murphy says, adding that they are liaising with the fire service and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Fires damage lakes and rivers by increasing phosphorous levels, by leaching of heavy metals and by cutting the amount of light received by plants and life in the water

In 1984, the focus on the damage caused by the fire, which also began at the back of Dinis Cottage, centred on oak trees, rather than habitats elsewhere that were regarded only as “scrubland”, An Taisce said at the time.

Some of the issues that have troubled the park since then were raised strongly at that time. The park did “not appear to have been prepared for an emergency of this magnitude”, wrote Dr Catherine McMullin of An Taisce.

Then describing the park as “little more than a black-scarred wasteland”, Kerry Green Movement spokesman Eugene O’Shea wrote that half of the oak forests had been choked to death by the spread of rhododendron.

Damage

The greatest damage caused by Killarney’s fires lies in the deaths of nesting birds, insects and lizards, while hundreds of deer have been forced to seek food and shelter elsewhere, causing traffic risks as they do.

Goats, some of which are of ancient Irish breeds dating back to Neolithic times, are now at risk, too. However, it does not end there: the damage to Killarney’s famous lakes is being hugely underestimated, say critics.

Dr Fran Igoe, the southern regional co-ordinator with the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO, has long studied the rare Killarney char and shad populations.

Fires damage lakes and rivers by increasing phosphorous levels, by leaching of heavy metals and by cutting the amount of light received by plants and life in the water: “Sometimes, it can take years to recover, “ Dr Igoe says.

The Killarney lakes hold some of the rarest species in western Europe and are important for Atlantic salmon and lamprey species, but the lakes nearest the fires contain rare populations of shad and Arctic char.

‘Under pressure’

“Arctic char are very sensitive to any environmental change and are already under pressure in many Irish lakes due to water-quality issues, invasive species and now also climate change,” Dr Igoe said.

Following a huge fire on Torc Mountain in 2019, Dr Igoe sampled the invertebrates in the stream that flows into Muckross Lake from Torc Waterfall three months after the blaze.

“Normally, this would contain stonefly, mayfly, caddis fly and other species that are indicators of clean water. We had trouble finding any invertebrate life at all,” he said.

Such an ecology is difficult to protect and easily lost. “We need to think about this. The ecology is often unique, like in Killarney, and of course supports thriving tourist industry and angling activities if we look after them.”