Gorse fires: a burning problem

Most wildfires arise from malicious burning or farming activity

 

Every year, the month of April brings an outbreak of damaging wildfires. Statistically it is the driest month of the year and, in the west of Ireland, a time when turf was cut and saved by hand. It also offered upland farmers an opportunity to control the spread of gorse and heather by burning to provide additional grazing for their animals.

Two decades ago, an increasing number of out-of-control gorse fires and damage to wildlife brought legislation that banned all burning from March to September. It did not please some farmers who continued in their old ways. Representations by the Irish Farmers Association resulted in a proposal to permit controlled burning in March. This is contained in a Heritage Bill, now before the Dáil.

Most, if not all, wildfires arise from malicious burning or farming activity, in spite of a suggestion by the IFA that recreational users or hill walkers could be inadvertently lighting fires. Department of Agriculture rules for controlled burning are so onerous that few small farmers would entertain them. It is cheaper and easier to strike a match, rather than employ heavy machinery to remove offending vegetation. That is how it was always done.

Gorse is a fire adaptive species that can spread as a result of burning. The Department of Agriculture advises “careful mechanised removal is more effective than fire for long-term control”. In spite of that, burning goes on, with hundreds of wildfires being reported from across the State for the months of March and April. The unusually dry weather pushed the fire threat into May and millions of euro of damage is being caused to a Coillte forest at Cloosh Valley in Co Galway despite a huge effort to control the blaze.

There is a clear disconnect between what the law requires and what some small farmers are prepared to tolerate. It is like the turf-cutting dispute, when EU protection measures were thrashed by political pressure. Pending legislation is unlikely to solve the problem. Pity the wildlife and expect further wildfires.

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