Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 20 August 2017

It's only a matter of time before there is another wild fire outbreak, farm leaders warn

Farm leaders are warning that gorse fires will remain an annual threat until the Government overhauls its policy on commonage

A fire rages close to the church Gougane Barra in county Cork last month. Photo: John Delea.
A fire rages close to the church Gougane Barra in county Cork last month. Photo: John Delea.
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Last weekend's rain has helped bring wildfires under control, but farm leaders are warning that without a change in government policies, it is only a matter of time before there is another outbreak of what are proving to be increasingly destructive blazes.

Fumes from the largest blaze in Cloosh Valley, Galway, which last week destroyed more than 3,500 hectares of Coillte-owned forest and bogland, caused air pollution in the county to be on a par with the choking smog that hovers over the city of Beijing in China, according to NUI Galway researchers.

The wildfire has resulted in multi-million euro losses for the forestry company.

While much of the focus has been on the blame game around who started these fires, the bigger question is why wildfires are becoming an annual crisis for farmers, Coillte and local authorities - not to mention the fire services which were stretched to breaking point.

Issues such as the abandonment of commonage land, the restricted controlled burning season on commonages, and lack of fire training for farmers have been identified by farming experts as the primary reasons for the escalation in blazes that have destroyed thousands of hectares of land and forestry nationwide.

Despite strong opposition from wildlife groups, farm bodies insist that an extension to the controlled burning season under the 2016 Heritage Bill has the potential to "significantly reduce" the risk of gorse fires in the future.

Agri consultants maintain that better management of "abandoned commonage" should be incentivised as a preventative measure. There are 15,000 commonage farmers in Ireland, all in western counties and mostly in hilly areas.

Teagasc is calling for the roll-out of controlled burning training for farmers.


Ian Kenny, a member of the Agricultural Consultants Association, says the warm, dry, windy weather conditions in April and early May dried up commonage vegetation to a cinder, creating the ideal conditions for a fire-storm.

The large-scale vegetation on some commonage areas fuelled the flames.

"It has happened almost always on commonage land, where a number of farmers jointly own it," said Mr Kenny. "In some areas there is a lot of vegetation because there is less [a tradition of] grazing sheep."

He maintains the increase in vegetation is the result of a de-stocking programme initiated in 2000, combined with an ageing sheep farmer population.

Despite recent Government attempts to address the issue through GLAS schemes and commonage management plans, the upshot is that some commonages are not fit for grazing.

The lack of profitability in hill farming is also discouraging young farmers from entering the sector - leading to commonage abandonment, claimed Mr Kenny.

"Once sheep move off a commonage, it's almost impossible to settle sheep back on that commonage again. Some of those areas will never have stock again.

"Sheep or other stock on commonages manage them through grazing, it gives better flora and fauna, better results. But when commonages get abandoned, they tend to get dominated by rushes, long woolly heather or gorse," he said. "Rather than vegetation being eaten or burnt off, it's left there so greater fuel loads are accumulating. This means when the fire actually happens, it burns more intensively and for longer periods of time."

Mr Kenny said the Government should consider introducing 'shepherd schemes' and young hill farmer incentives in order to make viable the abandoned commonages in every county.

"The Government could pay farmers extra to put sheep in on a new commonage, they could introduce a targeted plan and they'd be paid as shepherds.

"It's quite possible, especially where these big fires have burned in areas around Castlerea and Tubbercurry. It would be very easy, when that vegetation grows back, to settle a flock of ewes."

And while farmers have been blamed for starting gorse fires in many areas, Mr Kenny said it is "inconceivable" that farmers lit the spark.

"It isn't possible that a farmer would do this, not in May, it would be crazy. Farmers are the biggest losers because the land has been destroyed; there will be no vegetation for sheep for maybe a couple of years. Forestry plantations owned by farmers are gone as well and there is fencing destroyed that the farmers have to replace," he said.

"Farmers follow a well established way of burning heather up to the height of your knee within a defined burning season when the ground is wet. All you're trying to do is a low-level intensity fire that doesn't damage the structures because you want the vegetation to grow back almost instantly for sheep.

"It has to be cigarettes or possibly some disposable barbecues used by tourists," he said.

However, John Casey, forestry development officer with Teagasc in Cork, believes the wildfires in Kerry, Cork, Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon, Westmeath, Longford and Donegal were deliberately set - either through malicious arson or by landowners illegally removing accumulated gorse and irrigated heather.

He says the outbreak highlights the need for more training for farmers.

"If you want to bring this land back in active and productive management, we need to promote best practice in terms of fire risk.

"It's about joined-up thinking by the rural community, everybody living in that area, everybody has a stake," Casey said.

He says that climate change is also playing a role.

"We are having milder winters, there is more ground vegetation; a lot of it is agricultural practices but with dry winters, it does dry out faster," he said.

Meanwhile, the IFA has raised the issue of "red-tape" around controlled burning whereby farmers have to notify a large number of authorities, including gardaí, fire services, National Parks and Wildlife and neighbouring landowners, before being granted approval to legally burn.

"There should be one person to contact rather than liaising with five or six different authorities," said Pat Dunne, IFA national hill committee chairman.

Sanctions

It is illegal to cut, remove or destroy hedgerows and burn vegetation in uplands between March 1 and August 31 in order to protect breeding birds.

The maximum sanction for a first-time burning offence outside this period is €1,000.The maximum penalty for a subsequent offence is €5,000.

Farmers also run the risk of losing their single farm payment as a result of illegal burning.

Mr Dunne insists that extending the controlled burning season under the 2016 Heritage Bill, which is currently before the Oireachtas, would be a "sensible move".

"As it stands, the law makes it almost impossible for burning to be done on upland vegetation. The growth and vegetation underneath has to die down and wither before it will burn.

"It's very difficult to get people to accept and understand that, and that's a problem.

"If it was burned in the early part of the year in a managed way, you wouldn't have this big reservoir of stuff. In many cases we have 17 years of growth built up on mountains and once that starts to burn, there is no stopping it, and that is the real problem as far as we're concerned," he said.

Mr Dunne also supports the Teagasc proposal for controlled burning training for farmers.

"Training for farmers is very important and there is none of it there. We need proper demonstrations and fire groups set up."

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