Did fear over forestry lead activists to start wildfires?
Hill farmers claim some fires were sparked by 'rebellious element'
Anti-forestry campaigners deliberately started wildfires that devastated thousands of acres of land in the west in recent weeks, a farmers' organisation has claimed.
The Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) says "anti- forestry sentiment" is building in some parts of the country.
"There is a fear developing in the west that some areas are going to be planted over, especially areas where the land wouldn't be as good," INHFA spokesman Vincent Roddy told the Farming Independent. "There is a malicious element there, possibly a rebellious element.
"Whoever is lighting [wildfires] shouldn't be doing it, but the worry is that it shows a siege mentality is building against forestry. There is genuine concern here that when you start to put in trees, you start to move out people."
Since the beginning of the month, more than 100 gorse and forest fires have burned at locations across the country, partly due to the prolonged spell of dry, windy weather since the beginning of April.
The largest blaze was at Cloosh Valley, Co Galway where 1,500 hectares of Coillte forestry and 2,000 hectares of bogland were destroyed, resulting in multi-million euro losses for the national forestry company.
Padraig Egan, general manager of SWS Forestry, said his company lost 30 hectares of forestry in the north west, with a replanting value alone in the region of €300,000.
"The gardaí are suspicious and they are investigating. There were a number of forests burned in the region, some of ours, some of Coillte."
He said the situation was "a big wake-up call" for landowners in relation to insuring their properties and protecting their forests.
John O'Reilly, CEO of the Green Belt forestry company, claims "careless burning of neighbouring vegetation" was the cause of the wildfires at their forests in Roscommon and Wicklow last week.
"It's either burning of heather or burning of gorse to clear vegetation on agricultural land.
"I don't believe anyone has gone out specifically to target a forest, but the fires did not start in the forest, nor did they start because someone threw away a cigarette," said Mr O'Reilly.
"It's like a criminal footprint - you can track the fire to where it started and where it ended, and you can track the fact it started in neighbouring vegetation," he said.
Gerry O'Malley, chief fire officer with Sligo County Council, was involved in battling three wildfires in Sligo in recent weeks.
When asked if he believes forestry was maliciously targeted, he said: "To be honest, I have my suspicions, but you have to take into consideration that we attend when the fire is going - we're not there when it started."
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