'Land owning code' needed ahead of GLAS scheme
Forestry groups concerned about threat from 'cleaning' of commonage land
The agri-environment scheme, GLAS, has provoked considerable controversy, especially among commonage farmers.
One of the issues that has been raised is the requirement that overgrown commonages may have to be burned off so that it can be brought back to grazing in order to be deemed 'eligible land' for EU schemes such as GLAS.
However, a great many forest fires result from so called 'controlled' burning on lands adjoining plantations. And despite the fact that burning is illegal between March 1 and August 31, every year many forest fires start this way long after the legal burning season has passed.
The potential upsurge in commonage burnings is viewed with some concern by John Phelan of the Woodland Group, which through its sister company WoodlandCover arrange a nationwide group insurance scheme for plantation owners.
Mr Phelan said that many forest fires in 2010 and 2011 were caused by land burning. He maintained that some degree of regulation to the practice of land burning should be required, given the damage uncontrolled fires can cause.
"Land burning requires a high degree of skill and responsibility and should only be undertaken under licence. You cannot cut a single tree, or apply aerial fertiliser without a licence, yet burning can apparently take place without any regulation.
"It is disappointing that the Department of Agriculture does not seem to have considered other landowners when apparently setting out a requirement for commonage burning,"Mr Phelan said.
He pointed out that the forest fire losses have led to significant cost increases in insurance and for some parts of the country cover is no longer readily available. There are now only two insurers offering cover and any badly managed land fires in 2015 or 2016 would be a serious blow.
Mr Phelan said there was an opportunity through GLAS to push the Prescribed Burning Code of Practice which had been drawn up by the Department.
He called on the Forest Service and Minister of State, Tom Hayes, to press for greater farmer adoption of the code and to ensure that the property rights of all landowners were respected in any drive to burn off commonages.
This view was echoed by Donal Whelan of the Irish Timber Growers Association (ITGA). "The fact that the new GLAS scheme is now proposing burning of vegetation in such high forest fire risk areas is of serious concern to timber growers," he said.
However, he pointed out that if anyone intended burning within one mile of a forest, then plantation owners and local Gardaí must be given prior notice. He also stressed that forest owners had the right to object by counter-notice.
Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that there has been blanket opposition to the concept of upland burnings from the forestry sector. Indeed, it is widely accepted that controlled burning has its place. Trevor McHugh of the Irish Forests and Forest Products Association (IFFPA) gave the GLAS proposal a guarded welcome.
"It allows the responsible landowner to use fire as a legitimate land management tool. In turn this helps ensure that fires that are lit are controlled and monitored in a responsible manner," he said.
However, Mr McHugh insisted that severe sanctions needed to be imposed on anyone acting outside the new dates or failing to control or monitor fires.
"This year's relatively fire-free season is a threat as there is a build up of vegetation as a result. When this is lit - and at some point in the future it will be - the fire will be twice as big and twice as hot. Therefore, I welcome anything that promotes responsible land fire management."
Meanwhile, the Department maintained that it was aware of the potential threat that land burning posed to forests and forest owners, as well as to the substantial State investment in forestry.
"A GLAS commonage plan would have to include management of scrub in order to maintain the land in reasonable agricultural condition and to ensure that commonages are protected in terms of biodiversity and natural condition," a Department spokesman said.
"Reduced grazing levels in recent years have resulted in many commonages becoming overgrown, which has increased the threat of uncontrolled wildfires," he added.
"Controlled burning, carried out under the right conditions and in compliance with the Prescribed Burning Code of Practice, is a suitable mechanism to deal with this.
"In recent years the Forestry Division of the Department has developed considerable technical expertise around fire prevention through the Land and Forest Fires Working Group, which developed the Prescribed Burning Code of Practice.
"The relevant officials dealing with forestry and GLAS are liaising closely with regard to the land burning issue, and the code of practice referred to will inform all procedures and processes laid down for GLAS," the Department spokesman said.
Most people involved in the forest industry do not question the quality of the various guidelines and codes of practice that have been produced by the Department over the last number of years. However, history has shown that we tend to have a poor record when it comes to implementing, let alone enforcing, these codes.
When faced with something as potentially dangerous, not to say lethal, as land burning, let us hope that all practitioners behave with the utmost responsibility.
William Merivale is national secretary of PEFC Ireland and a forestry consultant based in Cork. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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