Wicklow Uplands Council members have expressed disappointed that no announcement is forthcoming from the Department of Heritage, Culture and the Gaeltacht regarding the controlled burning season this year.
The Heritage Act 2018 introduced a two-year pilot, which would allow for the use of controlled burning in the month of March should circumstances such as adverse weather conditions require it, however this is subject to ministerial approval. The current permissible dates are from September 1 to the last day in February and although an announcement has been widely anticipated, the department has stayed silent on this issue.
Recent figures released from Met Eireann confirm that the month of February saw record breaking rainfall across the country, with some of the records broken dating back as far as 1850. The country was battered by three storms, Ciara, Denis and Jorge, contributing to new wind records for February being set at 11 different locations. The farming communities across the country have reported that land and vegetation remain saturated and that the weather conditions required to safely undertake controlled burning, did not materialise.
Wicklow Uplands Council continues to advocate for the need to permanently extend the permissive controlled burning season to more realistic and workable dates and have been in correspondence with the Department to convey this. Data supports the conclusion that the month of March offers much more favourable conditions, which is reflected in Northern Ireland's use of April 15 as the final day of its season.
The Roundwood-based organisation continues to support the provisions contained within the Act that promote the use of controlled burning which aids upland biodiversity and prevents the spread of wildfires during the drier summer months. Controlled burning is an effective land management tool, with farmers and land managers carrying out burning activities within the permissive season.
Speaking about the promotion of controlled burning practices, Brian Dunne, coordinator of Wicklow Uplands Council, said: 'In the debate over controlled burning in the uplands, the fact that these are semi-natural habitats which need to be managed appropriately is often overlooked. Vast areas of mature vegetation which can be subsequently wiped out by summer fires are devastating to upland habitats.
'It should be recognised that there is a significant difference between the destruction caused by uncontrolled wildfires compared with the use of controlled rotational burning. Used correctly, it offers the opportunity to reintroduce a mosaic of vegetation which supports extensive farming, habitat quality and biodiversity, and reduces the chances of a wildfire taking hold during drier periods.'
A key project being undertaken by Wicklow Uplands Council is the SUAS Pilot Project, one of the 23 EIP projects currently operating across Ireland. The five-year project is seeking to address many of the challenges faced by upland farmers and through innovative practices support healthier habitats across the Wicklow and Dublin Uplands.
As part of the project's scope, the farmers of each site work closely with an independent ecologist to determine a medium to long-term land management plan that includes vegetation management techniques such as controlled burning if needed.
A number of training events took place in February 2019 during a rare period of dry and suitable weather conditions, however despite months of preparation, no events were possible in 2020.
Declan Byrne, project manager of SUAS project, stated: 'Despite having optimum areas selected for controlled burning, fire-breaks set up and all the required permits in place, there was no window of opportunity for controlled burning activities this winter. The areas selected for controlled burning are specifically chosen as part of an agreed management plan to improve the overall quality and condition of the participating sites.'