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burning land

Farmers defend 'extreme and irresponsible' gorse bush burning as best practice

The recent spell of dry weather has left firefighters battling gorse bush blazes, with farmers often blamed for starting them.

shutterstock_79213156 Shutterstock / Chrispo Shutterstock / Chrispo / Chrispo

THE PRACTICE OF burning gorse bushes has been defended by farmers, while conservationists have decried the practice as unnecessarily extreme.

There have been a series of massive gorse fires across Ireland due to the dry weather, with Met Éireann warning this week that dry areas of land are extremely prone to catching fire.

The last weekend in March had a reported 15 wildfires in total, some of which were said to have been started by farmers clearing their land.

Gorse is a stubborn plant with thick branches, prickly thorns and vibrant yellow flowers during the spring and summer. Because the plant is so difficult to clear, farmers sometimes burn the land so it can be cleansed and used again.

Despite the recent gorse fires, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) said that this is best practice in dealing with the plant, which is difficult to uproot:

Managed burning of gorse is good management practice by hill farmers. The burning allows the regeneration of mountain land and is good farming practice.

They added that recent out-of-control gorse fires are not necessarily due to farmers burning, but may be related to the fact that some hills have become overgrown and “recreational users” (tourists, hill-walkers, etc) could be inadvertently lighting fires.

They added that some farmers with forestry have already suffered financial losses this season because of the spate of wildfires.

shutterstock_618754694 Shutterstock / Sandra Standbridge Shutterstock / Sandra Standbridge / Sandra Standbridge

“Gorse is a difficult plant to control,” Billy Flynn of the Irish Wildlife Trust admits.

“But manually cutting gorse at the right time of year is best practice. I know it’s difficult to do, it’s no small task, I’ve done it myself on a conservation job in Co Wicklow.”

Burning gorse bushes means a reduction in grassland areas, and is an absolutely unsuitable and extreme measure to what are sensitive, delicate habitats to begin with.

He says that different species of birds nest in the upland areas and are extremely vulnerable time of year: “these fires in the past few weeks have been cataclysmally bad for birds breeding in uplands”.

shutterstock_519066823 Wind spreas a bushfire in Australia. Shutterstock / totajla Shutterstock / totajla / totajla

He says that there’s long lasting damage after a gorse fire has occurred: the earth is scorched as well as the direct effects on the wildlife.

But isn’t that the practice in other countries?

Burning land is different in different eco-systems, it just doesn’t apply here. For example, in large parts in Australia, before humans there would have been huge fires that burned themselves out, and the land would regenerate themselves.

“Those ecosystems depend on burning, so humans continue it in a controlled way. But in a different eco-system it can’t be condoned, it modifies the landscape.”

shutterstock_275896253 Shutterstock / kaohanui Shutterstock / kaohanui / kaohanui

He says that although in some cases it’s possible that visitors could accidentally start a fire by leaving a glass bottle behind which would start a fire because of the fraction of sunlight, or at a campsite who’ve left a tinder box behind.

But some places where gorse fires originate, Flynn says, are so remote that it couldn’t be caused by visitors, and are either done maliciously or for land management reasons.

We know that many farmers manage their land responsibly. But it only takes one irresponsible, less-than-environmentally aware to do huge damage beyond the scale of responsibility, and we’ve seen that.

download Dublin Fire Brigade say it's unknown what sparked last week's gorse fires, but that recent dry weather is a factor. Dublin Fire Brigade Dublin Fire Brigade

Heritage Bill

The current window where land burning is legally allowed is between the 1 September and 28 February.

But farmers have considered this timeframe “too narrow due to climatic conditions” to carry out the burning.

The government’s proposed Heritage Bill would include the month of March, has been welcomed by the IFA as “good practice from a farming and environmental perspective”.

The Irish Wildlife Trust, meanwhile, disagrees. It says they’re disappointed with the bill, concerned about how it can be monitored or policed, and the lack of evidence-based studies behind the change.

shutterstock_258815108 Shutterstock / Daniel Mitchell Shutterstock / Daniel Mitchell / Daniel Mitchell

“It’s more about farmers than about the environment. The government chose to ignore ample evidence on bird nesting science, like birds do nest in March and August,” Flynn said.

He then criticised the government’s double-standard approach in dealing with conservation and the environment:

[On one hand, they] spend millions of euros monitoring the curlew, and on the other hand they’re allowing our upland areas – the bird’s habitat – to be degraded.

The IFA recommend to farmers who are considering burning their land to assess the risk to their forest and make sure that the firebreaks (6-metre-wide fuel-free zones) are maintained.

The farmers should identify and map the risks and the likely outcomes if there was a fire, assembly points, access and escape routes, reservoirs or water points and firebreaks.

The plan should also contain contact details for the local fire station, local garda station, Registered Forester.

Read: A dry weekend has sparked a series of gorse fires across Ireland

Read: Gorse fires blaze at Mosney as fire brigade warns public to be careful

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