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Dublin: 12°C Saturday 15 May 2021
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Opinion: As half Killarney National Park is lost, we must end the cycle of infernos

Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust says Government policy, particularly around the burning of land for agriculture must be overhauled.

Pádraic Fogarty

THE BURNING TO the ground of half of Killarney National Park over the weekend has rightly caused shock and anger across Ireland. But for those of us working in the field of nature conservation, these kinds of events have become all too routine and even predictable.

In fact, serious wildfires have occurred in Killarney National Park every year in recent times as well as Wicklow National Park and other nature reserves. In 2017 the Irish Wildlife Trust logged all the fires we could and found that half of the 60 or so that were reported to us took place inside areas designated for nature conservation.

For wildlife enthusiasts and people living close to upland areas, good weather in April and May brings anxiety and fear that too often is well-founded.

In some parts of the world, like Australia, California or the Mediterranean, fire is a natural part of how ecosystems work. Not so in Ireland where our natural oak woodlands and bogs, which would dominate if we didn’t have farm animals and turf-cutting, are simply not flammable. So we can be pretty confident that all of the fires which happen are the result of people starting them, rather than occurring naturally.

Who’s to blame?

Until recently we were expected to believe that most of these fires were the result of carelessness – unextinguished cigarette butts, tourists barbequing and even the sun’s rays magnified by bits of broken glass. This was always far-fetched as many fires were well away from places typically visited by tourists.

In February of this year, there was an outbreak of wildfires in Counties Kerry and Wicklow during level 5 lockdown. Not too many tourists barbequing on the sides of mountains then.

While it is likely that mindless vandalism is playing a role in some cases there is also a cultural acceptance of burning land which many politicians and farming groups are reluctant to face up to.

Hearing a senior minister again this weekend warning the ‘general public’ about using barbeques on open hillsides brought scorn from commentators on social media. Indeed, we see that many exasperated fire crews are no longer shy about identifying the infernos as ‘agricultural fires’ which can sometimes be identified where there are multiple ignition sources.

Repeated wildfires have resulted in the collapse of ecosystems in our upland and hill landscapes. Taken alongside industrial plantations of non-native conifers, turf-cutting and over-grazing by sheep, it means that the whole community of birds which once thrived on the hills is now all but extinct.

From golden eagles to curlews and hen harriers, red grouse to the nocturnal nightjar, there’s virtually no habitat left that allows these birds to feed, nest and breed in peace.

Ban the ‘eligibility rule’

Fires have completely changed the vegetation. In centuries past they were covered in birch and oak forest and until the 1990s there was so much heather that the hills were noticeably purple in late summer. No longer. The forests and heather have given way to swathes of moor grass that holds little interest for wildlife and is itself a flammable source of fuel.

These changes have been allowed to happen because there has never been investment in our uplands for the long-term preservation of the habitats and species which once lived there.

Despite being Ireland’s most famous national park, Killarney does not have a working management plan while the problems associated with over-grazing by deer and sheep and infestation by the invasive rhododendron are well documented.

Across the uplands, the solution lies in rewilding the hills so that we can see the return of natural ecosystems like blanket bogs and native woodlands. These are not only fire resistant but are carbon sinks, will help to clean our water and can provide attractive amenity areas for local people. But how can we get to that point?

As an emergency measure, we must first stop penalising farmers for having wildlife habitat on their land. This is the so-called ‘eligibility rule’ that demands land is in ‘grazable condition’ in order to receive payments. Traditionally, the quickest way to remove gorse and shrubs and to get the land grazable has been to set fire to it. It is widely agreed that this rule must go but yet it persists.

Secondly, we need to stop burning land altogether. I still hear farming groups and politicians say that burning land is a useful form of agricultural land management. In fact, it is a failure of land management.

Farmers, therefore, are getting mixed signals. While it is clear that burning between March and August is illegal, outside this period the rules are so convoluted that it is not clear as to whether setting a wildfire is legal or not.

Burning peatland, even if done in a controlled way, pollutes air and water, damages the soil and releases greenhouse gases. So a clear signal that it must be stopped in all its forms would help to change the culture of burning.

Next, we need a massive investment programme in our uplands. Environmentally, socially and culturally they are simply too important to have been allowed to deteriorate to this point.

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The European Commission is taking Ireland to court because we have no management measures for any of the 400 odd Special Areas of Conservation that were designated over 20 years ago and which cover nearly 13% of our land area. Land restoration, from blocking drains, converting pine plantations to native woodlands and rehabilitating peatland could be a significant employer in these areas in the years to come.

We do not have to eliminate farming on the hills but we must accept that free roaming sheep are too environmentally damaging to be sustainable. Smaller numbers of hardy cattle can be part of the solution but farmers must be offered ‘high nature value’ schemes to reward this, like we have seen in the Burren in Co. Clare.

Above all, we need a new vision for our precious uplands that works for people and nature. Things have been allowed to get out of hand, but with the right approach from political and farm leaders, we can turn things around and end this cycle of infernos.

Pádraic Fogarty is campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust and author of ‘Whittled Away – Ireland’s Vanishing Nature’.

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