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Dublin: 8 °C Sunday 8 December, 2019
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No one has been prosecuted for deliberately starting wildfires since 2012

This burning of land is illegal from 1 March to 31 August, but there’s only been 11 prosecutions in over 10 years.

Bray head after the gorse fires last year.
Bray head after the gorse fires last year.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THERE HAVE BEEN no prosecutions by the Department of Heritage against those who deliberately start wildfires in five years, despite 11 prosecutions in the six years previously.

Last July, a number of wildfires broke out in six different counties, forcing the Air Corps to be deployed to drop 300,000 litres of water using specialist equipment.

As there was a heatwave in Ireland at the time, the fires spread quickly and took days to put out, in scenic spots like Slieve Bloom in Co Offaly and Bray Head in Co Wicklow.

Last week, wildfires broke out in the Annagry/Belcruit and Loughanure areas. Homes, businesses and farms were threatened, with conditions made worse by the delay for air support, which Donegal TD Pearse Doherty claimed was 7 – 8 hours long.

What causes them

download (1) Source: Dublin Fire Brigade

Fires can start during dry spells when the grass and undergrowth is particularly dry, where a cigarette or a discarded barbeque is dropped in a grassy area in the sun.

But fires are also started deliberately. On its website, Donegal County Council says that its fire services have attended “a large number of gorse fires each year,” and that “an alarming percentage of these fires are started deliberately”.

Farmers who wish to cleanse their land of plants with thick roots and branches like gorse bushes set their land alight on purpose, which the Irish Farmers’ Association described as “good farming practice” that allows for the regeneration of mountain land.

This burning of land is legal, but only from 1 September and 28 February, when the weather is colder and when birds aren’t nesting in those shrubs.

Under the Wildlife Act 1976 and the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 it is an offence to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated between 1 March and 31 August in any year.

An IFA spokesperson said that their members are worried about wildfires, about the impact that they could have on their land from which many are claiming CAP payments.

Prosecutions

1 fire_90565290 Source: Wicklow Fire Service

From 2013 until 2018, there have been no prosecutions against people who deliberately started wildfires. In the previous six years there was at least one prosecution per year.

In total, there have been 11 prosecutions under Section 40 of the Wildlife Act since the legislation was brought in in 2007.

According to the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012 there was one prosecution taken a year.

In 2010, five people were prosecuted: one person was fined €250, another was fined €275 and was ordered to pay €100 in expenses, a third was fined €600, a fourth was fined €100, and the fifth fined €50 plus legal costs of €544.50.

In 2011 there were two prosecutions, where one person was dismissed under the Probation Act; and the other was fined €200 after pleading guilty at Listowel District Court. 

How to prevent wildfires

1 Helicopters_90548992 (1) The Defence Forces deployed two helicopters to assist local authorities fighting a large fire in the Slieve Bloom Mountains near the Laois-Offaly border last year. Source: Deferences Forces

The government has already tried to take action against fires being started deliberately and illegally by farmers. Last year the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said that farmers who were found to have burned their land illegally may have their Basic Payment Scheme grant reduced.

“Where it is identified, as part of the current investigation, that lands were burnt during the closed season this may result in such land being inspected by Department officials.”

The Irish Wildlife Trust has said that although this has led to a reduction in fires in certain areas, overall the message is not getting through, and it has called for more drastic action.

Whether the latest spate of fires was caused by farmers clearing land, acts of carelessness or wanton vandalism it is now apparent that only a transformation of how we manage these mountain and peatland areas will get on top of the problem.
Habitats and wildlife populations in these areas have already been devastated through years of annual wildfires, along with inappropriate plantation forestry and land drainage. This means the vegetation that does exist dries out quickly, leaving it especially vulnerable to out of control fires.

The Trust is suggesting that farmers and landowners in these areas be given greater options for their land, including the re-establishment of permanent, native woodlands; payments for not farming; incentives to move away from sheep and towards cattle; and large-scale restoration of peatland habitats, including drain-blocking and rewetting.

After a weekend of fighting the fires, Donegal County Council appealed to landowners and members of the public to “exercise caution and to take all necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of wildfires involving material such as gorse, heather and similar”.

“House holders or building owners in areas susceptible to wildfire are advised to remove or cut back any vegetation in the immediate vicinity of their house, building or oil tank to prevent wildfires damaging or destroying their property.”

It has asked members of the public to do the following during summer months to prevent the outbreak of wildfires:

  • Smoking: If out walking or having a picnic, be sure to dispose of cigarettes and other smoking materials carefully and ensure that they are fully extinguished.
  • Barbeques: On most lands, it is actually illegal to light any fire, including barbeques, without the permission of the landowner.
  • Litter: Please take your litter home with you. Even a discarded glass bottle can start a fire.
  • Young People: Please educate children about the devastating consequences of causing fires.

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