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GORSE FIRES SPECIAL: Upland areas must be better managed

May 26th, 2017 6:03 PM

By Southern Star Team

Controlled burning being carried out in January by members of the Cork Wildfire Co-operative Group.

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‘THERE is a strong need to bring upland areas back into active and productive management, which balances agricultural objectives with conservation and habitat management objectives in a sustainable manner,’ according to the Cork Wildfire Co-operative Group. 

CWCG shares the concerns regarding the spate of ‘wildfires’ across West Cork in the last number of weeks and their impact in terms of the danger posed and the negative effect on tourism, the wider economy and the environment. It is recognised that wildfires consume more than just forests and bogland and that they damage our lands, our farm infrastructure and our grazing potential. They threaten the safety of our most delicate ecosystems and habitats, and the flora and fauna that live in them. Fires destroy investments in forestry that are earmarked as future raw materials, pension and college funds, future timber exports, economic potential and jobs. Uncontrolled fires directly threaten the homes and safety of communities who live in fire prone areas, and can potentially rob our communities of vital emergency service response capabilities.

CWCG views ‘wildfire’ as any uncontrolled fire in combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside, whether or not it is within the permitted burning period from September 1st to February 28th, under the Wildlife Act 1976 & the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. In contrast, the term prescribed or controlled burning is used to describe the planned and deliberate use of fire which the CWCG recognises as a potentially positive land management tool. 

Changes in agricultural practice and demographics in upland areas have resulted in less intensive grazing regimes, greater fuel accumulation and increased frequency and severity of wildfire incidence. There is a strong need to bring upland areas back into active and productive management, which balances agricultural objectives with conservation and habitat management objectives in a sustainable manner. 

Fire has been used for centuries to effect desired changes in vegetation conditions; enabling rapid removal of unwanted, dead or older, less-productive vegetation from land, and creating favourable conditions for new growth for pasture or game cover. Fire is a powerful tool and, with the right application, prescribed fire can enable rapid and cost-effective treatment of unwanted vegetation; but it is recognised that fire needs to be used with skill and understanding if it is not to do more harm than good. 

John Casey, a forestry development officer with Teagasc, and his colleague, Eugene Curran of the Forest Service, are involved in the Cork Wildfire Co-operative Group (CWCG), established in 2012 to address the increasing number of wildfires that were occurring in the West Cork area. 

The first ‘meitheal’ approach to prescribed burning by landowners commenced in 2015 on the Sheep’s Head peninsula. It is intended to activate more groups in Cork in 2017.

The CWCG places an emphasis on co-operation between the landowners and state agencies, to develop a shared understanding of the issues, to increase opportunities to work together and to provide a template that others could follow. 

Ultimately, the benefits of burning to the land must justify the effort.

Careful planning needed

for best practice burning

CORK Wildfire Co-operative Group promotes the use of prescribed fire as best burning practice at its events. 

Prescribed burning can be defined as the controlled application of fire to a predetermined area, at a specified time of day and season, and under specified weather and fuel conditions, so as to ensure that the intensity, rate of spread and extent of spread of the fire meet planned land management and treatment objectives, and comply with the prevailing legal, environmental and social constraints.

In implementing prescribed burning operations, the aim is to ensure that careful planning and preparation results in specific treatment objectives being achieved, without causing wildfire outbreaks that may put lives and property at risk. To this end, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) has produced a Code of Practice for Prescribed Burning, to assist land managers in the safe use of fire: http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/forestry/firemanagement/CofPPrescribedBurningFinal90212.pdf

The CWCG encourages all landowners intending to use fire as part of their land management activity to consult this guide. They strongly advises landowners to seek National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) advice on habitat and conservation issues during the planning phase and to notify the Fire Service of the intention to burn on the day of burning. 

Landowners seeking to burn land are frequently reminded that they are obliged by law to notify in writing the owners of forestry within one mile of the planned burn and, similarly, to notify the Gardaí of their intention to burn. 

The nature, extent and frequency of land burning, and the habitats in which this activity occurs are contentious issues and impact on overall land productivity. Reconciling the differing objectives of farming, conservation, public recreation and forestry requires a clear understanding of each of these objectives and respective perceptions. 

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has led sustained national media fire awareness campaigns and Teagasc continues to promote best practice with regard to fire risk, forestry and the management of land resources in an environmentally sustainable manner, including through the provision of hill management courses. Multi-agency fire training and awareness events have also been held in Cork, Kerry, Laois and Louth. 

Most land burning practice now relates to extensive pasture management for sheep, and limited upland beef enterprises. Burning of upland pastures, often dominated by Molinia caerulea (purple moor grass, fionán grass) and Calluna and ericacious heathers, is primarily undertaken to improve grazing conditions through the removal of accumulated coarse, dead and woody material from the target vegetation. 

On heather-dominated sites, they advise that the aim of fire should be to reverse the growth phase of heather to encourage the development of new succulent shoots, as well as reducing overall vegetation height and the accumulated fuel load. 

Gorse species are problematic for prescribed burning due to their highly flammable and unpredictable nature as fuel, particularly European Gorse. As a fire-adapted species, burning stimulates gorse seed to germinate and can result in greater spread of gorse at the expense of more preferred species for grazing or game management. 

It is recommended that the prescribed burning of extensive areas of gorse should be avoided in the absence of suitable preparation and installation of effective control lines. Ideally, alternative mechanical methods should be used to grub or mulch stands for long term effective control, subject to agreement with NPWS and DAFM, as applicable, in designated or REPS areas. 

It is the Cork Wildfire Co-operative Group’s view that hill farmers have a responsibility to conduct land burning activity in a manner which maximises the benefits to their farming enterprise, while minimising risks to the land and the communities around them. Therefore, a thorough knowledge of fire and its influence on vegetation under different conditions is essential to carry out necessary prescribed burning operations effectively and safely. 

A high degree of co-operation between landowners, and between landowners and other concerned stakeholders, is also required to generate greater awareness of the risks to property, risk of fatalities, damage to wildlife, legal constraints and call-out charges. 

Local level fire co-operation groups, such as in Kilcrohane, can provide a suitable forum for discussion and a platform for improved co-operation, training and knowledge transfer. According to John Casey, ‘this “meitheal” approach is not seeking to reinvent the wheel, but to help it run more smoothly, for the benefit of all.’

Department plans to investigate 

all incidents of illegal burning

‘OFFICIALS in my Department are currently analysing a wide range of satellite imagery to identify land which was burnt illegally during the specified closed season for burning,’ Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Andrew Doyle, TD, announced this week. 

‘Historic satellite imagery is also being examined as part of this process. Agricultural and eligible forestry land identified as burnt illegally as part of this investigation will be deemed ineligible for payment under the 2017 Basic Payment and other area-based schemes,’ he warned.

The Minister of State advised farmers, and their advisors, of the following in relation to agricultural and eligible forestry land which is burnt illegally during the closed season – i.e. March 1st to August 31st:

·       Such land is not eligible for payment under the Basic Payment Scheme and other area-based schemes.

·       Farmers who have included illegally burnt land in their 2017 Basic Payment Scheme application, already submitted to the Department, should now remove this land by means of submitting an Amendment Form prior to the closing date for receipt of amendments, i.e. May 31st or June 9th with penalty.

·       Inclusion of illegally-burnt land in the 2017 Basic Payment Scheme application may result in reduced payment and penalties under this scheme and the other area-based schemes, e.g. Areas of Natural Constraints Scheme;

·       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 Minister of State concluded: ‘My Department is actively investigating all of the recent incidents of illegal burning of land, using the most up-to-date technology-satellite imagery. My Department will not tolerate incidences of illegal burning of land and will take all necessary actions to ensure compliance with the conditions of the various EU funded area-based schemes, including reducing payments and penalties where applicable.’ 

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