Monday, 22 August 2016

The Burning Issue

The Burning Issue.

The proposed legislation to introduce pilot measures to allow the burning of upland vegetation in March has evoked widespread opposition, including an ongoing online petition objecting to the proposed measures. The ‘Burning Issue’, as it is now referred to, is a very contentious issue which needs to be publically debated. 

The lobby against the proposed extension to the burning season is based predominately on the nesting season. The current burning season in the Republic makes no distinction between upland and lowland habitats, unlike in the UK and NI where burning is permitted in upland areas until the 15th April. Wicklow Uplands Council supported the extension in the burning season based on data on mean nesting of upland birds provided by the British Ornithological Trust. This data supports the extension of burning dates and we were delighted that common sense seemed to have prevailed.
After the wildfire.
Negative public perception of burning of vegetation in our uplands is understandable given the devastation caused by wildfire. However there is vast difference between controlled managed burning and uncontrolled wildfires. It is also important to highlight that the proposed measures allowing burning of vegetation in March will only be permitted when weather is unfavourable in the preceding winter months.  The derogation to burn in March will be decided annually by the Department of Agriculture. 
It is crucial that our upland habitats are in good ecological condition. Not only do healthy uplands provide optimal conditions for biodiversity and grazing but they also provide a range of important ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and the slowing of floodwaters benefiting downstream communities. Unmanaged monocultures of bracken, heather or gorse are not good for biodiversity and it is broadly accepted that the decline in hill sheep farming in upland areas in recent years has partly contributed to vegetation growing out of control and providing both fuel for uncontrolled fires and poor habitats for upland flora and fauna.  Fire can and does have an important role in habitat management so long as it is managed properly.  Successful controlled burning can greatly reduce the chances of a wildfire taking hold in upland regions. A recent article by Dr Claire Asher referred to a shift in thinking in Australia and America where the intensity and frequency of wildfires has been growing in the past decade. Authorities there have now begun to realise the value of controlled burning as part of a pre-emptive wildfire management plan. 

Quick controlled burns can clear up dry debris, which when left to accumulate can provide fuel for wildfires. A similar shift in thinking is needed for our uplands where excessive vegetation can be a potential fire hazard.  In some areas of the Wicklow Uplands uncontrolled gorse is becoming a serious problem.  Gorse fires generate massive heat extensively damaging the structure of the soil beneath with a devastating impact on upland habitats.  When a gorse fire takes hold it can spread rapidly and uncontrollably presenting a serious threat to people and property. Luckily there has not been a serious wild gorse fire in Wicklow in the past number of years but in a dry summer a fire can be easily started often burning for a number of days.  
Controlled rotational burning is an age old practice whereby landowners burn small patches of low vegetation to ensure optimal conditions for grazing and biodiversity. This results in a patchwork of fresh grassland and heather covered areas.  This practice, when carried out in a controlled and focussed manner is critical to vegetation management of upland environments, providing forage and shelter for sheep while in turn creating habitat structures and food for wildlife.  Certain species including the Red Grouse need a variety of heather heights to breed and flourish. These controlled burns are fast and burn through vegetation quickly without generating the excessive heat which can damage the soil underneath.

Uncontrolled wildfires cause devastation to natural habitats and soil and have a detrimental effect on wildlife, birds, forestry and our dwellings. Uncontrolled fires can start in many ways including the careless disposal of cigarettes from car windows, campfires, and discarded glass bottles.  Unfortunately some fires are also started intentionally.  
In 2013 ‘A Study to Identify Best Management of Upland Habitats in County Wicklow’ was commissioned by Wicklow Uplands Council and launched by the then Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and is available on our website   One of the recommendations of this study is the establishment of controlled burning groups and it points out the huge disparity between controlled and uncontrolled burning in upland areas.
A workshop facilitated by Wicklow Uplands Council to discuss how to effectively and responsibly use fire as a vegetation management tool was held in February 2016.  The discussion was followed by a practical demonstration of how controlled burning works on a nearby upland.  This event was attended by over 150 delegates from all over Ireland and was supported by many relevant organisations.  This workshop marked the beginning of a new era with all interested parties working in partnership towards the use of controlled burning as a land management tool and combating wildfire problems, not only in Wicklow but on a national level.
Landowners do not want to see hillsides burned beyond repair and they understand that the onus is on them to carry out controlled burning responsibly.  The proposed introduction of new pilot measures to allow burning into March will only proceed if controlled burning is carried out responsibly from now on. 
There needs to be a public conversation in Ireland in regard to fire as an effective land management tool. While controlled burning is not the solution to all vegetation management problems it has an important role to play. Controlled burning coupled with effective grazing can result in our uplands returning to a healthier condition than they are in at present.

Controlled burning requires a responsible approach and clear guidelines for landowners. A burning plan should be prepared prior to every controlled burning event to ensure that all precautions are in place - for example notifying the relevant authorities, surrounding landowners, forestry owners, An Garda Síochána and the local Fire Service.  Prior notification of relevant authorities prevents unnecessary callouts and waste of valuable resources.   The Department of Agriculture published a document -  Prescribed Burning - Code of Practice Ireland‘ which is available on their website and includes sample burning plans. 
Wicklow Uplands Council encourages visitors and local people to enjoy the Wicklow hills and to consider the value of controlled burning as a responsible and effective land management tool ensuring the good ecological condition of our uplands for generations to come.

Charlotte Rosemond, Acting Communications Officer, Wicklow Uplands Council.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Controlled Burning Partership Established in Wicklow

Controlled Burning Partnership Established in Wicklow. 

There is a real threat that the overgrown heather which covers large areas of Wicklow Mountains, due in part to the decline in hill farming, could accidentally catch fire in the dryer summer months.  This could cause significant destruction to habitats, soil and have a detrimental effect on wildlife, birds, forestry and our dwellings.  With the aim to prevent such disaster and to create a plan for the uplands, a workshop on Controlled Burning took place on 12th February  last in Roundwood, Co Wicklow. This workshop was arranged following the announcement of proposed pilot measures which would allow landowners to carry out controlled burning of upland vegetation in March under certain conditions.

Over 150 people from across Ireland attended this important event organised by Wicklow Uplands Council and supported by a large number of agencies including; Coillte, Irish Farmers’ Association, Irish Uplands Forum, The Fire Service, The Forest Service, Mountaineering Ireland, The National Parks and Wildlife Service, Teagasc and Wicklow Cheviot Sheep Owners’ Association.  The workshop began indoors and was followed by a practical demonstration of controlled burning at Powerscourt Paddock on Djouce Mountain.    

The indoor session covered presentations from various speakers. Declan Byrne, Teagasc, spoke about controlled burning from an agricultural perspective: “The cheapest, most sustainable and environmentally friendly way to manage hills is through farming”.  In his view long term management plans (at least 10 years long) for hills and commonages would work best for vegetation control.  They should include grazing, controlled burning and cutting / swiping.   

Enda Mullen, District Conservation Officer with NPWS, spoke about negative environmental impacts of uncontrolled wildfires in Wicklow. These include: destruction of rare birds nesting sites; deaths of old famine trees, insects, bird chicks; loss of food for wildlife; smoldering of soil which changes soil function, nutrients and ability to hold water; spread of unwanted plants such as bracken; soil erosion and water pollution.  She also talked about the social and human impacts of uncontrolled burning such as damage to property; cost of firefighting, safety, fire fighter fatigue and smoke inhalation.

The Boleybrack Red Grouse Management Project in North Leitrim was the first place in the country where controlled burning took place in a NATURA 2000 Site (Special Area of Conservation) a few years ago.  John Carslake the game keeper in the project shared his experience with controlled burning for biodiversity. He emphasized that the project has resulted in the presence of an array of wild birds on Boleybrack Mountain.

Ciaran Nugent from the Forest Service shared his experience of prescribed burning in County Kerry.  The term ‘prescribed burning’ describes planned use of fire as a land management tool.  The Forest Service and the Dept. of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have published the ‘Prescribed Burning Code of Practice – Ireland’ which outlines all the key steps and equipment needed to carry out a controlled burn.

The outdoor session involved an in depth discussion of the merits and practicalities of heather burning. This was followed by a practical demonstration of a controlled burn. Conservationists, mountaineers, wildlife rangers, scientists, firefighters, farmers, agricultural professionals and journalists discussed the safe and appropriate use of fire in the uplands.  Pat Dunne (Wicklow Uplands Council and IFA) stressed to landowners present that the onus is on them to carry out controlled burning responsibly.  He highlighted that the proposed introduction of new pilot measures to allow burning into March under certain condition has not yet been introduced and the measures will only proceed if controlled burning is carried out responsibly from now on. 

This workshop marks the beginning of a new era with all interested parties working in partnership towards the use of controlled burning as a land management tool and combating wildfire problems, not only in Wicklow but on a national level.  The Wicklow Uplands Council’s ‘Study to Identify Best Management of Upland Habitats in County Wicklow’ identified the need for collaboration between stakeholders for best practice in controlled burning and identified the need for the establishment of small controlled burning groups who would play a vital role in assisting landowners carry out controlled burning.  It is also expected that there will soon be a call for applications for a new Locally Led Agri-Environment Scheme for upland areas.  Such a scheme will be based on the Burren Farming for Conservation Model whereby farmers would be rewarded for maintaining healthy upland habitats and controlled burning will have an integral role to play in achieving this goal. 

Brian Dunne, Co-ordinator, Wicklow Uplands Council

Tourism Ambassadors Initiative in Wicklow

Tourism Ambassadors Initiative in Wicklow

The need for this project was identified at the Joint Policing Committee Meetings in Wicklow County Council in co-operation with Gardaí, NPWS, Wicklow Tourism, Community organisation’s, Wicklow County Council, Wicklow Uplands Council, Mountaineering Ireland and Rural Recreation Scheme.   

The County Wicklow Partnership was ideally placed to roll out the Tourism Ambassadors initiative through the Tús Programme and it is in operation since July 2014.  The project employs over 21 participants who work part time as Tourism Ambassadors in various car parks at tourist hot spots throughout the County, including Sugarloaf/Greystones, Enniskerry/Sally Gap/Roundwood, Glendalough, Glenmalure, Tinahely, Aughrim, Wicklow/Brittas Bay and Blessington.

The role of the Tourism Ambassadors is to offer support and guidance to tourists and locals and to act as security or deterrent but in the form of a tourist information officer.  They also provide visitors with maps and offer advice on walking routes, proper clothing required and vehicle security.  They can notify the relevant authorities of suspicious activities in the area but they will not intervene themselves. 

Tourism Ambassadors have accredited security training, manual handling and occupational first aid training and they completed site specific training in tourism.  They are easy to recognise as they wear a uniform. 

This project is an excellent example of multi-agency approach to address a countywide issue and is very welcome among recreational users with a very positive impact on tourism in County Wicklow.