Thursday, 21 January 2016

Wicklow Uplands Council Welcomes Ministerial Announcement to Extend Upland Vegetation Burning Dates

Wicklow Uplands Council Welcomes Ministerial Announcement to Extend Upland Vegetation Burning Dates

Valley View Between Lough Dan and Lough Tay by Nichola Keegan
After 15 years of lobbying to successive Governments, Wicklow Uplands Council welcomes Minister Heather Humphries announcement on 23rd December 2015 to allow for controlled burning in certain areas of the country, during March should it be necessary, for example, due to weather conditions. The Minister has decided to introduce changes, on a pilot two year basis, to allow for a more managed approach to the vegetation management issues which regularly arise.  The Minster’s decision follows a review of Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 by the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht earlier this year but this has been an ongoing issue since 2000 when the vegetation management season was shortened by six weeks without any consultation with upland farmers who traditionally burned during this period. The main lobby for this change related to bird nesting in lowland hedgerows but there was no differentiation between the lowland and upland vegetation management dates as is the case in the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland where burning is generally permitted to 15th April. Wicklow Uplands submission on the review urged Minister Humphries to consider these facts along with the data on mean nesting of upland birds provided by the British Ornithological Trust which supports the dates being extended and we are delighted that common sense finally seems to have prevailed.

The announcement is also critical in light of the ongoing development of Locally Led Agri-Environment Schemes which Wicklow Uplands Council is well positioned to capitalise on in 2016. The intention is to improve the condition of our valued upland habitats while supporting hill farmers to continue to manage these areas. An official call for applications for a competitive process is expected in mid-2016 and Wicklow Uplands Council is optimistic of securing funding. Preparation for our application is progressing with the recent completion of ‘An Inventory of Biodiversity for the Wicklow/Dublin Uplands’ to establish a baseline of biodiversity for the area.

As part of the overall management of upland habitats, the practice of controlled rotational burning is recommended under our proposal but it is just one tool in the management of upland vegetation. It must be recognised that there is significant difference between the devastation caused by uncontrolled wildfires compared with controlled rotational burning which provides forage and shelter for sheep and wildlife while creating a mosaic of habitat structures. Management plans will identify key management recommendations with input from upland ecologists, farmers and farm planners based on initially habitat mapping and habitat condition assessments. If appropriate it will include a rotational burning management plan which would clearly identify areas that are suitable and unsuitable for burning such as blanket peat, bracken and areas with rare species present.

To compliment this initiative Wicklow Upland Council will also provide support to upland hill farmers with training in good burning practice based on international standards and experience. We will also facilitate the development of local burning management groups involving key stakeholders that require consultation and notification to meet legislative requirements in protected areas, proximity to forests in addition to the GardaĆ­, Fire Service, etc.

Our hill farmers have shaped the landscape of the Wicklow Uplands over the last 6000 years and it is widely recognised that with appropriate stocking farming has the capacity to provide optimal conditions for biodiversity. There has been a steady decline in hill sheep farming in Wicklow in recent years compounded by the accumulation of unmanaged upland vegetation, namely heather and gorse. Undertaken responsibly controlled burning is an important management tool in the future of upland habitat management together with subsequent appropriate stocking levels on the hills. This is a unique opportunity for upland farmers and ecologists to work together to provide the optimal result for upland habitats in County Wicklow while keeping hill farming alive and avoiding abandonment of the Wicklow Uplands which is not in the interest of anyone.

Wicklow Uplands Council has a proven track record for building consensus amongst interest groups and has been committed to the issue of land use and vegetation management since its establishment in 1997. It has demonstrated innovation in responding to local issues at a local level and in developing and delivering partnership projects. We wish to present a balanced view of local issues and how we are attempting to overcome them by working in partnership and presenting the perspective of the people who have lived and worked the hills for generations.

Author: Cara Heraty, Co-ordinator, Wicklow Uplands Council