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