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.