In 2000 an amendment to the Wildlife Act shortened the permissive burning season by 6 weeks, from the 15th April to end of February each year. This amendment was carried out without any prior consultation with upland stakeholders.
Since the alteration to the Wildlife Act there has been a decline in farming activity in upland areas and a subsequent decline in the quality of upland habitats. This is largely due to vast areas of overgrown monocultures of heather, bracken & gorse. For the past number of years Wicklow Uplands Council has been highlighting that this overgrown vegetation poses a serious threat to upland habitats and public safety and has lobbied extensively for the extension of the current permissive burning season.
Overgrown vegetation is a major concern as it offers poor conditions for grazing and biodiversity and provides excess fuel for fires. The recent wildfires along the West have been a clear demonstration of this problem; vast areas of excess vegetation are allowing wildfires to spread uninterrupted with devastating effect.
Wicklow Uplands Council is supporting the Heritage Bill which would allow the controlled burning of vegetation in March when weather is not conducive in the preceding months. Controlled rotational burning is an important land management tool when used correctly. The use of burning to create a mosaic of vegetation structure creates optimal conditions for biodiversity and grazing and importantly creates a break in vegetation, preventing the spread of wildfire in dry conditions.
The current season is very restrictive as weather conditions are often not favourable early in the year. Importantly this legislation also applies to the mechanical removal of vegetation.
Irish legislation is out of line with the UK season (including NI) which permits the use of controlled burning up to April 15th. Best practice guidelines have been published in England, Scotland and Wales after ongoing consultation with upland stakeholders.
Burning is not the answer to all the problems in the uplands but when coupled with mechanical removal methods and an appropriate grazing regime the habitats are maintained in optimal condition.
While fires can easily be started accidentally in dry conditions, Wicklow Uplands Council is urging landowners not to start fires outside of the legal season.
Author: Brian Dunne, Co-ordinator, Wicklow Uplands Council