Gorse Fires and Land Management

Gorse Fires and Land Management

An Ceann Comhairle

The final Topical Issue matter comes from Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, who wishes to discuss upland burning and land management practice, which are very topical issues. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being here to deal with the matter.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

As the Ceann Comhairle said, these are topical issues. Last week, as we were approaching the cut-off period for the moratorium on controlled burning, which was 1 March, uplands across the country were ablaze. Quite a lot of it was in Kerry, in places such as the Killarney National Park, near the Mangerton area, the Dingle Peninsula, the western side of the MacGillicuddy’s Reeks and Strickeen Mountain in the Gap of Dunloe. Crossing into west Cork, Mount Gabriel on the Mizen Peninsula was also affected. There were fires in the north of the Minister of State’s constituency on the Blackstairs Mountains.

There were also some small fires on the Comeragh Mountains in my constituency. When I saw the pictures on social media earlier this week, I was in put in mind of something I recall very clearly from 1 September last year, just as we came out of the moratorium period. I was going to west Cork as part of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands visit to Bere Island. On 1 September, I could see the burn set in a line across the brow of the Comeragh Mountains. I came back two days later and the mountains were blackened.

I want to be very careful about language. We are talking about the season where controlled burning is allowed. What I observed last September on the Comeragh Mountains and what has been observed across west Cork and Kerry and on the Blackstairs Mountains can in no way, shape or form be described as controlled burning. I also want to be careful because there are Members who would like to put words in my mouth and say that I am vilifying or demonising certain communities; I absolutely am not. In fact, I visited the Comeragh Mountains recently and met with the people of the Comeragh Uplands and Communities EIP Project, including Mr. Willie Drohan and other members of the sheep farming community on the far side of the mountain from the Mahon Falls. They are equally as incensed about uncontrolled burning as I am because it reflects badly on them, their practices and how they manage their landscape.

As we all know, it also has a significant impact on our biodiversity. These are important breeding grounds for the likes of the red grouse, hen harrier, skylark and curlew. These are all amber- or red-listed birds. We find ourselves in a biodiversity crisis, yet we have this level of burning still happening on our mountainsides.

Controlled burning is legal and many responsible landowners engage in the practice. What we saw last weekend was not controlled. Have there been prosecutions for this kind of uncontrolled burning, which happens within season? The Minister of State has done great work on reforming the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS. How do we stand as regards the resource within the NPWS to police this kind of burning?

We also need to talk about funding for farmers because the fact of the matter is that this model is not working for sheep farmers either. It is the first thing they will tell you. They cannot make money on the wool. They make very little money on the sheep themselves and are forced into a system where they have to try to manage and control the landscape. What is the funding model doing? What is it pushing our farmers towards? Crucially, what is our long-term vision? When we look at these mountains and imagine how we want them to perform in terms of biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water management, what do those mountainsides look like? Is that vision being communicated to the people who know those mountainsides best and who, if properly funded and supported, would be best placed to make the changes in land use and management that are needed?

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (Deputy Malcolm Noonan)

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an gceist tábhachtach seo. The management of Ireland’s upland areas is a responsibility shared by many, including land users, landowners and various bodies and agencies tasked with its management. As Minister of State, my focus in this regard is on the protection of nature. Sustainable grazing is an important nature conservation measure. My Department’s NPWS farm plan scheme and the EU LIFE Wild Atlantic Nature project are examples of how locally targeted and adapted agri-environmental measures can be highly effective when implemented in areas of high environmental priority across the country, including upland Natura 2000 sites, and are highly valued by the people who take part in them.

I unreservedly condemn the recent spate of fires. I thank all of the fire and emergency service personnel who risked life and limb to tackle these fires and bring them under control. They have caused significant environmental damage in upland areas. As the Deputy correctly said, some refer to this as planned or controlled burning. This is a misnomer. If it gets out of hand, which it invariably does, it is uncontrolled burning. In fact, it is worse; it is indiscriminate burning and causes criminal damage to nature, water, property and people’s health. I have examined the red grouse project in Scotland and know that there are instances in which controlled burning can be effective. It is important to note that it can be an effective tool. However, I have also received correspondence this week from residents living in the parts of Kerry the Deputy referenced who have had to remain in their houses with their children while those fires were burning. It is grossly irresponsible. It is critically important that every member of society realises the damage that can be caused to property and the health and welfare of families, neighbours, the wider community and the responding emergency services.

The main source of these fires is the deliberate starting of fires without concern for the consequences. The NPWS works closely with the fire service, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and An Garda Síochána, as appropriate, to investigate the causes of fires in our national parks and reserves, protected sites and the wider countryside. This week, the service has deployed increased fire patrols across sites. This has included aerial monitoring, with eyes in the sky over recent days. Where appropriate, cross-compliance is pursued with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. My staff are committed to finding solutions to the problem of these fires. I call on all stakeholders, including local communities, to work with us to find a way forward. Where evidence is forthcoming, appropriate enforcement under the Wildlife Acts or other legislation will be pursued.

However, it should be noted that, due to the sheer scale of land involved coupled with the remote location of lands and the sporadic occurrence and dynamic nature of such fires, it is simply not possible to provide a universal and visible presence as a deterrent on the ground. My national parks and reserves network alone covers 87,000 ha and approximately 14% of the State is designated as either a special area of conversation or a special protected area with much of this land in private ownership. These areas are the heart and lungs of our country. Trying to identify those who deliberately set fires in open areas without concern for the consequences can be challenging.

I am pleased to report that our ground patrols have interrupted some of those setting fires in recent days and that a number of live criminal investigations are under way. Furthermore, the overflights enable us to identify the seats of such fires and, as a consequence, pursue both criminal prosecutions under the Wildlife Acts and cross-compliance penalties with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The issue here is individuals being more responsible for the actions they take and being mindful of the potential damage to life, nature and property that can be caused by deliberately setting fires. The perpetrators of these acts are known in their communities. I ask that information be given in confidence to the NPWS or the Garda confidential line so that illegal and uncontrolled fires can be investigated.

Nobody has the right to unilaterally declare that they are going to burn land indiscriminately. These acts fall into the category of socially unacceptable as they damage entire communities and, frankly, give all, including those who act responsibly, a bad name. It is that irresponsibility that is driving the extensive calls for a change in the law. In any event, it is probably timely to look again at the six-month period during which burning may take place, especially in light of changing climate and weather patterns, nesting and breeding habitats and international nature compliance obligations.

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh

I thank the Minister of State for that response. I was conscious of the language I used and how specific I wanted to be because I want to talk about uncontrolled burning. As I said, I have been out with those hill and sheep farmers and they have shown me the manpower needed to perform a controlled burning. That is not what I am talking about; I am not talking about instances of responsible land management. If Cromwell sent the Irish people to hell or to Connacht, we have sent our biodiversity and wildlife to the hedge or the uplands. Those are the reserves we have left. Even those are now under enormous pressure. That is what we witnessed this weekend gone.

We hear the phrase “just transition” mentioned often in the House. Here is an example of where the rubber needs to meet the road in that regard. Under our current model, the people who work on that land, who spoke to me passionately about how attached they are to their landscape, cannot make a bob out of it. They are forced into practices they do not agree with. They have the very skills, knowledge and experience we need to unlock to make these biodiversity-rich habitats functioning for carbon sequestration and water management. I have a community of hill farmers in Waterford. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will know these people as well. They are great people and they are ready for this. They are ready to participate in projects and initiatives that manage this landscape better. They have the tools and the skills. Let us engage with them and make sure the funding is acting in the right way. Let us share that vision.

We have seen some of it in Eoghan Daltun’s amazing book on the Irish rainforest. We have seen some examples in the Scottish Highlands. Let us spell it out to people. Let us show them what we think these landscapes could look like and the richness, the value and the worth we can build into these landscapes if we only fund it appropriately.

Deputy Malcolm Noonan

I agree wholeheartedly with everything the Deputy said. We need farmers. We need landowners on our land in uplands. Conservation grazing works and it has an important role to play in nature restoration.

The Department is currently conducting a review of wildlife legislation. This is an extensive review on a multi-year project taking in every facet of our wildlife laws. It will examine closely the effectiveness of our legislation in protecting wildlife and regulating activities that adversely impact on wildlife and biodiversity. In particular, it will look at how we can improve the deterrent in respect of wildlife crime and the enforceability of our wildlife laws. I am keen that our laws offer the best protection possible for wildlife and biodiversity, are based on sound scientific and ecological advice, and strike a fair balance between economic social needs and the needs of wildlife. The burning season is one area that will be looked closely at as part of this review.

It should be remembered that what is being damaged through unsustainable land management practices is a precious national resource. The Department expends considerable resources in managing our national parks and heritage sites and in the protection and conservation of valuable landscapes, biodiversity, flora and fauna, and they are a valuable social resource. The Department will continue to work along closely with land users in upland and other areas to pursue effective management for nature. We are clear we need our landowners. We need our farmers to conserve and restore nature.

Deputy Ó Cathasaigh spoke about the Comeraghs – I recently saw effective upland vegetation management in the Slieve Blooms, creating mosaic habitats that can have a positive impact for nature and support farmers and landowners. These are the types of activities we want to pursue.

The Deputy mentioned farm incomes. Succession is a significant problem with farming as well. These are issues we can tackle with a fund in supporting landowners to do the right thing for nature.

I unequivocally condemn all of the indiscriminate fires that have been set around the country in recent weeks.