A Blaze of Ignorance

Beyond the Blueshirt leadership circus business as usual continues in Leinster House. This Wednesday government bring a particularly despicable piece of legislation before Dáil Éireann.

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Recent months have seen large parts of the countryside obliterated by fire. Deliberately set in almost all cases, the immense, heinous cost to wildlife and habitats will take decades to replace.

Much is lost forever. Changes in climate, abuse of landscape and industrial disregard have upset the already delicate balance in cycles and necessities of survival in the wild. When life on the edge of existence is already so precarious, events like this are simply ruinous.

Today government intend to roll back already insufficient environmental protection at immense cost. Ahead of parliamentary debate on the Heritage Bill we hear from Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland.

It is difficult to quantify such loss but at this remove is there any indication of damage caused by recent fires?

It is difficult to determine the impacts of the burning over the last few months but it is peak bird breeding season (and for other animals too) so we expect that there were a lot of casualties. An active Hen Harrier nest (parents were tending to it) was lost in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area on the Monaghan/Tyrone border. There are between 115-150 pairs of Hen harrier and they are in decline as it is so this is really bad news. See Hen harrier video here.

We have also lost a Curlew nest and again with only 130 breeding pairs left down from 5000 20 years ago, this is a huge loss. It also undermines the Minister’s own work with the Curlew Task Force to try and stop the decline in the species.

Other impacts of course are loss of carbon rich habitats releasing carbon and therefore increasing greenhouse gases.

Could you provide some background on the proposed measures and their origin, whose interests they serve and why government are so eager to press on in the face of opposition?

The Heritage Bill is a compendium Bill which has several aspects covering details in relation to the Heritage Council, the Canals Act, and Section 7/8 in relation to making changes to the dates for hedgecutting and burning, as well as changes to the laws protecting NPWS rangers. In late 2014 Minister Humphreys launched a Review of Section 40 of the Wildlife Act which sets the dates for hedgecutting and burning in order to protect breeding birds. 186 submissions were received by the Minister and in late December 2015/January 2016 she introduced this bill. We had asked for additional engagement after we sent in our submission in Jan 2105 but alas that was not to be. We met with the Minister in May 2015. We got 5 minutes of her time and since then her diary has been too busy to meet with us again.

Not sure exactly why the government wants to press on in the face of opposition – maybe they don’t think that enough people care about nature/biodiversity but they thought wrong.

Yes; lots of opposition: 28500 have signed a petition; 15000 BirdWatch members in 30 branches, 80 branches of the beekeepers Association, An Taisce members, Irish Wildlife Trust members… 515 students from St. Colman’s in Midleton wrote a letter to the minister calling for her to stop the Bill. Fianna Fáil got an amendment into the Bill when it was going through the Seanad and this saves 80% of our national hedgerow stock from hedgecutting in August which is what the Minister wanted originally. This was great as FF and the Greens/Independents/Sinn Fein/Labour are all against Section 7/8 of the Bill (well they were in the Seanad, we hope that this wont be re-inserted.).

Now we have to tend with the fact that the burning provision is still in there (to allow more burning in March) and there is a provision to roll back the last 17 years of strict legal protection for birds in relation to hedgecutting on road sides.

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In the case of Cloosh it has been suggested that resources and attention were focused on protecting turbines, assets of a multinational corporation, while locals were left to fend for themselves. Do think this is indicative of deeper attitudes to both rural communities and wildlife?

Not sure about the resources side of things in relation to Cloosh. I don’t think that there is any shortage of resources nationally though I believe it should be spent differently. We did an FOI request to all the local authorities in relation to the cost to deploy the fire service to tackle out-of-control fires. We got good data back from 10 local authorities out of the 30 odd. Between 2010-2015 these LAs spent 6.1 million euro deploying the fire service to fight 5889 fires. In that period however, we know that there were 21,000 fires in all the local authorities between 2010-2015 so you can triple that cost figure at least. See press release here from BirdWatch Ireland on this. Coillte paid for a lot of their own resources putting out the Cloosh fire.

Media coverage has been frustrating and information scarce.  Issues of newsroom resources and priorities see over reliance on official sources while reporting often frames these as “wildfires” rather than man-made crimes. Almost immediately, the voices and excuses of certain business interests have been amplified. While some broadsheet editorials have opposed the changes and condemned burning, do you think this masks deeper issues in press handling of these issues? 

Yes, I don’t use the term wildfires as this to me is an American term which connotes real prairie fires. The fires like Cloosh here, are fires that are started deliberately and go out of control. Out-of-control fires is a little clumsy of a term but I persist as some people would like us to believe that fire is a natural process in an Irish landscape and it isn’t. Someone lights a match and uses accelerator and off it goes. I think that there is a general fear of standing up to the farmer associations and calling these fires for what they are which is deliberate. Some of the fires are started maliciously and a person was charged for this in west Cork some time ago.  Not all fires are started by farmers trying to clear the land of vegetation. It is hard to say who started the fires and maybe, therefore, people are careful not to cast blame.

We are careful too but still it must be acknowledged that many of these fires are started by landowners/farmers. They want to clear land because of the land eligibility (must be eligible for production) requirement under the Single Farm Payment and also to encourage the growth of younger heather for food for livestock. I think that press could do with focusing in greater detail on the issues and not just running with quick often shoddily researched articles (present company excepted of course!).

Farming groups are quite adept at shifting the focus and a narrow self-interest dominates much of the commentary. Not all of this is entirely representative, however it does reflect a sense of entitlement present in an industry so embedded as agriculture in this country. This power will have to be broken for all sorts of reasons but that alone wont address adjacent causes such as legacy failures in planning, reliance on grants, absence of alternative rural income, etc. Do you have any suggestion for how we move forward in this regard?

In relation to the uplands and lowland hills, we need a strategy for upland management with hill farmers at its core farming with nature in mind. Many of our upland birds are red listed for conservation concern (meaning they are on their way out) and so is hill farming. We need think creatively of how we can support both. We could also do with reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

In relation to hedgerows, we need a national strategy on how to protect and raise awareness of this unique habitat type. Most of Europe has lost these linear features in the landscape. They are our networks for nature and we could do with holding them in greater esteem. Recent research has shown how Barn Owls follow these lines of a hedgerow looking for food, bats similarly do this. They are soooooo important.

You can learn more about the impact of burning on birds and other wildlife here and on BirdWatch Ireland’s Heritage Bill briefing notes here . Dáil debate on the Heritage Bill takes place later this evening. Follow #heritagebill, Wildlife Trust and Bird Watch Ireland for updates.

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Earlier this month Taoiseach in waiting Leo Varadkar spent a quarter million euro on his bogus, heavy handed campaign against welfare fraud. At the very same time his colleagues in Heritage and Agriculture were apologists for criminality, an attitude privately hands-off and publicly sycophantic toward multi-million euro destruction of state assets and priceless natural ecosystems.

Ministers Humphreys and Creed waited months before issuing a joint statement “reminding” people of the law before later finding the courage to suggest those responsible “may” have grant payments docked. As one third of Ireland’s largest forest was destroyed in flames, Creed appeared on radio to defend the practice.

While just today ahead of legislation, for the first time as Taoiseach Enda Kenny promises “compassion and consideration”, not for the countless effected by government policy but for landowners he sees as “victims” of these fires.

It is very difficult to comprehend reports of a “five kilometer wide” blaze raging for several days but it happened in Connemara this month. Smoke drifted 35km across Galway city as far as Oranmore. Local Authorities who don’t have the money to build houses have spent over six million fighting 5889 fires since 2010. And they continue to burn this week.

In the face of this, ministers still talk of “controlled fires”.

Heather Humpries will be in the Dáil tonight with legislation intended facilitate, encourage and even reward this behaviour.


Oireachtas Retort is a space for original and occasionally incisive commentary on the relentless torment of Irish politics. If you find any of this useful, please click the brown envelope to donate!

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