We are on amendment No. 19, which deals with the specific issue of burning. People have been speaking about what happened in Connemara in April and May of last year and suggesting it could become legal if we bring in this law. It would not become legal and that is for two reasons. First, it did not happen in March and, second, it was out of control burning that seriously damaged hills against the wishes of local farmers.
Fires on hills almost always start in very dry weather in the warmer months of April, May and June. If there are uncontrolled burnings and outbreaks of fire for which it is difficult to determine the reason, they do not happen in February and March. What causes fires? As the poet Raftery said in Anach Cuan:
Má fhaighimse sláinte is fada a bheas trácht aran mhéid a báthadh as Anach Cuan.
When he tries to curse the place where the accident happened, which was not Anach Cuan but Newcastle in Galway, he talks of "Loscadh sléibhe", which is still the Irish term for a mountain fire. It happened in Raftery's time but all the birds and habitats survived. I imagine that a lot of it happened from natural causes and a lot of lessons can be learned from that. Uncontrolled burning is unacceptable but normally happens in very dry weather. We have exacerbated the risk of uncontrolled burning by destocking too much, which makes the mountains very woody. When heather becomes woody it lights and the fire is a lot worse than if it had been grazed. As we saw in Cloosh last year, when a fire gets out of control, it is very hard to bring it under control because the bog goes on fire after a while. Many measures to limit this growth reduce the incidence of fire and fire damage rather than increase it. They also reduce the risk that a small fire becomes a big fire. February is not much of a month for burning in the Irish climate and nor was March this year, as snow does not burn too well. There is, however, a better chance of doing controlled burning in March, if that is the best remedy to prevent a much worse catastrophe.
Does the Minister have any statistics on the amount of controlled burning that took place this year, last year or the year before? Does she have any report of the amount of uncontrolled burning that has taken place in those years and the damage caused in each case? When such things are measured, it tends to be found that uncontrolled burning is done to control unwanted vegetation and to get rid of woody vegetation from mountains. This stops the uncontrolled burning from happening through spontaneous combustion or any other method. There is always a risk of someone coming into a rural area and lighting a fire. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine recently had the temerity to penalise farmers for hills that got burned last year through no fault of their own, which are under appeal at the moment. The Department blamed the farmers but we were able to get letters from An Garda Síochána stating that no suspicion attached to the farmers, who are shareholders in the commonage, and that they were not being investigated under suspicion of having lit the fires. It is far from reality to suggest that it is the farmers who are lighting illegal fires on this hills. It is false ecology to think that this amendment will decrease burning. It will lead to a much higher risk of burning on the hills on account of all the woody vegetation there will be.
I will not support this amendment. I am one of the few Deputies present who has had responsibility for hill farms when I was manager of a co-op which had 1,000 acres of hill land rented at one stage. I lived there and worked for hill farmers for a long time and I know that they hate one thing, which is uncontrolled burning on their hills.
There has been a lot of talk about the curlew. If we want to protect the curlew where I live, it is not the burning that is the problem. The biggest challenge we face is that the curlew is a very smart bird. It nested in the islands in Lough Corrib because foxes cannot swim, but mink can, and mink are playing havoc on the islands. If we are concerned about this, we should do something about the mink. It is not controlled burning that is the problem, although nobody can justify uncontrolled burning, and I am opposed to anybody who destroys a farmer's land by uncontrolled burning.
The Minister might give us the statistics on controlled burning and how many hectares of land have been destroyed by uncontrolled burning each year.