I would first like to thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. Significant environmental damage is caused by wildfire and, more specifically, illegal burning. This issue has become more acute in recent years, as evidenced by the recent spate of fires in various parts of the country, including earlier this year at Torc Mountain in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry. Wild fires are not a natural phenomenon in Ireland and can have a local impact on species that cannot escape, or that lose breeding habitat as a result. Such impacts are generally fairly short term, but could be very serious for species that are already in decline, such as curlew. Some plant and moss species may be lost or greatly reduced. UK research showed that where scrub such as gorse is burned it can have a lasting impact on soils and cause increased erosion which can in turn impact on rivers through increasing siltation of the water, especially if this burning happens repeatedly.
I strongly condemn the spate of wildfires in recent years and would appeal to members of the public to be conscious of the dangers posed by fire on open ground. Even planned and/or "controlled" burning can get out of hand very quickly, so it is critically important that every member of society realises the damage that can be caused to property and, indeed, the health and welfare of family, neighbours and the wider community, and the responding emergency services. The main source of wild fires is thought to be the deliberate starting of fires without concern for the consequences. Aside from such malicious activities, one of the main challenges is to encourage members of the public, (including landowners, farmers and recreational users of publicly accessible land), to act responsibly at all times, to be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others, to be mindful of the need to protect property, both publicly owned and privately owned and to appreciate the value of our natural heritage, particularly in our National Parks, Nature Reserves and Designated (Natura 2000) Sites.
With regard to the National Parks, on an on-going basis, officials from my Department are in close liaison with both the Gardaí and the Fire Service. With regard to gorse fires in particular, there are a number of Inter-Agency Gorse Fire Groups that explore issues surrounding such fires. My Department, through its National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), is one of a number of agencies represented on such groups. An Garda Síochána is also represented on these groups and lead any criminal investigation). There are a number of these groups in different locations around the country. They are convened by the Fire Services Department of the relevant Local Authority and the Chief Fire Officer for the Local Authority. Generally, the Chief Fire Officer for the Local Authority would chair the meetings and maintains records. Usually, the membership of such groups would include representation from stakeholders such as:
- Fire Services Department of the Local Authority
- Forest Service Section of the Department of Agriculture and Food
My Department (NPWS) meets and liaises with the Fire Officer directly as appropriate and necessary. For example to review arrangements and practical details in respect of our National Parks and other recreational properties e.g. re access point, codes, etc.
Some 14 per cent of the terrestrial area of the State is designated and this includes many remote and inaccessible areas. Most land in special areas of conservation, special protection areas and natural heritage areas is in private ownership. Through the NPWS, my Department directly manages a property portfolio in respect of national parks and reserves of approximately 87,000 hectares. These important biodiversity areas are located all around the country. Given the sensitivity of these habitats, with regard to firebreaks, there are a number of ecological concerns with regard to their use. A balance has to be achieved between works necessary or desirable to assist in the control of wild fires within designated areas on the one hand and the sustainable conservation and protection of the qualifying interests within such sites. Where possible, targeted and minimal on site work – including the cutting back of combustible material (furze, heathers, over-grown grassland areas) – to create these “natural fire breaks” could help to control the spread of wild fires, without impacting significantly on habitats. My Department remains very committed to the prevention, early detection and minimisation of the impacts of such fires, and recently piloted a joint action with Coillte using drones to assist in the early identification of fires and communication of real-time information to my staff when they work with the emergency services to prevent such fires from spreading.
Given the sheer scale of property involved, (for example, Killarney National Park on its own comprises over 10,000 Hectares (26,000 acres) coupled with the remote locations of much of the designated lands and the sporadic occurrence and dynamic nature of such fires, it is very difficult to provide a visible “presence” on the ground to discourage and prevent unauthorised burning in the countryside. Equally, trying to identify those who deliberately set fires in open areas without concern for the consequences can be challenging. NPWS staff remain ever-vigilant when conditions exist that might result in fires in the National Parks.