Cutting payments over illegal fires ‘not way forward’
Cutting the Basic Payments of farmers who burn land illegally is leading to a reduction in forest and gorse fires but isn’t the way forward, Coillte stated.
In 2018, Coillte recorded 321 incidents compared to 690 in 2017. Ciaran Nugent of the Forest Service said that cutting Basic Payments in 2017 before Christmas led to a change in behaviour in the farming community’s attitude to burning.
“We have satellites which are looking for hotspots. We then get a text from NASA and it says we have a fire in the declared area, we query that fire. Once it is detected, it goes to the Department,” said Mr Nugent.
“They assess and implement payment penalties as required. It has been really effective in influencing a very rapid change in behaviour. We saw before the deadline at the end of February lots of burning being done so farmers are changing their ways.”
However, Coillte Risk Manager Mick Power said that education rather than penalising farmers is the way forward.
“I’ve had discussions with the Department about it, nobody wants to see anybody getting lumbered or stuck, they might not necessarily cause the fire but they would get caught up in the consequences,” he told the Farming Independent at Coillte’s recent fire safety day in Avondale, Co Wicklow.
“You take if a farmer decides to light the vegetation and it travels over to this other guy’s lands, he might not even know that it’s burned and next thing he is docked his payments.
“It’s not fair so that’s why the issue of education with relation to consequences and regulation is the best method because there’s too much money at stake. Instead of having the big stick to beat up people, an incentive for education would be better.”
With the number of private forestry increasing in Ireland, Mr Power warned that any forest fire could potentially destroy someone’s pension.
“If you burn a field of forestry or a field of wheat, you can plant it next spring and you’ll have it again next year.
“It takes 40 years to grow a crop of trees that can be destroyed in 10 minutes in a fire. We’d like to see people come to realise that and for everyone to play their part.
“If I burn your plantation and you’re at a major loss, you will follow me for it and make sure I cough up.”
He added that forest owners should all have fire management plans in place to mitigate the risk of fires. “In Coillte, every plantation we have is covered under a fire plan, the access and water sources are mapped and the relevant people’s numbers. Private people need to do the same thing, maybe get some equipment themselves, a fire pump or dig a water tank. All that type of thing is what will have to be looked at,” said Mr Power.
Regular wildfires could be new reality for Ireland
Continental Europe-style wildfires could become the new reality in Ireland by 2050, according to Midland Weather Channel meteorologist Cathal Nolan.
Mr Nolan explained that even a 0.6°C increase in temperatures by 2050 could lead to perfect conditions in Ireland for dangerous wildfires to occur.
“In a high-emissions scenario, by 2050 there could be a 10pc increase in heatwaves in Ireland which would lead to a major increase in forest fires and a more continental Europe-type firefighting season where the greatest impacts would be in June and July.”
Last year, Coillte spent over €4m treating over 90 fires incidents on Coillte-owned land which severely damaged 400 hectares of forestry and 500 hectares of bog.
The largest incident occurred in the Slieve Bloom Mountains last July during the drought where 200 people fought the fire over seven days.
Ciaran Nugent of the Forest Service added that this “new reality” needs to be addressed carefully. “We are one of the wettest countries in Europe and it’s difficult to adjust to this. We have to try and optimise the resources we have.”
While Coillte saw a reduction in fires last year, Risk Manager Mick Power said the severity of the incidents and cost to treat them are increasing. Drivers throwing cigarette butts out of cars and people using disposable barbecue fires in forest areas were cited as the main cause of wildfires during June and July last year.