News 2021

Title:  Vigilance, enforcement and long-term planning needed to prevent further fires
Date:  27/04/2021

Vigilance, enforcement and long-term planning needed to prevent further fires

Hillwalkers and climbers across the island of Ireland were appalled to see the devastation of cherished landscapes in Killarney National Park and the Mournes and over recent days. Both these iconic natural resources are central to the tourism offering of their respective regions. Early estimations indicate that 2,500-3,000 hectares – approximately 50% of the land area of Killarney National Park has been damaged. The fire in the Mournes, which mainly affected Millstone Mountain, Thomas’ Mountain and the lower slopes of Slieve Donard, covered more than 200 hectares, approximately one third of the land owned by the National Trust in the Mournes. Over the last few weeks there have also been smaller fires in many other upland areas.

These uncontrolled fires have destroyed much of the attraction for hillwalkers and climbers – the beauty of the landscape and the sights and sounds of nature. In addition to the loss of habitat and wildlife – including nesting birds, pollinators and small mammals, fires like this result in air pollution, they affect water quality and there is damage to soil structure. Recovery will take many years and what comes back afterwards won't have the diversity of the habitats that have been burned.  

Responding to the situation Mountaineering Ireland President Paul Kellagher said ‘On behalf of Mountaineering Ireland I want to express our sincere thanks to the many people who have battled these fires, on rugged terrain, in terrifying conditions, and to the many others who have supported those on the frontline. The sad thing is that these fires should not be happening. The risk to human life, the loss of habitat and the damage to scenic landscapes is all unnecessary’.

Although the exact cause of these fires is still to be determined, upland habitat fires do not occur naturally in Ireland and it is believed both these major fires were started deliberately. It is welcome that both Edwin Poots MLA, Minister for Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and Malcolm Noonan TD, Minister for Heritage have expressed their determination to ensure people are held responsible for the illegal burning of habitats. However, there is also need for proactive action to protect the upland environment.

Most of Ireland’s mountains and upland areas are privately-owned, either by individuals or jointly as commonage. Mountaineering Ireland’s vision is that Ireland’s mountain landscapes will be valued and protected as environmental, cultural and recreational assets. The realisation of this vision requires a different policy approach, matched with resources.

By playing to the natural strengths of upland areas we can enhance ecosystem services such as carbon storage, water supply, livestock grazing, flood attenuation, biodiversity and recreation opportunities, for the benefit of all of our population. With support for integrated land-use management there could be a new, valuable role for upland farmers in improving the ability of Ireland’s uplands to deliver these vital ecological services.

Mountaineering Ireland is actively involved in many upland stakeholder groups across the island, each working towards the sustainable management of their area, in partnership with the people who live, work and recreate there. We have good working models, which need to be further developed and properly resourced, within the framework of a long-term plan for the uplands.

Mountaineering Ireland also welcomes Minister Noonan’s announcement of the recruitment of 50 additional Conservation Rangers to work with the National Parks & Wildlife Service, providing additional resources to assist in responding to habitat fires and more importantly to prevent damage such as this to Ireland’s natural environment.

As we head towards summer, Ireland’s beauty spots are already under pressure from increased visitor numbers. In addition to the need for people on the ground to manage busy amenities, there is need for a national awareness campaign to encourage responsible enjoyment of the outdoors. In the meantime, Mountaineering Ireland is appealing to all those heading to the hills, to be extremely careful as ground conditions in upland areas are very dry and to report any fires they may see,rather than assuming that someone else has done so.

Photo: Minister Edwin Poots with firefighters below Slieve Donard in the Mournes

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