Comment - Battle to halt the fire lighters who threaten vital hedgero

 Oonagh Duggan, Elaine McGoff, Pádraic Fogarty,  Mark McDowell, Environmental Pillar Spokespersons.


Oonagh Duggan, Elaine McGoff, Pádraic Fogarty, Mark McDowell, Environmental Pillar Spokespersons.

Comment - Battle to halt the fire lighters who threaten vital hedgero

Strict enforcement on hedgerow cutting and upland burning during the prohibited season is vital to avoid the level of devastation witnessed last year.

Once the remaining snow left from the Beast from the East along our country verges and on the uplands melts, it is crucial that we respect the ban on the cutting of any hedgerows and upland burning until the end of August.

Our hedgerows provide foods for numerous species of birds, bees, and butterflies all throughout spring and summer, as well as nesting sites for many bird species.

Yet, last year numerous groups and members of the public reported cases of cutting and flailing of roadside hedges all throughout the prohibited period.

Our uplands are also essential to the survival of endangered birds such as the near extinct curlew that mate and establish nesting sites in March.

However, last year, a series of deliberately started scrub fires raged across the country within the first two months of the prohibited period, with the Fire Service, Air Corps and Defence Forces called in on several occasions.

These fires undoubtedly destroyed the nests and food stores of birds and other wildlife and incinerated conservation habitats.

For example, two active Hen Harrier nests - another protected species - were destroyed in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area in Norther Ireland in May last year.

The Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed, TD, warned this month that farmers that they risk prosecution if lands are burned during the closed period.

Minister Creed added that illegal burning during the closed season would render the land ineligible for payment under the Basic Payment Scheme and other area-based schemes.

However, to date, enforcement of such issues has been weak at best, as indicated in documents released to the Irish Wildlife Trust last year under Freedom of Information legislation.

The documents reveal that the use of satellite images to monitor burning on farmland had not led to any penalties for landowners since its introduction in March 2016 up to last summer.

In fact, only eleven prosecution cases were taken under the Wildlife Acts for illegal burning of vegetation between 2007 and April last year.

It is now time for the authorities to take a holistic approach to upland management before our wildlife, habitats, and livelihoods come under threat again this year.

Incoherence in national and EU policy also contributes to the problems in our uplands as the current Common Agricultural Policy penalises farmers if their land contains high-nature value scrub.

Land management practices to make land eligible for EU payments, such as burning, can be challenging to complete within the allowed timeframe, particularly in wet winters.

Last year thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat were destroyed during the closed season, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests. Our wildlife deserves better than this.

Aside from the impact on wildlife, extensive upland burning can cause irreparable damage to underlying peat soils, as well as a knock on impact on clean water supply, increased flood risk and the release of carbon emissions stored in these habitats.

Hedgecutting outside of the current legal period will drive declines in a number of bird species and push some birds and pollinators towards national extinction.

This is not the kind of legacy we should be leaving to future generations.

In addition to providing food, nesting sites and habitat corridors to native wildlife species, they prevent soil erosion, store carbon and so contribute to managing climate change.

The following months are crucial for our wildlife so we must ensure that the relevant laws are enforced to help protect vulnerable species that are battling against the odds to survive.

It's high time we placed a higher value on the amazing benefits nature brings.

Every year, landscapes and nature have been replaced with scorched land, which contributes to carbon emissions, pollution, erosion, flooding, loss of scenic value and livelihoods.

This has happened not because of lack of resources or uncertain science but a lack of political will."

Last year we saw plenty of flailing of roadside hedges during the nesting season. While some actions were necessary for road safety purposes, the majority of incidents reported to us were of a very questionable nature indeed.

The public are being encouraged to report suspected illegal cutting that is taking place for reasons other than under the exemptions provided for in the Act.