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The true cost of the burning of our uplands

Last modified: 06 May 2011

Heather moor/fell above Old Water, Geltsdale RSPB reserve,

Image: Andy Hay

The RSPB are very concerned at the spate of fires that have raged across Northern Ireland over the past week.  

Small-scale burning of heather carried out over the autumn and winter months is a traditional method of re-generating heather and can be very beneficial to farmers and wildlife, providing fresh heather for grazing and a mosaic of habitat for wildlife. However, the timing and extent of the recent fires has been disastrous. 

Anne-Marie McDevitt, Conservation Manager at RSPB NI, said, “The damage these fires have caused can’t be under-estimated. They have put local people’s welfare at risk, posed a threat to farmers livelihoods and caused huge damage to heather, gorse and woodland habitats and the wildlife that depend on these. 

“The timing could not have been worse, right at the start of the breeding season. Many of the upland areas damaged, including Cuilcagh Mountain in Co Fermanagh and the Mourne Mountains in Co Down, are designated as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), which means that they are nationally and internationally important as habitats in their own right or for the species that depend on them. 

“Heather moorland is home to some of our rarest and most stunning wildlife, plant species such as sundew and bog cotton, birds such as hen harrier and skylark and mammals such as the Irish hare.” 

These bogland areas as well as being areas of natural beauty also provide essential public goods – they filter water and store it, provide us with clean water and protect us from flash flooding. They also act as a natural carbon store, helping to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment.

Ms McDevitt said, “Once damaged, the beauty of these habitats is diminished and these habitats no longer provide these essential public services. This can result in a knock on effect on our economy and ultimately on the taxpayer, as the NI government deals with the cost of water discoloration and localised flooding and the loss of tourist spend.”

The RSPB are very concerned about the news that some of these fires may have been started deliberately. Under the newly formed Wildlife and Natural Environment Act it is an offence to recklessly damage or cause disturbance  to birds’ nests, eggs, young and protected wildlife (certain animals, plants and refuges). The sentencing for wildlife crime has also been strengthened under the new Act - fines have increased to £5000 and there is a maximum two year prison sentence for persistent and serious offenders.

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