By Katie Dickie
The first week in May saw many firefighters deployed to tackle gorse fires across Northern Ireland.
With the arrival of drier weather, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) issued a warning highlighting the extreme dangers and serious consequences of deliberate fire setting in the countryside.
Information released by NIFRS, showed that between May1, and May 8, 511 gorse fires were attended across Northern Ireland with 466 started deliberately.
NIFRS revealed that between May 1, and May 8, within the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council Areas, they attended 60 gorse fires and 55 of these fires were identified as deliberate.
Two fires took hold in the west of the province on Cuilcagh Mountain, Florence Court, County Fermanagh, within a 24-hour period, starting on May 6. The popular boardwalk that allows visitors to climb the mountain was closed during this time as a precautionary measure.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a reserve that they manage up at Cuilcagh to monitor breeding birds. Following the fire, Brad Robson, RSPB, Fermanagh Area Manager said: “The heather fires have had a devastating impact on wildlife, vegetation and peat. High densities of birds and breeding pairs live here. I have no doubt that 100’s of pairs of Meadow Pipit and Skylark have had their young wiped out.”
There is a large expanse of blanket bog running across the middle slopes of the mountain. It is regarded as one of the largest blanket bogs in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Robson explained: “Culcaigh Mountain is home to frogs, lizards, Irish Hare, moths, butterfly and many other insects and wildlife. In an event such as a fire nature dictates that it’s survival of the fittest and strongest, smaller weaker animals would never make it, it‘s just so sad.”
William Lee, an Agricultural Contractor who was working nearby at the time said: “Fires like these are devastating for the whole community, killing wildlife, severely damaging areas of beauty such as these, causing pollution and tying up our firefighters for days on end. It was lucky there were no human fatalities. To think that most of these fires are deliberate really annoys me.”
Reacting to the fires, Area Commander for NIFRS, Maurice Rafferty said: “Tackling gorse and wildland fires is extremely challenging for us. It means deploying firefighters and equipment to remote locations. This can be for prolonged periods of time with our crews working under hazardous and intense heat to bring the fires under control.”
Appealing to the public he said, “We are appealing to everyone within the local community to be aware of the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) issued an urgent message to those involved in setting gorse fires to consider the consequences of their actions and asked anyone with information that could identify those involved, to contact their local police station on 101.
Superintendent Emma Bond said: “Gorse fires have the potential to cause widespread damage to the environment and harm to wildlife, as well as threatening homes, farms and the people living in those areas. Those setting fires may be putting their own lives at risk as well as the lives of the fire service personnel and other emergency services tasked to deal with them.”
On May 7, another large fire took place in the west at Slieve Beagh, Special Protection Area (SPA) within Mullaghfad Forest, Fivemiletown, County Fermanagh.
According to the NI Raptor Study Group two active Hen Harrier nests were destroyed on the site. One volunteer said: “ I watched the adults fly around one of the nests in confusion and shock as the flames came closer, with the female only abandoning the nest completely in the final minutes.”
The National Hen Harrier Survey 2016 showed that there were only a maximum of 50 pairs in Northern Ireland, and only eight pairs were successful in fledging young.
A spokesperson for the NI Raptor Group warned: “The nesting and hunting habitat for Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland is disappearing and the situation is more dire than any of us had imagined. This latest blow is heartbreaking.”
Reacting to the gorse fires Chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Councillor Stephen McCann said: “The majority of these fires were deliberate and I would urge anyone with information relating to who was involved in these fires, to contact the police.”
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA and DUP Leader, Arlene Foster said: “Many agencies are working to discover the cause of the gorse fires and stop any future incidents. I want to pay tribute to the firefighters who tackled the blazes and often endangered their own lives.”
Other news reports regarding the gorse fires can be found by clicking on the links below.