Northern Ireland

Gorse fires in Northern Ireland damage environment

Gorse fires NI
The first rain in three weeks finally helped extinguish the fires

After a week which saw hundreds of heathland and gorse fires break out across Northern Ireland, BBC Northern Ireland's environment correspondent Mike McKimm reflects on the damage and the outcomes.

There were collective sighs from firemen, land owners and police as the first rain for three weeks fell on Northern Ireland's smouldering heathlands, woodlands and mountains.

There was also a prolonged hiss.

It came from the last embers being extinguished as the rain drops did their work and saved the environment.

It was that bad. If the dry windy weather had continued the damage would have increased.

Instead of flashing across the dry grass, gorse and heather (often doing nature a favour) the fire had the chance to linger, damaging roots and seeds in the ground.

And the damage has been considerable.

The bodies of charred lizards lie in some areas, in others the charred eggs of ground nesting birds. Food resources have been destroyed, putting newly hatched chicks of many birds, including the endangered hen harrier, at risk of starving.

It is all a subtle balance - or was. Swathes of heather are gone. They will eventually be replaced by coarse grass. It is more competitive than the slow growing heather when it comes to filling the charred gaps.

In the thin soil and peat of the Mourne Mountains, for example, the grass provides no protection against erosion. Heavy rain pouring off steep heather-free hillsides will wash the soil, the loose rocks and the mountain side away.

In just two days human activity has done more damage than has occurred in centuries.

Man-made

These are man-made environments. The habitats and even the shape of most of the countryside in Northern Ireland owes much to human interference. But that "interference" has often been through centuries of careful management (except where modern intensive agriculture is involved).

The heather clad mountains only got that way because of controlled grazing and curiously, controlled burning.

In the past, heathland was often cleared of gorse by farmers who worked on foot and would pull up a young gorse bush and toss it to one side as they passed. Those days are mostly gone.

Today this is marginal land and of little value, even for hill grazing. The gorse and other plants are claiming it back.

A continuing survey of the Northern Ireland countryside shows an increasing amount of marginal land reverting back to scrub but in an uncontrolled, unmanaged way.

Often the plants that claim it back aren't the "right" plants. They have taken advantage of human interference that has thrown habitats out of balance. These are the wrong species in the wrong place.

Its these plants that often end up being fired by the arsonist's match because they burn well. There are more of them and they are often beside more delicate habitats.

The result is ecological disaster, small patch at a time.

It is a sort of death of the countryside by a thousand cuts. Or in this case, a thousand fires.

Key issues

The latest spate of fires, deliberate or not, raises key issues. How do we and how should we manage our countryside? Northern Ireland has a very poor track record for this.

How much of the blame should be laid at the feet of European directives - on the European agricultural policies? Are they stimulating the destruction of heathland by offering the wrong subsidies?

Then there is climate change.

There has been a trend to lengthy warm dry periods in May. This creates a tinder which fires up easily. Dead winter grass burns like petrol.

North Antrim gorse fires
Firemen work amongst the charred remains of gorse bushes in North Antrim

In the past week I watched the fire race and jump across ground I'd stood on minutes earlier. It was fanned by a warm dry wind. Nothing, short of a wall of water, could stop it. It was allowed to burn itself out, but that took three days.

Eventually it was the rain that brought its progress to an end. By then the damage was done.

The fires are now out and the elections begin.

Next week the fires will be forgotten. And the green shoots of grass will begin to push up where there should be heather instead. The skies will be still where birds used to circle on the mountainsides. And as the rains come, the landslips will follow.

Every year we lose more natural habitat to development and agriculture. We've seen hundreds of acres of forest lost to a killer tree disease that seems to be jumping species in the past few months.

Over the years, we have failed to protect areas of special scientific interest. And now we're burning the countryside by the acre.

Its all very slow and subtle. The loser will be our natural diversity. And in Northern Ireland, amongst the decision makers and a fair proportion of the public, that is not a burning issue.