Devastating impact of wildfires on Slieve Gullion revealed

May 7, 2019

A series of wildfires that took hold on hillsides around Slieve Gullion during last summer destroyed parts of the area’s eco-system and caused irreversible damage to animal and plant life in the designated area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), experts have revealed.

One significant gorse fire in July 2018 raged for days, spreading across more than 100 acres and encroached on an area of special scientific interest.  The blaze tore through dozens of hectares of trees, killing many birds and small animals.  Such was the extent of the fire that the Irish Air Corps deployed two helicopters that ferried water from Camlough Lake to help quench the inferno.

Darren Rice of the Ring of Gullion Landscape Partnership said the fires had caused irreparable damage.

Speaking to BBC, Mr Rice said: “Plants do regenerate but the previous wide variety of species like the mosses, heathers, hazel and hawthorn have been destroyed in places.  Instead, the more vigorous gorse and bracken are taking hold and spreading.”

The cost of replacing destroyed trees runs into many thousands of pounds, and the forest also loses years of growth time.  Wildlife experts say the fires are, for the most part, avoidable and the majority are caused by humans, with one of the biggest causes being the disposable barbecue.

The Forestry Service hopes that highlighting the deaths of birds and small animals will shock people into becoming more aware of the consequences of wildfires.

Donald Whiteside, wildlife officer for the Department of Agriculture’ s Forestry service, said that while the fires endanger humans, they are devastating for wild birds.

He said: “Birds normally lay their eggs in undergrowth like this, if they see a fire coming they might sit tight on those eggs.  I have seen pheasants and their eggs just fried on their nests.”

And even after the fires are extinguished, the loss of ground cover is a threat to wild animals such as hares, mice, lizards and deer.

“They’re left exposed to predators,” said Mr Whiteside. “The undergrowth which is their natural habitat is destroyed.  Deer, if they survive, may leave the area and they may never come back, or least not for maybe 10 years until the trees and bushes grow again.”

Darren Rice says it is vital to eliminate the threat of wildfires in the protected area of the Ring of Gullion: “It’s a beautiful area, so we have to manage the interaction between mankind and nature,” he said.