Subsidy entitlement a factor in high volume of gorse fires

May 3, 2011

By Brónagh Murphy

The unprecedented number of gorse fires in recent days has stretched resources and put crews and local communities in potential danger, the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has said.

It has been revealed that alone the Crossmaglen Fire Crew dealt with approximately seven gorse fires within a 30-hour period last week, one of which took more than seven hours to bring under control. The worst of such incidents locally was at Anamar, near Cullyhanna. On Thursday crews from six fire departments battled to put out a massive blaze which had spread across 20 acres. Crews from Crossmaglen, Keady, Portadown, Newry, and two appliances from Lisburn – one of which was a command support unit – spent several hours fighting the fire, which came perilously close to Anamar Court Cairn, a prehistoric burial mound of important archaeological significance. The fire was eventually extinguished at the trees which surround the court cairn. It is the second time in a year that fire has significantly threatened the monument.

In a matter of hours further fires were reported at Lislea, Aughanduff, Silverbridge and Mullaghbawn.  Statistics reveal that firefighters across the North attended more than 700 gorse fires within a ten day period before Easter, representing 42% of all reported incidents. The dry weather has further exacerbated the problem but the Fire and Rescue Service say some of these fires are being started deliberately.

It has been suggested that some farmers seeking to claim government subsidies on their land, may have been responsible for causing a proportion of the fires.  To claim the Single Farm Payment, farmers must prove their land is arable and suitable for grazing livestock, thus it must be devoid of whin bushes – a common sight on farmland across the North.

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development guidelines recommend farmers should cut whins and then paint the roots with a substance to kill off the plant. However, it appears that some  landowners, seeking an easier and less time-consuming option, are setting fire to whin bushes.  Although this practice is not illegal, given the warm weather and extremely dry conditions, these fires can quickly get out of control.  There is nothing to suggest that any of the fires reported locally have been started in such a manner.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, a hugh number of gorse fires raged on mountains across south Armagh.  Despite the sunny weather, Camlough mountain was completely obscured with smoke and in areas, flames reached heights of almost 20ft.  Such was the intensity of the smoke in the Bernish area of the  mountain, that visibility on the main Dundalk to Newry Road was significantly reduced and motorists were urged to drive with extreme caution.

Parts of Slieve Gullion and Lislea mountain were also ablaze.