Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

Wildfire causes extensive damage to Slieve Gullion habitat

The natural heath habitat on Slieve Gullion has been extensively damaged by a large wildfire, The Examiner has learned.

The blaze, which investigating officers believe was started deliberately, ignited on Tuesday afternoon on the Ballard side of the mountain and took firefighters several hours to get under control.

Darren Rice, the Ring of Gullion AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) officers says he is deeply saddened at the damage caused to the natural resource, a habitat which is of international significance.

“This fire has put fire fighters lives at risk, destroyed a protected habitat, left wildlife with no homes or a food source and the damage caused risks the economical income coming into the area,” he said.

“Slieve Gullion Mountain has attracted tourism from across the world. Visitors want to walk the mountain for its beauty and the unspoilt environment – this is now under risk due to this fire.”

Contrary to the belief that wildfires are sparked by hot, dry weather, most of them occur in the spring. Winter frost leaves undergrowth too dry, meaning the fires can start easily and spread quickly, causing widespread damage throughout the countryside, as is the case with this fire. At times the damage is irreparable.

According to figures supplied by the Fire Service, between 2012 and 2014, there were 5,002 incidents classed as wildfires across Northern Ireland, of which 4,584 were deemed to have been started deliberately.

Whether accidental or deliberate, wildfires are extremely dangerous and can spread rapidly. The law states that burning of vegetation such as heather, gorse, whin or fern must not be carried out between 15 April and 31 August and only carried out at other times of the year under controlled and expert supervision i.e. with NIFRS guidance.

612 hectares of Slieve Gullion is designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the EC Habitats Directive as this is one of the largest expanses of European Dry Heath in Northern Ireland. Cowberry Vaccinium vitis-idaea is found there, a plant which is scarce elsewhere.

The Ring of Gullion AONB is urging members of the public enjoying the countryside to be both vigilant and careful over the coming weeks and to report unattended fires to the NI Fire and Rescue Service.   To find out more about wildfire awareness please visit our website and click on projects.