UNITED KINGDOM – Almost two million square metres of forest and peatland across Northern Ireland were destroyed by wildfires last year, new figures have revealed.
Staff at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ Forest Service dealt with 22 blazes in 2020. As a result, a total of 70 hectares of forest and 110 hectares of peatland were burnt.
The news comes following a devastating gorse fire that engulfed the Mourne Mountains last month. That took three days and more than 100 firefighters to bring under control.
Around 3.5 square kilometres of land around the lower slopes of Donard, at Millstone and Thomas’s Mountain, were destroyed.
It is thought the blaze at the beauty spot was deliberate. The NI Fire and Rescue Service declared a major incident, with Coastguard helicopters and 12 fire appliances brought in to tackle it.
Alliance rural affairs spokesman John Blair MLA called for action to prevent further destruction. “The devastating fires at the Mournes caused shockwaves across communities due to the significant biodiversity loss and the destruction of this scenic area,” he said.
“However, it is important we don’t lose sight of the fact many fires across Northern Ireland cause damage on an annual basis; the overall picture is extremely concerning. I recognise the department is paying particular attention to the damage of forests and peatlands, and we must do all we can going forward in this regard. This might include reviewing penalties of these responsible.”
Yesterday MLAs debated the second stage of Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Bill, which would commit to reaching net zero emissions by 2045.
The SDLP’s Dolores Kelly is sponsoring a separate Environment and Nature Restoration Bill calling for the introduction of strategies to protect woodlands and peatlands.
“Woodlands and peatlands in the North are an important source of biodiversity for plant and animal life. We know that our woodland coverage is among the worst on these islands, and without intervention the life that thrives on peatland is also at risk,” she said.
“The Environment Minister spent a long time in the Assembly on Monday opposing cross-party climate crisis legislation. It is time he got real and moved to deal with the ecological crisis facing us.
“Wildfires and biodiversity loss will only worsen if we don’t take action now.
“That means introducing tougher controls on burning peatland to protect our natural environment, it means introducing training opportunities and incentives for land managers to engage in rewetting or woodland management as ecosystem services.
“We have the opportunity to address the crisis we’re all facing. But it first demands that we face up to the scale of the crisis and commit to acting quickly.”
Party colleague Colin McGrath added: “We need to take action now to prevent wildfires and to encourage ecological recovery from these events.
“We are calling on the Environment Minister to introduce resourced strategies to protect our woodlands and peatlands from destruction.
“That should include additional regulation of sensitive areas so that rewetting and cutting are the methods of choice for land managers.”
Wildfires do not just impact on nature and wildlife, but they could also contaminate our drinking water supply, it has been warned
Rebecca Allen of NI Water explained: “Wildfires within these catchments not only pose a terrible risk to all life, but removes the primary layer of vegetation, leaving the burned bare soil exposed to erosion, which then makes its way into the reservoirs.”