Dáil debates

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

Adjournment Debate.

Natural Heritage Areas.

8:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to address the need for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to liaise urgently with his ministerial counterpart in the Six Counties and with the relevant local authorities North and South to carry out an immediate assessment of the environmental damage to flora, fauna and landscape in the extensive fires which broke out on 23 May at Bragan, County Monaghan, and to take all necessary measures to ensure the most effective possible restoration of this key amenity area straddling the Monaghan-Tyrone border.

Between Sunday 23 May and Tuesday 25 May, a fire raged across thousands of acres of bogland and forestry in the Bragan and Knockatallon areas on the Monaghan-Tyrone border. The fire was first reported on Sunday evening and fire units attended from Monaghan, Castleblayney and Ballybay. They were joined on the Monday by a unit from Clones.

Having heard firsthand accounts of their experience, I want to pay tribute to the firefighters and members of the Civil Defence who battled to contain the conflagration at great risk to themselves. This fire was very difficult to get under control because of bad lighting circumstances. There were obvious dangers in upland bog.

The Bragan area is a wild, rare space in our increasingly over-developed countryside. It has been a haven for wildlife and its flora and fauna have been cherished by people throughout the county and Border areas, and by visitors who appreciate the area's unique landscape. Thankfully no human life was lost or injured, but in every other way the fire was devastating. Thousands of acres of vegetation, both trees and bogland plants, were destroyed. We do not yet know the full extent of the damage to the environment, including damage to wildlife. There were rare visiting species in the area, as there have been over the years.

Many questions need to be posed and answered. What means would best address such fires in the future? Are there lessons to be learned in cross-Border co-ordination and co-operation in tackling such conflagrations? Not least, were these fires started maliciously? Their causes need to be established. It is reported to be highly unlikely that a multiple of fires would have broken out some distance apart. Who would involve themselves in such outright devastation, and why? It is unforgivable.

We need also to examine the adequacy of fire prevention measures in such vulnerable wild areas during the summer months. More can be done on a voluntary basis and I would like to see a system of firewatchers in all our vulnerable landscapes. That should be considered. I echo the appeal of Monaghan's chief fire officer for vigilance on the part of the public who use and enjoy our wild areas, especially our woodlands.

I urge the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to liaise with his ministerial counterpart in the Six Counties because the fire raged on both sides of the Border. He should liaise too with the relevant local authorities North and South to carry out an immediate assessment of the environmental damage to flora, fauna and landscape in the area of the fire. The advice and expertise of various people should be sought. We need to see this area restored as quickly and effectively as possible. I appreciate that we will have to depend in great measure on nature itself to take hold again of this landscape and it is to be hoped that we will see the fruits of that in the coming months and years. I urge everyone to give all possible assistance in addressing the need of this area. I hope that the Minister will facilitate this urgent task in every way he can. The fire was ultimately overcome by means of helicopters which lifted and dropped water from lakes. This was organised by Coillte. I want to pay tribute to the people involved in all that.

Was the Minister of State familiar with the detail of these events before they were raised by colleagues in the House last week? I sought an Adjournment debate on the matter last week and raise it again now. The issue highlights the fact that we in the Border counties are often overlooked by what are sometimes described as the national media. If this fire and the devastation it wreaked on this 4,000 acre area happened in any other part of this State, I have no doubt it would have topped our national broadcasting media news. That it did not is something which annoys, upsets and should be of concern to all of us.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I make this reply on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for raising this issue on the Adjournment. It is an important matter when a major stretch of land of high amenity value is destroyed in this way.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government understands that the fire in this mountain range, which is located in County Tyrone and County Monaghan, started in the County Tyrone part of the area on the afternoon of Sunday, 23 May. Unfortunately, it then spread across the border to County Monaghan. The fire affected a large area of open mountain moorland as well as 8.5 hectares of Coillte plantation and also private conifer plantations. According to the observations of the Department's conservation ranger at the location, the site is still smouldering in Northern Ireland today.

The main nature conservation interest in the area is the open mountain habitat and rare species occurring there. The habitat types form a complex of blanket bog, dry and wet heaths, upland grasslands and natural acidic and nutrient-poor lakes and ponds. Some of these habitats are of European importance, for example, in the case of blanket bog. Part of the mountain range is a proposed natural heritage area under the wildlife legislation. This is Eshbrack Mountain, site code 001603. Another part of it, over the land frontier, is designated as a candidate special area of conservation. This is Slieve Beagh, EC site code UK0016622.

The Eshbrack Mountain proposed natural heritage area is a large area of blanket bog complex occurring at an altitude range of 200 to 250 metres on the southern side of Slieve Beagh. Part of it has already been impacted upon by turbary, mostly arising from machine cutting, while smaller areas have been afforested. The site contains some areas of unmodified mountain blanket bog dominated by ling heather, cranberry, deergrass and bog mosses. Areas of species-rich wet grasslands, flushes and wet and dry heaths also occur. The area is without doubt one of the most scenic areas of County Monaghan and it is also one of the few wilderness landscapes of the county.

The mountain range is also an important area for birds, and it is under consideration for European designation as a special protection area, SPA, for species such as the hen harrier, which has a stronghold in this area. There are some seven pairs breeding in this mountain range across both counties. This species is using open heathlands or young conifer plantations for nesting and it is foraging over open moorland. The mountain range is also used by Greenland white-fronted geese, red grouse, merlin and golden plover.

The wildlife of the open mountain can be seriously damaged by burning. The fire can cause the loss of nests, eggs and young of the bird species mentioned and can seriously damage the foraging area of these birds. Regional staff of the Department's national parks and wildlife service will continue to monitor the impact of the fire on the proposed natural heritage area and the mountain range. The conservation ranger who visited the site today estimates that about 10% of the area is affected.

To gain a more accurate picture of the damage and to draw up the most suitable action plan for the area, an aerial patrol is planned within the present month. Following this survey, a suitable monitoring regime can be designed by the staff in liaison with Monaghan County Council, landowners and other interested parties for the County Monaghan part of the site. Advice on best restorative measures will be provided by national parks and wildlife service personnel. Initial contact has been made with the environment and heritage service of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, as the mountain range is an ecological unit. I anticipate that further contacts will facilitate the co-ordination of ecological monitoring and restorative actions on both sides of the Border.