Wednesday, 10 April 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
7. To ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to carry out an evaluation of the damage and cost incurred as a consequence of fires that resulted from her extension of the most recent burning season in respect of gorse; her further plans to carry out an evaluation of the destruction of habitats of flora, fauna and wildlife as a consequence of same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [16718/19]
Is the Minister concerned about the extent and number of forest fires, particularly the disastrous fire that raged in Killarney recently? I ask this question in view of the fact that the Government made a political decision in the Heritage Act 2018 to extend the burning season. What does the Minister intend to do to stop fires of the kind seen this year which resulted in significant destruction of habitats, wildlife, flora and fauna?
I thank the Deputy for the question. First and foremost, I wish to correct the contention that I extended the recent burning season. In fact, my decision was that no extension of the season was warranted in 2019. The assumption that recent wildfires such as the one in Killarney National Park were connected to my decision not to extend the burning season is both disingenuous and misleading. The burning at the weekend was completely illegal. As the Deputy is aware, significant environmental damage is caused by illegal burning. Following a review of section 40 of the Wildlife Act which included consideration of submissions made by interested parties, proposals were announced in December 2015 to introduce legislation to allow for managed hedge cutting and burning at certain times within the existing closed period on a pilot two-year basis. The relevant legislation was included in the Heritage Bill 2016 which was enacted in July last year. Section 7(1) of the Heritage Act 2018 provides that I may make regulations to allow the burning of vegetation during such periods in the month of March and in such parts of the country as specified in the regulations. I recently made a decision not to make regulations to extend the season for the burning of vegetation into March. This decision was taken as there would have been no basis for me to do so, given the fact that the relatively dry weather during the six-month period when the burning of vegetation could have been undertaken under the law, from September to February inclusive, would not have precluded landowners from burning vegetation. Therefore, the existing provisions in the Wildlife Acts on burning remain in force.
The recent burning in Killarney National Park was illegal and caused significant damage to the park. The fire underlines the fact that ground conditions are extremely dry and that an extension to allow burning in March would not only have been unwarranted but would have also been irresponsible at this time. I also take the opportunity to record my thanks to the Kerry fire service, the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Killarney and all of the volunteers who came to their assistance on the Friday evening and Saturday morning of 29 and 30 of March.
Has the Minister had any consultation with local landowners in the area affected by the fire? Has her Department explained to landowners that the widely held view that the recently passed Heritage Act has made it easier to burn vegetation is not based in fact? Has the Minister communicated the fact that she is opposed to such burning and that she views it as a threat? When we were debating the Heritage Bill in this House, the Minister's predecessor was involved in the discussion and gave the impression that Fine Gael was very anxious to spread the message that it would be made easier for landowners to burn during an extended season. The Minister and Fine Gael in government have only themselves to blame for giving the impression that the burning of vegetation is much easier now than in the past. At a time when we are debating the issue of climate change, does the Minister have proposals to revisit and re-examine the aforementioned legislation in the light of the disastrous fire in Killarney National Park? Killarney is a major tourism town. Fires such as the one that happened recently constitute a threat, not just to animal life but also to human life.
As I said, it is misleading and disingenuous to try to connect the two issues. The incident in Killarney was a wild fire and illegal. It is a completely separate matter from the controlled burning of vegetation, as provided for under the Heritage Act. The Deputy knows this and her linking of the two issues is ridiculous. Managed burning has been proved to be good for the environment. I will leave that issue for now and focus on an important message for the public on wild fires. I encourage all members of the public, including landowners and recreational users, to act responsibly at all times. They should be mindful of their own safety and that of others, the need to protect both public and private property and the value of our national heritage, particularly in national parks, nature reserves and designated sites. As even planned or controlled burning can get out of hand very quickly, it is critically important that everyone realise the damage that can be caused to property and the threat posed to the health and welfare of family, neighbours and the wider community, as well as emergency services in responding to fires. In the event that such fires occur, I urge anyone with any information, no matter how trivial it may seem, to pass it on to An Garda Síochána or the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
The Minister did not answer my question about whether she had communicated with landowners in the area. That is important, given the weather we enjoyed last summer and the changes in climate we are experiencing. I am sure the Minister saw photographs of the fire on 30 March. It was disastrous and hundreds of acres of land were burned. A solicitor based in Killarney, Mr. Pat O'Connor, who is a former member of the local council, has said such fires are now an annual occurrence which are threatening the national park. He described them as causing "wanton destruction." What has the Minister done in response to this dreadful environmental tragedy in one of our premier tourist destinations? Has she visited the site? Has she met local landowners? Has she put in place an information and support system for landowners in order that they will not engage in burning outside the burning season?
She is an intelligent woman and knows they are totally separate issues. I have said that this wildfire in Killarney National Park is a violent crime and has severely affected the natural area and the pleasure people get from visiting the park. I asked my Department to undertake a damage assessment of the wildfire site at Torc hill and it revealed that about 155 acres were caught in the blaze. The full effects of the fire will only be ascertained over time, such is the damage it has caused. We can, at present, confirm that the fire has resulted in a loss of nesting habitat for meadow pipits, skylarks and other birds. This fire has also impacted on the small mammal communities, as well as on amphibians and lizards. It has caused significant damage to the wet heaths and blanket bogs.
We take enforcement steps all the time to deter such fires. I have asked the public, in my earlier contribution, to bear in mind what I have said. We take a serious view of any wanton, indiscriminate and illegal burning of this type.
On a point of order, I have no idea why this question has been grouped with the other two. It does not refer to the capital of culture whatsoever, which the other two do. It is a specific question about an art collective so perhaps the Minister might clarify why it is grouped with other questions it has nothing to do with.