Raging gorse fires costly to wildlife and the exchequer

Between 2010-2015 the cost to the exchequer of tackling over 5,889 gorse, forest and bog fires in ten counties amounted to over €6 million.

9th May 2017

BirdWatch Ireland condemns the illegal fires which have destroyed vast swathes of habitat, decimated wildlife and, most recently and tragically, a family home. Thousands of hectares of mountain, hill, bog and forest habitat have been destroyed already this year, incinerating the wildlife that cannot escape fast enough, including helpless chicks in their nests, or animals which find themselves caught between flames and fences.

These damaging fires happen every year and little is being done to prevent them. From 2010 to 2015, inclusive, more than 21,000 gorse/forest/bog fires were tackled by the fire service in Ireland, according to data on the website of the Department of Housing, Community and Local Government. A Freedom of Information request by BirdWatch Ireland to all local authorities in 2016 resulted in the provision of data from 10 local authorities showing that the cost of deploying the fire service to tackle 5,889 gorse/forest/bog fires in these counties during this time period amounted to more than €6 million. These costs mainly relate to the wages of fire service personnel. There is no doubt that we all value the essential work of the fire service in tackling gorse fires, which are often in difficult and inaccessible terrain, and which puts their lives at risk. There is also no doubt that these fires are diverting the attention of the fire service from urban centres and other emergencies and costing the exchequer a substantial amount of money.

Other costs, which are harder to quantify in monetary terms, include those to our birds, habitats and other biodiversity. Birds’ nests, eggs and chicks are the main casualties. In most cases the parents can fly away but might not breed again this season and will often find themselves with no suitable nesting territory.

Previous Government reports to the European Commission show that priority habitats, including Blanket Bog, Wet Heath and Dry Heath, are under pressure from burning. Today we heard the news that 2 active Hen Harrier nests were destroyed yesterday in the Sliabh Beagh Special Protection Area (SPA). This SPA is shared between Counties Monaghan and Tyrone.  The Hen Harrier is an internationally protected species which is already in decline in Ireland. It is reliant upon key SPAs that have been designated purely for its protection, but these sites too are at risk. 

The fires in question are mostly set deliberately, either maliciously or with the intent to clear vegetation from land. There has been little or no enforcement of the regulations, both national and EU Directives, afforded to protect wildlife and habitats including those that are internationally important and with special EU protection.

Dedicated, coordinated and, crucially, resourced interdepartmental action is urgently required by government to prevent illegal and out-of-control gorse fires during the critical periods for wildlife, such as the breeding season for birds, and to enforce the regulations which already exist. The current proposal by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to extend by a month the allowable period for burning as proposed in the Heritage Bill would be reckless and we call on the Minister to scrap this proposal. It will bring further havoc to breeding birds and do nothing to stop fires like those witnessed since March 1st.

1. BirdWatch Ireland is the largest independent conservation organisation in Ireland. Established in 1968, we currently have over 15,000 members and supporters and a local network of 30 branches nationwide. For more details, please visit

2. Currently, it is illegal to burn any growing vegetation on land between the 1st March and 31st August each year if the land is not then cultivated as set out in the Wildlife Act (1976 and amended 2000). The Heritage Bill proposes to extend the period for burning by one month. BirdWatch Ireland made a submission to the public consultation which resulted in these proposals. This submission can be found here

3. Detail in relation to the costs to the local authority to deploy the fire service to tackle grass/forest/bog fires. In 2016 BirdWatch Ireland sent out Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 30 local authorities in Ireland requesting information on the actual cost of the deployment of the fire service to tackle gorse/forest/bog fires in the period 2010-2015. Ten counties responded with detail on costs. Other local authorities sent notification of the cost which would have to be incurred by BirdWatch Ireland to retrieve the information which was not easily accessible, so these requests unfortunately did not progress. Others stated that these records did not exist and refused access to the information. The detail from the 10 local authorities is spelled out below, including the caveats of what is included in the costs and what is not.  Arguably, if the costs of meals, fuel etc. were included by all local authorities, then the costs would be significantly higher. Some local authorities have cost calculation systems which are more sophisticated than others. Where authorities use a Gartan payroll system detailed payroll costs were available.

4. The category of grass/forest/bog fires is one of several used by the Department of Housing, Community and Local Government to determine fire types and includes gorse fires. More information can be found on Fire Statistics under the heading Location of Fires here:

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