Gorse Fires

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 7th December 2020

4. Mr McGrath asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline the impact of gorse fires on mountainous areas such as the Mournes. (AQO 1261/17-22)

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Gorse fires or wildfires in mountainous areas in Northern Ireland have a significant impact on the environment and are a risk to life and property. Semi-natural habitats often affected by such fires include heathland and blanket bog. Many of these areas are important nature conservation sites. Indeed, between 2010 and 2019, 64 wildfires were recorded in areas of special scientific interest.

These habitats can be damaged by fires, with impacts ranging from gradual change in species composition arising from surface burns to complete loss of vegetation and seed banks in severe, deep burns. In surface burns, the shift in vegetation composition can be undesirable, such as increases in gorse or bracken. In deep burn, the impacts can lead to long-term erosion due to lack of vegetation cover. The wildlife living in these areas is also negatively impacted. The impacts include the loss of foraging areas and the destruction of the nests and eggs of important breeding birds such as hen harriers. The damage caused to habitats and species can take many years to recover, and some may be lost for ever. Such fires also threaten life, property, forestry, agricultural land, public water supplies and other public utilities. They impact on emergency response services at the cost of millions of pounds to the public purse.

Most wildfires are the result of human activities and are preventable. Proactive steps to recognise and address the risk of wildfires have been, and will continue to be, taken by the Department, other stakeholders and landowners. Those steps include public messaging and awareness raising, the establishment of wildfire groups, such as those in the Mournes and Belfast hills, and the development of wildfire management plans in areas of special scientific interest. Officials have gained considerable expertise in wildfires through liaison with local landowners and knowledge exchange with other European countries. We will continue to develop ways forward.

This year, 2020 —

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

May I add one important fact? This year, 2020, was the worst year for wildfires since 2011. To May of this year, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service had to deal with over 600.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response and add my weight to the remarks wishing Minister Poots well. Does the Minister agree that something has happened? The number of wildfires in mountainous areas across the North and the island of Ireland is substantially increasing. Events supposed to happen only once in 100 years or once in 50 years are happening annually and costing millions of pounds. Does the Minister agree that climate change is playing a part and that we must respond accordingly?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

As my answer made clear, a range of factors is involved, including pressures from climate change. However, human behaviour, such as people walking in the mountains etc, is also a factor. We need to ensure that we work together and properly disseminate information about not only the dangers of the fires themselves but the dangers to our environment and the cost to the public purse.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I also associate myself with extending best wishes to Minister Poots. I sent him a message earlier today and am glad to note that he is moving in the right direction. I also want to commend Minister Dodds for coming in at short notice. You have done a good job so far, so fair play to you.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, at the beginning of lockdown, when the weather was incredibly warm, we witnessed many gorse fires, many of them in my district. It is important that the Department, and, indeed, all the Departments, educates and informs people about the damage that such fires do to people's lives and to biodiversity. When those who are impacted on by the fires try to engage with compensation services, it can become a legal quagmire. Does the Minister agree that it is important that everyone do their best to educate and inform people about those fires and their impact?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 2:30 pm, 7th December 2020

We are very privileged to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. Like the Member for South Down, my whole family are from the Mournes area, so I know exactly the beauty of the areas. It is therefore really disappointing when people abuse the privilege of walking and spending time in the hills.

We need to have a multi-agency approach among the NIEA, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS), the Forest Service and the other rescue services to try to get the strategy right so that people can be safe in those beautiful areas but also respect them. I agree with the Member that that will require information campaigns so that people understand their responsibilities.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

We now move on to topical questions. Before I call the first Member to ask a topical question, I say to Members that they will know that I am a relaxed and fairly easy-going sort of person and do not stand too much on formality or anything like that, but I impress on Members the need for short, sharp questions. For a perfect example of that, I call Mr Daniel McCrossan.