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Teagasc response to a call for a complete ban on burning in the uplands

Catherine Keena, Countryside Management Specialist, Teagasc said that fire has a traditional and important role in the management of upland areas and that there is a need to bring these upland areas into active management, while balancing the agricultural objectives & habitat management sustainably

Grazing is the most sustainable long-term management practice to maintain uplands in good agricultural and environmental condition for biodiversity and carbon. Uplands in Favourable Conservation Status for biodiversity are also optimum for carbon storage and retention. Prescribed burning is a land management practice to rejuvenate abandoned or undergrazed Dry Heaths with overgrown heather in order to make the area suitable for sustainable grazing. The practice of repeated burning every few years as a management plan is not sustainable. Teagasc promote prescribed burning, only as part of a habitat management plan where there are no practical alternatives and only if carried out according to Best Practice. Restrictions in timing of when burning is allowed tends to be foremost in all burning discussions, giving a perception that any burning between the 1st Sept and the end of Feb is ok, but that is not the case.

Criteria for the Right Time, Right Way, Right Place are:

At the Right Time:

From 1 September – end February, which is outside the bird-nesting season 

In the Right Way:

  • With the necessary permissions and notifications including: ARCs (Actions Requiring Consent) from NPWS for NATURA areas; Local Authority Waste Management; Fire Service; neighbours; local forestry owners.
  • Multiple small blocks of less than one hectare to create a mosaic of vegetation structure reducing the risk of subsequent overgrazing of the new growth on rejuvenated areas
  • Moderate heat not to burn the underlying peat – keeping the flame below 1.5m. 

In the Right Place

Only where prescribed to benefit the uplands in the long-term, which is Dry Heath containing strong heather. Prescribed burning (which is always controlled) targets areas where burning will improve the habitat for biodiversity and climate change. Controlled Burning is a safe burn of vegetation but may or may not be the appropriate management of that vegetation in the long-term. Blanket Bog, Wet Heath or Upland Grassland should not be burned. On blanket bogs and wet heaths, burning alters habitats irrevocably, damaging bog vegetation such as sphagnum mosses and lichen habitat. On upland grassland burning favours aggressive species, decreasing the diversity of flora and loosing associated fauna biodiversity.

Future concerns

Under Article 11 of the EU Habitats Directive, each member state is obliged to undertake surveillance of the conservation status of the natural habitats and species in the Annexes and under Article 17, to report to the European Commission every six years on their status and on the implementation of the measures taken under the Directive. The overall status of Irish upland habitats is ‘Bad’ (NPWS, 2019).

Farmers will be rewarded for uplands in Favourable Conservation Status on a ‘Results Basis’ in the new AECM (Agri Environment and Climate Measures) scheme. Uplands will be scored and farmers will receive payments based on the ecological condition which is best for biodiversity and climate change. Sustainable grazing is a critical part of their management involving appropriate stocking rates, timing of grazing, livestock type and farming systems. In order to achieve high scores and payments, some Dry Heath habitats may benefit form prescribed burning, while burning of other upland habitats will reduce diversity and change habitats irrevocably, negatively affecting farmers’ payments.

Uncontrolled wildfires are unequivocally devastating for all uplands. An understanding of the fundamental difference between controlled and prescribed burning is needed in order to utilise potential benefits from this powerful land management tool appropriately. This is not easy because of the mosaic nature of the different habitats on an upland, but it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater with a complete ban on burning of uplands.

The EIPs (European Innovation Partnerships), SUAS in Wicklow and Comeragh Uplands Communities (CUC) in Waterford are engaging in Knowledge Exchange with all stakeholders on upland management including sustainable grazing and the role of prescribed burning.

Read more here about SUAS (Sustainable Uplands Agri-Environment Scheme)

Read Can we assume all fires are bad? Not necessarily so..