The Burning Issue
On the 2nd April, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots called on farmers and land managers to halt all prescribed burning in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in a bid to reduce additional pressures on Northern Ireland’s emergency services.
What does this mean? In Northern Ireland prescribed burning is a method of land management that usually takes place, from Oct through to Mid-April – the intention of the burns is to “improve” habitat and the quality of grazing in areas of bogland. There has been much debate in recent years about burning bogland and whether this is a successful tool, or if it further damages the habitat and species found on these unique landscapes.
What is a prescribed burn?
Prescribed burning is a planned management tool. It is applied to a given area of land under a controlled and regulated set of conditions. It requires careful planning & consultation with landowners around the area & others working on/in the area. It looks at:
- History of burns on the site
- What areas of land need to be burned
- What the rotation of burning will be over a 5-10 yr. period
- Fuel load, fuel type, and moisture levels on site
- Weather forecasts – is rain predicted, will there be a wind that could accelerate the fire
- Time of year and wildlife that live on the site,
- Impact on wildlife breeding habitats and food supplies.
- Resource to manage the fire, fire beaters, staff on ground, etc.
Prescribed burning is a complex matter and no matter how carefully thought out a plan is, there is always the potential for a burn to get out of control. This is why Local governments across the UK called for a nationwide stopping of burning as emergency services put their resource to helping fight a pandemic.
What isn’t a prescribed burn? – A fire that is lit with:
- No plan as to the area that is going to be burnt.
- No contact with emergency services to make them aware of burn, and the plan to manage it.
- No consideration of the wildlife that use the landscape.
- No consideration of fuel load on the site.
- No management of how fire could gather momentum, spreading across the site.
- No thought to neighbouring properties & livestock.
- A fire that is lit on land that does not belong to you – and if it is deemed that you have carried out an offence under the Criminal Damage order by destroying or damaging property deliberately by fire, you can be charged with arson.
Should we burn our boglands?
Our boglands used to be thought of as areas that needed to be improved, that should be drained, and that could provide fuel. They were viewed as a practical working landscape. We know that historically in Ireland, boglands were areas that the poorer members of the community lived, there are many examples in local stories and nationally of the historical association between the Irish and their boglands.
They are a wealth of connect, culture and history for us. Telling us of the battles that played out in these spaces…When we dig up their peaty soils they reveal lost treasures and bog bodies preserved in time by the acidic nature of these boglands… They provide a thread of connect to our ancestors, people who lived and worked on these boglands, as we do today.
This common thread knows what it’s like to see dragonflies hover over large sphagnum pools, to watch the brown hares box and play in spring. To hear the call of the cuckoo or the bubbling crescendo of the Curlew. We know that this seemingly empty landscape is a wealth of nature and tranquillity…
Communities that live in and around them are intimately connected to their fate.
What we know about our boglands today…
Through research, we know that they provide key ecosystem services for us now. We know that burning on peatland can result in severe damage, and death to wildlife and species living on the Moss, we know that it damages the integrity of the bog and it stops the bog performing key ecosystem services.
Our current understanding of peatlands and the role they play has increased significantly. It’s based on years of scientific research and analysis.
They act as carbon sinks when they are healthy, taking Carbon Dioxide out of our atmosphere and storing it in their wet peaty soils. Globally 30% of our Carbon is stored in these habitats – which when you consider that only 3% of the earth’s surface is covered in Bog is an impressive figure. Globally peatlands store at least twice as much Carbon as is held in the world’s forests. When we lower a bogs water table we start to release carbon into the atmosphere. The thousands of years of preserved carbon held in the decaying plant matter – Drained Irish bogs are estimated to release as much carbon dioxide into our atmosphere as the Irish transportation sector. Further exacerbating and accelerating the climate crisis.
Bogs help to filter dirt and improve the quality of our water – Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland and these wetland habitats such as low lying bogs, Fen habitat and wet grasslands help provide the people of Northern Ireland with clean water, food, recreation, & jobs.
Peatland vegetation slows the flow of rainfall – Sphagnum moss found on peatlands is the key building block of our bogs, they are an amazing group of mosses – they can hold up to 20 times their own weight in water, and they hold water on and in the bog – hence the slowdown in the rate of water flow – helping to prevent flooding in local areas and communities.
They are a wealth of biodiversity – The moss supports the most endangered bird in the U.K and Ireland currently – Curlew, and there are other protected species such as cuckoo, large heath butterfly, snipe, brown hares, damselflies, dragonflies, throngs of insects… we have Sundew – one of the UKs only fascinating carnivorous plants.
Good bogs make for happier humans, more connected communities, stronger economies that benefit everyone, and not just one or two individuals making personal gain out of a resource that could be shared by us all.
Alive and thriving full of life and wonder is surely preferable to smouldering and dead? Creating a poorer, more difficult future for us all.
If you would like to keep up to date with our work, or to tell us why it is why the Moss is important to you or to volunteer with LNLP please contact me Siobhan Thompson on – firstname.lastname@example.org