A hard day working in my garden yesterday included burning back some old heather. We’ve had a short spell of sunny weather here in County Down recently but I was still a little surprised at how quickly the fire took and spread seeing as the underlying dead vegetation would still be moist. Not to worry though as I was fully prepared and was easily able to control the area I wanted to burn back.
Unbeknown to me, whilst I was controlling a small burn in my own garden, less than 40 miles away in the south of the county in which I live, Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains, was ablaze. The fire started early on Friday morning 23rd April. The video footage on the news channels shows depressing scenes of a fire burning out of control. The topography will present significant challenges to the firefighters so putting the fire out is possibly an unlikely option. A more likely course of action may be preventing it spreading further whilst letting it burn itself out. Already there are the obvious questions of how it started, how it is able to grow so quickly, who is to blame. Unfortunately its a state of the world in which we live that blame becomes a focal point around any tragedy.
For those who have not seen them, the Mourne Mountains provide a beautiful vista, towering above the seaside down of Newcastle in County Down. Slieve Donard is the highest peak, with its summit being a destination for thousands of visitors each year. A well worn track provides relatively easy access and once at the top, the walker is provided with stunning views both out to the Irish Sea and back across the Mourne Mountain range. Its a right of passage for many Northern Irish folk to summit Slieve Donard during their lives.
The Mournes are designated An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Much of the land is privately owned, primarily by farmers, with NI Water and the Forestry Commission being other major stakeholders. Finally there is the National trust which, whilst a minor player size wise (526 hectares), owns the two main mountains - Donard and Commedagh including the Bloody Bridge. Tragically it is this land that now burns.
As normal all politicians have rightly spoken out against the fires and the environmental damage being wreaked. It’s not yet known how the fire started but arson or wild camping fires can’t be ruled out. But what about the environmental damage? Interestingly, the Mournes aren’t renowned for an abundance of wildlife, certainly not mammals at any rate. A visit to the National trust’s website summarises the fauna in a single paragraph:
The Mournes have been home to species such as ravens, red grouse and peregrine falcons, as well as the Irish hare and on a winter's day you may be lucky enough to spot a beautiful snow bunting. Spring sees the arrival of wheatear and in particular two more scarce species, the ring ouzel, which is a very rare breading summer visitor to Northern Ireland and the red grouse, which had been recorded on Millstone Mountain in some years, though there is no proof of breeding. Wet springs and flushes are home to some unusual invertebrates, including the keeled skimmer, a nationally rare dragonfly.
Reviewing chat sites discussing the Mournes many entries refer to the lack of visible wildlife. Thats not to say there isn’t any, its more likely an indication of the physical size, and / or alertness, of the inhabiting species. What is clear however, is that are birds, beetles, lizards and insects that are going to be the big losers in this catastrophe, which will inevitably have a related impact on the wider food chain.
The fuel for the fires is gorse and heather. The recent dry spell made it perfect for combustion and once ignited it wouldn’t have taken long to take hold. Some might ask why muir burn wasn’t a feature of the land management but with no game shooting taking place, and the fact that the land is owned by the National Trust there wouldn’t have been a need….or maybe there was. If you take the ‘game’ element out of the benefits of muir burn, then the activity provides a natural fire break in the case of situations like these. Interestingly, in 2011 the Mourne Mountains Landscape Partnership set out its vision for a mosaic of recovering heathland within the Mournes by 2016. The report included controlled burning as a technique in the recovery plan. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that this was implemented in the affected area. Sometimes cutting off your nose to spite your face has a way to come back and bite you in the a**e. There is no smoke without fire, or more importantly no fire without smoke!