Natural Heritage Takes a Hit in Easter Upland Fires

County Fermanagh is famed for its lakeland landscape with its wetland habitats, associated wildlife and all the amenity opportunities that they provide to both locals and tourists alike.

Fermanagh also has some spectacular and unique upland habitats including blanket bog, heathland and forest, arguably as unique and valuable in terms of biodiversity and recreational opportunities as their lowland counterparts.

It was at these upland sites where fires broke out towards the end of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend in April 2011. A warm, sunny spell with brisk winds following a lengthy dry spell provided the lethal conditions for forest and peatland fires to break out. Unfortunately some of these fires were not spontaneous but were almost certainly started deliberately. Indeed, fires burning out-of-control have become an unwelcome, regular occurrence across Northern Ireland during dry spells. Easter 2011 saw fires raging across the Mourne, Sperrin, Slieve Beagh and West Fermanagh mountains and uplands putting lives, livelihoods, homes and our native wildlife at risk.

In West Fermanagh, approximately 400 hectares of forest and peatland went on fire in the Lough Navar area. This included an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), designated because of the quality of its blanket bog and heath habitats. These habitats support rare and endangered species such as the Marsh Fritillary butterfly and Red Grouse. Benaughlin was also burned, threatening to spill over into Cuilcagh Mountain Park, a site of European geological and biological importance and a key access point for hill walkers and visiting study groups.

In East Fermanagh, the Mullaghfad to the Knocks area suffered devasting fires which damaged extensive upland areas in excess of 1,000 hectares in size. Here again nationally important, designated sites were severely damaged with species such as the protected Hen Harrier and Irish Hare losing either or both their nesting sites and lives. Wildlife was observed fleeing areas that were on fire. At one location in East Fermanagh, at least 11 Red Squirrels were counted on the forest edge where few were previously recorded suggesting that many more species were impacted or lost than we can know about.

Fermanagh Distict Council’s Local Biodiversity Officer, Rose Cremin, believes that the fires were a devasting blow for nature conservation and a major set-back for the recovery of habitats and the species they support. Northern Ireland is struggling to meet its European obligations to conserve and protect endangered habitats and species and much that went up in flames was priority habitat or supporting priority species. For our habitats and wildlife that are already in a perilous position, it really is a matter of life or extinction.

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