A fire created by a Galway farmer to burn scrub came within a few metres of a dwelling and took three fire brigades to control.

A Galway farmer has been issued a €750 fine, made to pay legal costs and given a two-year disqualification from driving following the burning of vegetation during the bird nesting season on lands at Gowla, Cashel, Co Galway.

The driving ban was issued as a car was used during the offence.

Gerry Roche, 24 Bayview Rise, Ballybane, Co Galway, received the charges for a burning offence on 5 June 2020 at the 26 May sitting of Clifden District Court after the case was taken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and prosecuted by Sinead Fitzpatrick of Kennedy Fitzgerald, State solicitor for Co Galway west.

The land area impacted by the fire.

On the day, 66-year-old Mr Roche entered a plea via his solicitor to a burning of vegetation offence under Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts. Section 40(1)(a) relates to the destruction of vegetation on lands not then cultivated during the statutory bird nesting season that runs from 1 March to 31 August every year.

Smoke observed

Galway County Council (GCC) community warden Máirtín O’Mainín and NPWS conservation ranger Aonghus O’Donaill described the detail of the offence to judge Alan Mitchell.

O’Máinín said that on 5 June 2020, he observed smoke with gorse and vegetation on fire at the lands near Cashel.

The council rep said he spoke with Mr Roche at the site who “admitted responsibility for starting the fire that morning but stated that it had got out of control”.

O’Máinín said three units of County Galway Fire Service were called to and required at the site to put out the fire that at one stage came within a few metres of a dwelling.

He said the resident of this dwelling feared her home would be burned down and that there was a cost of €1,400 to the fire service.

The fire was during an extended period of dry weather and a forest fire danger rating of “condition red” or extreme fire risk had been in place until 1 June, with a condition orange in place on the date the fire was deliberately started.

Heath and scrub destroyed

NPWS conservation ranger Aonghus O’Donaill then outlined to the court the details of the subsequent interview and caution given to Mr Roche in relation to the offence.

One-point-five acres of heath and scrub vegetation were destroyed by fire, according to O’Donaill, who described how breeding birds would have been affected by the incident and how wildfires are “catastrophic for every living thing that could not run or fly away from the flames”.

He also said that peatlands release carbon when burned, which he said is bad for emissions. O’Domhnaill stated that the habitats affected would take a long period of time to recover their biodiversity value.

Seriousness of the matter

Judge Alan Mitchell said that the penalties for the offence, outlined as a “class A” fine or up to a maximum of €5,000, were not severe enough. He said it was surprising to the court that only a fine was available and that this did not seem like much of a deterrent.

The judge suggested that if somebody received a six- or eight-month sentence, word would soon filter out as to the seriousness of the matter.

He stated that burning is happening too often and a serious view has to be taken on the laissez faire attitude to people burning vegetation. He said that the court wanted to send a strong message that burning is not acceptable.

Judge Mitchell then convicted and fined Mr Roche €750 on the Section 40 charge and awarded costs of €605. He also applied an ancillary driving disqualification of two years on Mr Roche due to the use of a vehicle in the offence.

He fixed recognizance for an appeal by Mr Roche at €1,000 to be entered within 14 days.

The judge said people should be aware that if they use a vehicle in the commission of an offence, they will also face a driving disqualification.

‘Problem across the country’

Welcoming the court’s decision and comments, an NPWS spokesperson said: “This illegal practice is a problem across the country and can be difficult to investigate by its nature.

“Wildfires are not only catastrophic for nesting birds, but for biodiversity in general, with large areas of sensitive peatland habitats in particular being destroyed annually, as well as potential significant economic damage to commercial forestry.

"Some habitats can be destroyed or altered permanently or take decades to recover.”

The NPWS warned that wildfires are a “major threat to Ireland’s biodiversity” and said it is “committed to tackling the issue with the resources available, including increased dedicated patrols during high-risk periods”.

The NPWS said it is also working closely with Department of Agriculture on the cross-reporting of recorded burning offences and areas found burned that may be subsequently ineligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and other area-based payments.

It said that the burning of vegetation within designated lands should not occur at any time of the year without an appropriate assessment.