The recent heatwave brought a number of gorse fires across NI, but given how dry it was, it would have been no surprise if a major event had occurred similar to what was seen in the Mournes in April 2021.
Back then, around 200ha of mostly heather moorland owned by the National Trust was burned. Experts reckon it will take many years, perhaps decades, for the landscape to fully recover.
Part of the issue in the hills is the low profitability in beef and sheep farming, as well as a loss of skills in how to manage these habitats with grazing livestock. And if some of our politicians get their way, and pressure farmers to cut livestock numbers as part of meeting future greenhouse gas emission targets, it is these hill areas that will see numbers cut first.
The work over the years at the Greenmount Hill Farm at Glenwherry has shown that if heather is not grazed and managed, it can easily grow over 2ft high.
What is left is a barren landscape of little benefit to wildlife, and a recipe for a hot and extremely damaging fire.
On that basis it is also worth questioning the recent decision by DAERA, that from 2024, all land will be eligible for payments, outside of hard features such as lanes and yards.
If the Department goes ahead with that it will bring an extra 4% of land (around 40,000ha) into the system. At the same time, there is no intention to re-base entitlements, so from 2024 onwards, the average farm will have the same number of entitlements as now, but slightly more land to spread those entitlements over. The theory is that it will take the pressure off farmers to keep every hectare eligible (for example by over-trimming hedges).
While that theory is well-intentioned, if all land can be used to claim new area payments, the incentive is gone to keep the likes of gorse, scrub and woody heather in check. It is a policy that requires some careful consideration.