While uncontrolled fires across uplands are devastating, it is important to recognise that there is a correct way to burn these areas.
However, restrictions in timing when burning of these areas is allowed tend to dominate discussions surrounding the topic and can give the perception that burning at any stage between September and February is ok, which is not the case.
To benefit from this upland management tool, it is critical that farmers understand the difference between controlled and prescribed burning.
According to Teagasc, grazing is the most sustainable long-term management practice that will keep uplands in good condition, while also benefitting biodiversity, carbon and water.
Prescribed burning is a practice to rejuvenate abandoned or undergrazed dry heaths with overgrown heather, which makes the area suitable for sustainable grazing.
On the other hand, the practice of repeated burning every few years is not sustainable as a management tool.
It is important to note that prescribed burning is recommended only if it is part of a habitat management plan where there are no practical alternatives and only if carried out according to best practice.
The right way to burn is burning that is undertaken with necessary permissions and notifications, which include actions requiring consent (ARC) from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for natura areas, local authority waste management, fire service, neighbours and local forestry owners.
Multiple small blocks of less than one hectare are burned to create a mosaic of vegetation, which reduces the risk of subsequent overgrazing of the new growth.
It is important that moderate heat is used to burn the underlying peat, so farmers must keep the flame below 1.5m.
Right areas to burn
Habitats that are dispersed in a mosaic pattern on the uplands include blanket bogs, wet heaths, dry heaths and upland grasslands.
However, the only habitat which can benefit from prescribed burning is a dry heath, which contains strong heather.
Prescribed burning is always controlled and targets areas where burning will improve the habitat in terms of biodiversity and climate change.
While controlled burning is a safe way to burn vegetation, it may not be an appropriate management tool in the long term for that vegetation.
It must be noted that blanket bog, wet heath or upland habitat should not be burned. This is because on blanket bogs and wet heaths, burning damages vegetation such as sphagnum mosses and lichen.
On upland grassland, burning favours aggressive species, which leads to a decrease in biodiversity of flora and a loss of associated fauna biodiversity.