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A part-time farmer has been banned from driving for two years after he was caught lighting gorse fires in Connemara that threatened a house.
Gerard Roche of 24 Bayview Rise, Ballybane, Galway pleaded guilty to destroying ‘by burning vegetation growing on uncultivated land’ in Gowla, Cashel on June 5, 2020.
Galway County Council Community Manager Martin Mannion told Clifden District Court he attended the scene of the fire at 9.45am where he met the accused who admitted to starting the fires at 8 a.m., but that had spread out of control.
The land belonged to his wife Bridie Roche but he took full responsibility for the fire.
A nearby resident described the gorse fire as terrible and feared it would burn down his house, he recalled. It took three hours of fire engines and multiple attempts to put out the fire as it continued to smolder throughout the day.
“It is a very large property. It was very close – ten feet – to this house. This lady was very scared,” he recalls.
He explained that the gorse fires were a very big problem in South Connemara. The land was particularly dry as there had been a red fire warning in place days before following a prolonged heat wave.
“Eleven fire engines had to come to Carraroe last year – 40 firefighters had to come from as far away as Athenry and Castlebar.”
Defense attorney Sean Acton asked him if the extent of the damage was 1.5 acres on the 20-acre farm, which sits next to a mountain with communal pasture.
“Everything is covered in gorse heather. Everything was destroyed.
Ranger Aonghus O Dónail said Roche did not understand the seriousness of what he had done when questioned. Fires are prohibited to protect wildlife during the nesting season between March 1 and August 31.
“He said, ‘All I did was start a little fire. He said he wanted to do some more burning after learning there was a ban in place as it was nesting season. I explained the dates and the reason why you cannot burn because it is a disaster for all living beings.
Mr O Dónail said it was on peat bogs which released carbon when burned, which was bad for emissions. It took between 10 and 15 years for the land to recover.
“It’s very difficult to catch people in the act. Damage to wildlife and habitat is irreparable. It’s a huge problem because there’s no real deterrent.
“It was a few meters from a house and next to a special conservation area. If he had entered there, it would have been catastrophic.
He explained that gorse was burned by landowners to clear land because farmers feared losing their farm payments. It also promoted new growth that was more nutritious for cows and sheep.
There were only three rangers covering all of Connemara.
“It’s the lazy option to put a match and walk away. There was an orange weather warning when it happened. He showed very little remorse. I don’t think he was aware of the damage caused and the damage it could have caused.Anything that couldn’t run or fly away would have been incinerated.
The court heard it cost €1,400 to fight the fire and Roche had so far paid €670 to Galway County Council.
Defense barrister Sean Acton said this was not a case of his client lighting a match and “going back to Galway”.
He stayed put and confessed to the fire. A former factory worker and taxi driver, the 66-year-old father of two was separated and lived in a cottage.
He used to herd cattle on the land until some were stolen. He was now renting land in Headford where he kept cattle and just had donkeys on Gowla land.
Judge Alan Mitchell was surprised that the maximum sentence for conviction was €5,000 with no jail time.
“It doesn’t seem to be a great deterrent because it happens so regularly. This is what is worrying. You have to have a serious vision. A laissez-faire attitude is embraced by people in places like Connemara. »
He decided to impose a two-year driving ban – a sentence little used in these cases – because a car was used in the commission of the offence.
It also imposed a fine of €750 and ordered the defendant to pay €605 in legal costs to the State.
“People should be aware that if they decide to drive to do this they may also face disqualification.”
Mr Acton said he would appeal the decision.
Subsequently, the National Parks and Wildlife Service welcomed the court’s decision and Judge Mitchell’s comments on the seriousness of the problem of burning vegetation during the bird nesting season.
“This illegal practice is a nationwide problem and by its nature can be difficult to investigate,” a spokesperson said.
“Unregulated and uncontrolled wildfires are not only catastrophic for breeding birds, but for biodiversity in general, with large areas of sensitive peatland habitats in particular being destroyed each year, as well as potential significant economic damage to commercial forestry.
“Some habitats can be permanently destroyed or altered or take decades to recover.
“Deliberate and unauthorized burning may be considered a traditional practice in some areas to manage brush and promote better grazing opportunities.
“The NPWS consider wildland fires to be a major threat to Irish biodiversity and are committed to addressing the issue with available resources, including increasing the number of dedicated patrols during high risk times,” they concluded. .