Climate Dolmens Response to the Wildfire in the Mournes…

Michael Donnelly is a member of the Dolmens Climate Network

Dolmens Climate Network, in south County Down, wishes to speak out in the aftermath of the massively destructive wildfire we just experienced in the Mournes. Our community right now is sad but also cross, frustrated, and determined that we all take this seriously and do something different. Thousands of acres of upland heath is burnt and we will never know how many animals have perished with their nests destroyed during the breeding season. The result could have been even worse with Donard Forest under genuine threat. This has happened so many times in the past, but with ever-increasing size and impact.

We truly appreciate the brilliant response to the fires that escalated over two days with ever-increasing coordination and dedication to extinguish the flames. The fire workers are heroes. The community were brilliant at mucking in with what they could do – feed and refresh the fire workers.

Besides that, we have all just spent two days gawping open-mouthed at the senseless destruction of our biggest local asset. This is supposed to happen in Australia or California, not cold, wet Newcastle! We were largely helpless in the face of the scale and speed of the fire. Not a comfortable feeling. There are very real direct links between this fire and climate change that are worth highlighting. Last autumn we experienced an extreme weather event – a flooding of the Shimna River that brought misery on dozens of families in Newcastle. Now, barely six months later, we are experiencing a prolonged dry spell that has turned the uplands into a tinderbox. The changing weather patterns are noticeable and now their impacts are becoming more noticeable too. This is a trend that will continue into the future with ever-increasing intensity. For us to cope with these uncontrollable changes we need to be resilient, our communities need to be resilient and our nature has to be resilient. The fragile balance of nature has to be acknowledged and protected as if our lives depended upon it, because they do. The pandemic has brought it home to us just how valuable and essential our wild spaces are for mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, while it is a shocking event, it is no longer a surprising one. For years the danger signals have been present and for years we have had to perform this very act of watching helplessly as the countryside around us is mistreated. The fires are a symptom of something bigger that is going on. The management regimes and the activities and pressures we place on our landscape are too much. We are destroying the fabric of our very lives and eroding resilience.

Most don’t, but still too many land managers and farmers insist, year after year, on burning whins and heath – in the name of productivity and an easier life, whether it is to preserve an environmental management payment or to boost new growth for sheep grazing. Too often, months after the deadline for burning and clearing has passed and deep into the breeding season, hedges are flailed or scooped out with excavators, or set alight.

The other part of this is the visitor – the people who come looking for recreation in the forests and open mountains of the area. Too many bring with them tents, beer, furniture, meat and matches and disposable barbecues. During the past year, the Mournelive website has carried a weekly montage of the latest clean ups they have undertaken throughout our forests and hillsides.  The Pandemic brought their behaviour into focus – while most took care of society, some just refused.

When things go wrong, too few people are prosecuted. Therefore, there is little legal disincentive to change behaviour. We cannot rely on a moral response or “doing the right thing”. No-one is ignorant of the risk or impact of what they do. For years the Government through Daera and bodies like Mournes Heritage Trust and the Local Council have been raising awareness, educating, cajoling, pleading for people to do the right thing. It hasn’t happened.

So what to do?

Well, we now know we are actually really good at reacting. The dedication, care and concern exhibited by just about everyone this weekend was stunning. What we are really bad at is doing something about stopping it from happening in the future. The challenge now is to take that brilliant multi-agency approach and turn it towards the future and create a coalition of the willing, the reluctant and even the incalcitrant to come up with the policies and practices that transform how we care for the wildlife and habitats around us.

  • We have to get familiar with the concept of a commons. Water quality, air quality, soil quality, habitat quality – these are outside of the ownership debate. They belong to all of us. We need them to be in the best state they can to absorb the climate impacts that are already here and increasing.
  • We have to own up and acknowledge how current and past policies have not worked. We need to simplify the rules and payments system for land managers so no one is any doubt as to their responsibilities. We have to end the fear and culture of silence on challenging reckless behaviour.
  • Each of us who lives here has to step up to become a custodian of nature – appreciating what is there and why it is valuable, getting involved as eyes and ears, and as advocates  for its protection. We have to feel we can speak up for nature when we see it being destroyed and get involved with others who are trying to enhance it.
  • The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs together with Newry Mourne and Down Council have to lead a process of bringing all the different voices together into one conversation – including farmers and tourists with the clear aim of building a shared understanding of what is acceptable and what is not with regards to nature and agreement on actions to manage our landscape. This should include rivers, forests, uplands, wetlands, and hedges.
  • We have to collectively agree to new rules and ways of enforcing them so that this does not happen again including managing fires and barbecues. The disincentives have to mean something.
  • We have to transform how land management connects to incentives that help farmers do the right thing for managing the environment for climate and biodiversity rather than destroy it for short-term productivity.
  • We have to enforce whatever regulations are already in place including taking away the impunity that exists

We don’t want a culture of mistrust and blaming each other for what is happening. This is not about recrimination but about changing how we all value and work to protect what is our most precious resource:  nature. There are so many people who do the right thing, who are bursting to help. Let’s enable and set them free on this issue.

The Dolmens Climate Action Network is a growing group of 500 people from South Down who are interested in and inspired to act in the face of climate change. We have a realisation that the impacts of climate change and the way we adapt to it are increasingly changing our lives. We also recognise that this will only increase in impact over the coming decades. As a result all of our lives, and those of our children, are going to be altered and many of us will be disadvantaged. We want to understand how to make a just transition to a climate-ready community. Visit our website or Email: [email protected]

Silent Valley” by Philip McErlean is licensed under CC BY-ND