The Irish Farmers' Association has called on the Government to extend the deadline for the burning of scrubland to the end of March.

Under the Wildlife Act 1976 and the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 it is an offence to cut, grub or burn vegetation between 1 March and 31 August.

Farmers argue that in light of the recent damp weather, that deadline should be extended to the end of the month to allow the burning of gorse.

IFA National Hill Farming Chairman Flor McCarthy says the extension would help farmers keep land eligible for various CAP schemes and reduce uncontrolled wildfires. 

"Where land is burned, it is done in a managed way.  Controlled gorse burning has not happened yet this year because there was no opportunity due to the wet weather," he said.

"Flexibility will allow hill famers to deal with the practical issues they face in managing their hill farms. Wildfires we have seen in the past can be avoided if the window for burning is extended to include the month of March."

The number of uncontrollable gorse fires across the country is yet to be tallied however, experts say that Kerry is ahead of other counties.

In one February night alone, Kerry Fire Service tended to 28 uncontrolled gorse fires. The callouts made a significant dent in the local authority's budgets, according to Chief Fire Officer, Anthony Macilwraith.

Gorse fires on the Iveragh Peninsula range. Pic: Suzan Baughman

"We had a 149-page report in the next day from our control centre. Eight out of our 10 brigades were out a lot of the night and we racked up around 1,500 man-hours. Our payroll costs for that 12-hour period were around €50,000," he said.

However, it is not the financial cost of the evening's events that was the major cause for concern for the authorities but the threat of the fire service being stretched beyond its limitations.

"Our biggest concern is when our brigades are out like that, they can't tend to the things like ambulance assist, road traffic accidents or house fires. Our brigades are at the top of a hill and out of the town; we're afraid that we won't be there when our county really needs us," added Mr Mcilwraith.

The issue is not limited to Kerry, however. Mary Cassidy Canava is a resident of Whiny Lane in Donegal - named for its significant amount of gorse, also known as whin, surrounding the houses in the laneway. 

"There's a lot of gorse out on the road so if someone was burning down the field, the potential is there that the gorse or neighbouring forest would go on fire. Gorse fires in Donegal tend to happen after Easter when the land is dry so when we hear there's any gorse fires, we are on hyper alert," she said.

She has even taken matters into her own hands. 

"Last year, the hedge row was all whin or gorse so we sprayed it and cut them down and got a digger in to dig out the ditch so that we would have a better break from a potential fire in a forest or in the undergrowth which is full of gorse," she said. 

"It's quite frightening for the local people in the area. You can see it in the air, the orange hue and the smell of burning; it's very frightening." 

Gorse fires on the Iveragh Peninsula range. Pic: Suzan Baughman

The Irish Wildlife Trust says the burning of scrubland is not limited to the months between September and March. Pádraic Fogarty, Campaign Officer, said this time of year is most popular for the outbreak of gorse fires, controllable or otherwise. 

"People are burning when conditions allow. We see a lot of fires in February when vegetation is quick to dry out and in March, April and May. It has very little to do with regulations and more to do with the weather," he said. 

He also said the annual burning is unsustainable for wildlife and that government policy should include legislation which benefits both farmers and the environment. 

"It's total wipeout and if this was happening once every 50 years you might think the vegetation will recover but this is happening every single year. You can't just keep burning and burning and expect the vegetation to recover, so we want the State to come up with a recovery plan for the uplands so that farmers won’t need to burn," he said. 

For now, the Department of Housing, Local Government has no plan to extend or alter the legislation within the Wildlife Act, meaning the deadline will remain as it is.

In the meantime, there are some precautions that farmers can take over the next few days to ensure they are burning in a controlled manner, according to Kerry's Chief Fire Officer Anthony Macilwraith.

"The main things farmers need to do is they need to control what they're burning, They should get enough help in, burn in small areas and burn early in the day. Ideally, they should get it wiped out themselves and, most importantly, ring into the control centre on 999 to let them know when it's starting and when it's finished."