MORE than 30 gorse fires, most of them deliberate, have wreaked havoc in recent days killing birds, damaging land, affecting wildlife and covering towns and villages in thick smoke.
Outside Brookeborough on Tuesday 20 acres of saplings and gorse were on fire as firefighters with the assistance of the forestry service spent over five hours at Bunnisnagapple forest.
The incident was one of many with plumes of smoke seen across Fermanagh and Tyrone for days.
Up to 30 hectares of bogland at Gortalughany Scenic Drive near Swanlinbar was on fire on Friday night and a gorse fire was reported in the area of the Five Points.
There were two other fires in Brookeborough on Sunday, the first on Teiges Hill Road and the second on Stonepark Road and there were fires reported in Belleek, Derrylin, Tempo and Lisnaskea. 
There were fears about Cuilcagh Mountain’s popular boardwalk in Florencecourt as a fire raged on the mountain close to the wooden walkway on Sunday, the second fire there in 24 hours. 
Firefighters using shovels tackled the fire which stretched for about three miles but had to withdraw late on Sunday night due to poor visibility and returned the next day. 
The Cuilcagh Mountain Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is designated under the European Commission Habitats Directive for its blanket bogs, as it is considered to be one of the best areas of blanket bog in the United Kingdom. 
A number of birds died as a result of the two weekend fires at Cuilcagh.
“They didn’t stand a chance, they didn’t have the strength to get away,” said one source. 
45 firefighters tackled a major fire stretching for up to eight miles in the Mullaghfad area of Fivemiletown for over 48 hours. Smoke from the blaze could seen from as far away as Lisbellaw. 
Police appealed to the public to exercise caution due to the “substantial smoke” which filled the main street of Fivemiletown and surrounding area from Sunday.
As a result of the fire, believed to be deliberate, two active hen harrier nests were lost within the protected area of Slieve Beagh and Mullaghfad, a “serious blow” to a species already in decline said Anne-Marie McDevitt of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. 
The timing of the fires, right in the middle of breeding season and the extent of the damage has had a “devastating impact” on ground nesting birds and other wildlife, she told this newspaper.
Many of the damaged upland areas are internationally important habitats for some of the rarest wildlife, birds such as hen harriers, skylarks, snipe and meadow pipits, mammals such as Irish hares and plant species including sundew and bog cotton.
“The damage these fires have caused can’t be under-estimated. The timing could not have been worse, right at the start of the breeding season,” she said.
Under the amended Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage or cause disturbance to birds’ nests, eggs, young and protected wildlife. Penalties can include a custodial sentence and/or up to a £5,000 fine per offence.
“As well as being areas of natural beauty, these peatlands also provide essential public goods; they filter and store water, provide us with clean water and protect us from flash flooding. Once damaged, the beauty and value of these habitats is diminished and they can no longer provide these vital public services,” said Ms McDevitt.
Brookeborough man David Coulter said the gorse fires was “like a scene from a horror movie.” 
Belleek businesswoman Pauline Gilmartin said it was “sad to see such damage.”
Shane Wilson, a member of Lisnaskea Chamber of Commerce, said the demand on emergency services “could have a serious or fatal impact on the individuals, families or businesses,” he said.
Farmer John Sheridan from Florencecourt said “good management” of farm, forest and woodland “can go a long way to ensure minimal damage in the event of a wildfire.”
Director of Friends of the Earth James Orr said Fermanagh’s natural habitats and cultural landscapes “are being destroyed by these vandals.”
“The risk to life, property and nature is inexcusable,” he said.
Police are continuing to investigate the spate of gorse fires in the area.