25 March 2006

Trust mourns destruction on mountain

Belfast Telegraph

Beauty spot marred by fire horror

By Linda McKee
25 March 2006

It could take years for Slieve Donard to recover from the blaze that devoured its slopes this week.

The National Trust, which owns tracts of land on the shoulders of Ulster's highest mountain, warned the outbreak on Thursday night may have consumed the roots and seed banks beneath the heather, preventing fast regeneration.

Several square miles of landscape above the popular access route of Bloody Bridge have been left blackened and smouldering in a fire that is believed to have been deliberately set.

The National Trust's coast and countryside manager, David Thompson, estimated 50,000 visitors a year pass through the Bloody Bridge area.

Mr Thompson said songs have been written about the area.

"It's our highest, best, iconic mountain, that locals call the Purple Mountain because of the heather," he said.

"It's a mountain well-known and well-loved for its appearance and that has been severely damaged.

"Bloody Bridge is an incredibly busy focal point, and this burnt, charred landscape is all in the face of anyone driving on that main road or walking in Bloody Bridge," he said.

Mr Thompson said the National Trust had yet to assess how deeply the fire burned.

"It can burn into the roots and seed bank, and if the seed gets destroyed, there is nothing there to grow back," he said.

"There is an ecosystem set back to square one. It will recolonise in good time, but how long depends on how fierce this fire was.

"If the vegetation doesn't recover soon enough, there is a danger of serious soil erosion, which again impairs the re-establishment of vegetation and perpetuates the scar and the mess."

SDLP councillor Eamonn O'Neill said: "Apart from the loss of plant life and damage to wildlife habitat, we now have a dirty black scar stretching for miles across the face of our greatest tourism asset.

"Only the overnight rain prevented this turning into a major environmental problem.

South Down Assembly member Willie Clarke said the arsonists had caused considerable anger locally.

"The destruction of this important natural habit for wildlife and flora and fauna, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, cannot be overstated."

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