To Burn Or Not To Burn? That Is The Question!

A very topical and much debated subject at the moment is the burning of heather, should we burn, what are the benefits and what are the downfalls.  Moorland burning is happening, so surely it makes more sense that it should be undertaken in a controlled environment as opposed to an out of control wildfire that takes out not only large areas of moorland but also the wildlife that resides on it.

You only have to look in the news in the last couple of weeks to witness the utter devastation that has taken place on the National Trusts Howden Moor in the Peak District where over 200 acres of heather moorland has been destroyed.  The moorland ground itself though is not the only casualty, there is no way of knowing the full extent of fatalities to wildlife and the environmental damage that has been caused, however this could have been even worse if it had not been for the valiant efforts of the gamekeepers who managed to save the historical hen harrier nesting site.  The devastating images of burnt nests, smouldering peat, Golden Plover, Merlins, Pipits and Stonechat overseeing their scorched habitats is a haunting picture that we do not want to see being repeated.  The Howden Moor fire was believed to have been started by a portable barbecue and this is an all too familiar careless happening on a nice warm sunny day on the moors.  The fire service undeniably did a great job while they were there but had the local gamekeepers not remained there alone overnight to try and bring the fire under control then it is estimated that some 8,000 acres of heather moorland could have been destroyed.  The main issue with this terrible occurrence is the fact that the National Trust who owns the moor have their own ideas on how the moor should be controlled and they do not follow tried and tested moorland controlled burning management practices.

Burning is essential to encourage the regrowth and healthiness of heather and each estate works in accordance with their own individual agreements with Natural England as to the amounts, areas and burning cycle that is required.  Nobody is saying that controlled burning of heather will prevent wildfires, however it will create firebreaks and this most certainly would help in containing a fire and limiting the damage it can cause.  The controlled rotational burning of strips of moorland removes the old and very dry surface vegetation and by strip burning this almost eliminates one of the main reasons why a fire escalates, spreads and intensifies so quickly.  After burning has taken place the heather rejuvenates over a period of time and acts as a major protein source for red grouse.  The majority of gamekeepers have attended the NGO ran burning course and this is to ensure that the correct procedures are followed.  Controlled Heather burning is undertaken between the months of October and April when it is not nesting season and the risks of damage to wildlife is almost minimal.  Strip burning of moorland gives wildlife the chance to move to a non fire habitat, whereas a wildfire spreads so quickly the wildlife stands only a very slim chance of survival, the breeding habitats are destroyed and this is not just in the case of grouse but also a vast array of conservation listed birds.

The Peak District fire is not a solitary happening, there have also been two separate incidents within the Angus Glens region, two on Ilkley Moor and one near Osmotherley in North Yorkshire and these are only the ones that I’ve heard about, all of these fires were suspected of being started accidentally/deliberately.  However the major difference here is that on gamekeeper managed moorland, the fires were brought under control quickly, and in stark contrast to the Peak District fire it limited the damage caused to the moors and wildlife.

As the weather improves, the sun comes out, the tourists come out and the moorland dries out, the risk of fire increases greatly therefore it is an absolute must that the “no fires/barbecues” policy is adhered to.  Ignorance is partly to blame here as many people are unaware of the potential risks to having a barbecue for example and they do not realise the implications a dropped light may have.  It is our aim to educate as many people as we can about the fire risks and get the message across by interacting with people directly on the moors and also via social media outlets.

It seems inevitable that fires will start, whether that be by accidental or deliberate means so it is imperative that a common sense attitude to rotational controlled burning is put in place.  The overall care of the moorland and wildlife is paramount and the evidence speaks for itself, controlled burning HAS to happen, it HAS to be accepted and from this it WILL bring the right results and this is not just for the success of gamekeepers, it is primarily for the environment and the wildlife.  

On a final note common sense has to prevail, lessons have to be learned, and practices have to be put in place and adhered to by ALL moorland estates.  Safety and conservation is top of the agenda and to ensure this happens then controlled burning is the way forward.

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