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Here’s how controlled burning on moors benefits wildlife and conservation – Adrian Blackmore

Adrian Blackmore is director of shooting at the Countryside Alliance.

THE Government’s intention to end controlled burning on blanket bog lacks evidence and reasoning, threatening the very habitat it should be looking at protecting.

Fire has long been used as an essential tool in the management of natural vegetation, and those responsible for the management of our uplands are well aware of this.

Heather moorland is a habitat of international importance, and it is our duty to protect it. When left uncontrolled, heather supports little wildlife, and its rank and woody stands are particularly vulnerable to wildfires.

Grouse moor management therefore includes the controlled cool burning of small patches of heather which not only removes the canopy, but also prevents burning the peat beneath.

The result is not just a landscape that is more resilient to the devastating damage from uncontrolled wildfires that burn with greater intensity and release carbon into the atmosphere, but also one that has a mixture of heather, grasses and mosses that benefit species of ground nesting birds that share this habitat to breed.

It is thanks to its careful management for grouse shooting that this unique landscape has been conserved, where elsewhere it has been lost. Retaining burning as a management tool is, therefore, essential if we are to protect this landscape.

Yet, despite the evidence in its favour, there are environmentalists and anti-shooting activists with agendas of their own that oppose any burning. In doing so, their views threaten not just the environment, but also the wildlife and livelihoods of many in our upland communities.

Although the controlled cool burning of heather on moorland managed for grouse shooting is carried out within a clearly defined time frame in accordance with a statutory Code of Practice produced by Defra and, in the case of protected sites such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, only with the consent of Natural England, this will not stop wildfires from occurring.

It can, however, help reduce their frequency, which has to be what we are striving to achieve. In England, Saddleworth and Marsden moors recently suffered wildfires after peatland restoration projects to re-wet them. Both had no-burn policies.

And last year’s wildfire of Scotland’s Flow Country, as a result of the moorland becoming overgrown, also resulted in over 22 square miles of this Unesco world heritage site being severely damaged, with 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent released into the atmosphere, doubling the country’s greenhouse gas emissions for the six days it burned.

The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is the largest private owner of land for conservation in Australia, protecting endangered wildlife across more than 25,000 square miles.

Like heather burning in the UK, the AWC only carries out controlled burning when the conditions allow. In Northern Australia, fire patterns are influenced by the climate, with the wet season driving rapid growth of grass which leads to high fuel loads as it dries out and dies as one heads into the dry season.

The early dry season is therefore a critical time for managing fire, and in the Kimberley alone, AWC staff will fly more than 12,500 miles dropping aerial incendiaries across an area of some 13,000 square miles in order to create cool burns that break up the country, and in doing so reduce the risk of wildfires.

In Central Australia the climate is characterised by multiple years of low rainfall that can result in extensive wildfires, and the AWC therefore uses controlled burning when the country would not otherwise burn. As on our grouse moors, a series of firebreaks are maintained, and fuel loads are managed to maintain a landscape with a patchwork of vegetation of different ages.

Australia’s wildfires have now devastated over 38,000 square miles, with untold damage to the country’s unique biodiversity, not to mention loss of life and livelihoods. Although some may attribute it to coincidence or luck, none of the AWC’s 25,000 square miles of landholdings, on which it carries out controlled burns over 3,800 square miles each year, have been affected by any of those wildfires.

Given our own experiences in the UK, the arguments in support of controlled burning would therefore appear to be particularly compelling. They should not be ignored.

This article originally appeared on the Yorkshire Post


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