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Rural workers save the day at yet another moorland wildfire

The view on Marsden Moor this afternoon (Monday) as keepers fight the fire once again. The timber stakes burning form part of the damns the NT have installed to rewet the moor...

In the last few days and weeks; as the spring sun emerged and people began to make their way back to the moors, wildfire upon wildfire has broken out in the uplands. This morning, a wildfire continued to smoke at the National Trust’s Marsden Moor. As the Trust themselves point out, two years ago, a “devastating fire destroyed 700 hectares of Marsden Moor”.

This video shows the extent of the burning on Marsden Moor

The fire two years ago started from a portable barbecue; the source of yesterday’s fire has not been confirmed although Craig Best, countryside manager for the National Trust, stated that “this was another fire started by people and could have so easily been avoided." It has not gone unnoticed that the fire took place over the weekend that Extinction Rebellion encouraged its members to take over the countryside through wild camping and trespass.

People will always want to visit the moors, and we want to encourage them to visit. Everyone – be that moorland groups, upland estates or the National Trust – has warned the public against the dangers of open flames on the moor, especially when they are as dry as they are now. But however much you do, there will always be someone who wants to have a barbecue; and always one barbecue that ignites the dry vegetation.

Keepers battling the flames on Marsden last night

No one can control all human behaviour. What we can do is reduce how susceptible the moors are to fires. All moorland wildfires, including the one on Marsden Moor last night, destroy rare ecosystems, bird and mammal habitats and carbon-capturing blanket bog in their wake. But the worst ones in recent weeks – last night’s and the one at Dovestone on Friday (on land managed by the RSPB) – have all been on moorland that isn’t managed using controlled burning.

Conservationists state that controlled burning destroys habitats; that it releases carbon into the atmosphere, and that moorland can be managed without burning. But the reason controlled burns have been used for so long – not only in the uplands of England, but by aborigines in Australia and by native Americans in the US – is because they do such a good job of removing excess fuel load, and creating fire breaks. They are a tried and tested way of ensuring there isn’t lots of dry, dead foliage for the flames to cling on to; of making sure that there are clear paths with no fuel, which will stop fire in its tracks.

Of course controlled burns will release small amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, as would a bonfire or any other domestic fire. But the difference between the damage caused and the carbon emitted by a controlled cool burn, compared to that from a wildfire over thousands of acres of land, is enormous. As Professor of applied biology at Liverpool University Rob Marrs said after Saddleworth Moor fire: "Leaving the land alone causes much more damage than controlled burning because there's more heather to burn so it gets hotter and spreads to the peat, which in turn spreads the fire. It wasn't a matter of if, but when, and that when is now."

The sad thing is that the green lobby simply will not admit this.

We use machinery to cut vegetation breaks which reduce the spread of fire”, says the National Trust, of Marsden Moor. “We plant sphagnum moss to help hold water in the areas that have been cut, which helps to further reduce fire risk.” Sadly – and it is sad; no one, least of all the people who live and work on or around the moors want to see them damaged – the approach of the National Trust has been proven to fail time and time again. The proof is in the pudding.

The view from a keeper's quad this afternoon as Marsden Moor smoulders

Perhaps what makes this even more frustrating for those who have worked on and managed the moorlands of England for decades is that those organisations and land owners who refuse to manage their moors properly are more than willing to accept help from neighbouring estates and rural workers when the worst happens, which it inevitably does.

Last night on Marsden Moor, rural workers – farmers and gamekeepers – worked through the night from 8pm to 2.30am “in difficult conditions, extinguishing an estimated 1500m back fire, which burns slow and intensively, which would have left a horrendous scene and task for the fire crews this morning”. The fire crews, through no fault of their own but due to working protocol, had to be pulled off at 8pm. Had the rural workers not stayed on to help, hundreds of acres would have burnt overnight, creating a horror scene for fire crews to return to this morning.

New fires continue to pop up this afternoon as rural workers battle to stop the wildfire

The National Trust, however can’t bring themselves to thank the keepers and farmers who chose to help a neighbour out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Trust received negative feedback on social media when they – rightly – thanked the fire services for their help, but failed to thank or even mention any of the rural workers who had devoted their night to tackling the fire, not to mention putting their lives in danger.

So much for the National Trust trying to appeal to rural communities then.


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