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Settlers in 1788 are being blamed for Australian wildfires. So what of today's upland settlers?

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

British settlers who colonised Australia in the 1700s are, apparently, to blame for recent bushfires in the country. That, at least, was the headline takeaway which newspapers took from a new study carried out by researchers at the University of Nottingham. “Disruption of cultural burning promotes shrub encroachment and unprecedented wildfires” is the official title of the research paper, which explores “how the cessation of Indigenous burning practices has impacted fuel accumulation and structure”.

The study explores the relationship between humans and ‘flammable landscapes’, and concludes that before the British colonisation of Australia in 1788, much of the country’s vegetation and forested land was managed by the Indigenous people through the use of regular small fires. This management system limited the amount of ground shrubs, and “not only did fire management increase landscape productivity and facilitate hunting practices, it was a tangible cultural connection of people to place.” The study also states that these fires created “pyrodiverse mosaics of open woody vegetation (ie low shrub abundance) and sparsely treed plains (Bowman and Prior 2004) that were less prone to destructive fires than current forests”.

However, since colonial settlement there has been an increase in shrub cover in Australian woodlands, as the imported, ‘English’ management system involved cutting down woods entirely in many areas for agriculture, while “forests in rugged terrain were left unmanaged or exploited through selective logging”.

Does any of this sound familiar? The newspaper headlines might state that English settlers are to blame for Australian wildfires – which might be stretching it a bit – but the real back story here is that since the 1800s, scrub, shrubs and excess vegetation has been allowed to build up in Australian forestry, rather than being removed through burning, as the Indigenous people used to do. Combined with changing temperatures due to climate change, these two factors have helped create a landscape that is more prone to forest fires, due in large part to the reduction in fire management.

Almost the exact same concept applies here in the UK, where wildfires are also on the increase. In so many cases, the largest moorland fires have been on estates where rotational burning isn’t practised; there is a huge fuel load for the fire to feed on, and since there have been no controlled burns, few fire breaks have been created which help to stop the fire in its tracks.

And why is prescribed burning no longer being used on some estates? Well for almost the exact same reasons as in Australia in the 1700s; because incomers who are clueless about the environment they are hoping to manage have decided to heavy-handedly enforce their own land management systems.

It’s interesting that all over the world, the people who live in these landscapes which are vulnerable to fires have come up with the same method of managing the fire risk – no matter whether they’re in Australia or in the heather uplands of Cumbria. But rather than listen to the locals who have managed this landscape successfully for hundreds, if not thousands of years, they are choosing to go their own way – and the results are often disastrous.

As the new research suggests when it blames the British settlers for stopping the indigenous Australian from carrying out their burning practises, it is often well-meaning but ignorant people who believe they have better ways of doing things.

In Scotland, where the rewilding fervour has well and truly taken hold and people are being cast out of their homes and livelihoods by the new “green lairds”, the Australian tale of the colonisation of the countryside by incomers – who then do away with the traditional ways of doing things – will sound particularly familiar.

Just this weekend, The Sunday Times reported the story of Alan McIntyre and his son Scott, who had devoted their lives to managing the Kinrara Estate, before it was bought by the owners of the BrewDog craft beer company who – like many others who are jumping on the carbon-offsetting gold rush – have ‘invested’ in land which they are promising to plant with trees; paid for through a grant from the Scottish Government. Now both Scott and Alan have lost their jobs; they say the last year “wasn’t easy.”

In so very many ways we are seeing a repetition of what has happened hundreds of years before. New people take over land, through buying it up or imposing themselves on it and claiming it as their own. They cast out the people living there; call them indigenous people or locals, and begin their own version of land management. Which – as we see from the study we began with – so often ends in tears.


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