The dangers of wildfires – and how moorland management helps prevent them
The last month has seen an almost constant stream of news about wildfires taking hold of large areas of countryside. Many of them have taken longer than a week to get under control; such as the fire on Hatfield Moor near Doncaster, and the forest fire in Wareham, Dorset, which burned over 550 acres of land. Forestry England have estimated that the forest will take decades to recover, while hundreds of native reptiles, including the rare smooth snake and the sand lizard, are believed to have died.
The Wareham Forest fire is believed to have been started by daytrippers using a disposable barbecue. The cause of the Hatfield Moor fire is as yet unknown; but Stewart Nicholson from the fire services gave the following quote:
"People visiting the countryside in South Yorkshire should leave barbecues at home and dispose of cigarettes safely to prevent further incidents like this one."
The current ‘corona climate’ has the potential to create the perfect storm for wildfires, both on moorland and in many other areas across the country. According to Mid and West Wales Fire Service, there have been more than 1,000 wildfires across Wales in the past eight weeks. With lockdown rules easing, people will be desperate to get out and about, exploring the countryside in the lovely weather. And the vegetation and ground is incredibly dry; the environment agency have announced that in certain areas this month is set to be the driest May on record.
Not all wildfires are caused by people; many things can spark them off, from a stray piece of glass catching the sun’s rays. But camp fires, disposable barbecues, discarded cigarettes – or indeed anything that involves matches, including arson – are the most common causes of wildfires in the UK.
Apart from warning people not to set fires, however, what else can be done to prevent fires from spreading? This is where traditional moorland management comes into play. Wildfires are nothing new, and landowners and keepers have learnt, over hundreds of years, the best ways to tackle them. One of the techniques is using controlled burning to create strategic fire breaks – a 10m patch which will stop fires in their tracks. Controlled burning is also used to reduce fuel load, by encouraging new heather growth and ensuring that dead and dry vegetation in the undergrowth is removed safely, and can’t, therefore, encourage wildfires to spread.
Moor owners and keepers have also been working hard to restore blanket bogs; wet, well-functioning blanket bog is far less likely to burn. The creation of ponds across the moors also dampens the area; again, helping to decrease the risk of fires spreading so fast.
When wildfires do happen, the gamekeepers carry out an amazing job. Most of them are trained to fight wildfires, and in the case of one breaking out, are the people who know the area best. Often coordinated by moorland estates and moorland fire groups, they work with the fire services to access remote areas of the moor and work night and day to stop them in their tracks. Being on the moors every day, they are often the first to spot the fires igniting.
In the case of many recent moorland wildfires, without the hard work and resourcefulness of the local keepers, fire damage would have been far more significant. Private landowners, who fund not just the keepers but much of the equipment used to fight the wildfires must also be recognised. It is no coincidence that the worst wildfires we have seen in the UK have taken place on land on which keepers do not operate.