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The devastating effects of wildfires and their impact on the moors


In 2018, a furious wildfire tore across Saddleworth Moor in the Peak District National Park. It was, in fact, one of the largest UK wildfires in recent history. The three-week long moorland blaze, which happened during a summer heatwave in June and July, was thought to be the result of arson. It devastated the moor and its wildlife, as well as emitting vast amounts of smoke, and releasing huge amounts of carbon which are stored in the peat soil.

The results of a study on the impact of the wildfire by Leeds University have just been published, revealing the fires cost the UK economy an estimated £21.1m, as well as calculating that around 9 fatalities were ‘brought forward’ as a result of the smoke from the fires.

We all know that wildfires are enormously destructive for so many reasons. Firstly, as this most recent analysis has shown, the smoke and pollution created by wildfires can have devastating effects on public health. The study estimates that around 4.5million people were affected by the microparticles that the Saddleworth fire released; and air pollution such as this can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, and lung cancer.

Fires such as these also devastate the wildlife, killing ground-nesting birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates – as well as their homes – as they cross the land. They also destroy the fragile and hugely important peat that sits underneath the moorland. Peat is the biggest single store of carbon in the UK, storing around 300 million tonnes of carbon. But while organised ‘cool burns’ of heather pass quickly over the top plant layer, leaving the ground temperature the same, wildfires often set fire to the peat below, both releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and damaging the peat itself, which is thousands of years old.

These are just some of the reason why it is so important for the moors that keepers are able to continue to burn heather and manage the moors. The cool burns don’t damage the peat, but decrease the ‘fuel load’ of the moors, which fuel wildfires, as well as enabling keepers to create fire breaks which will stop wildfires in their tracks if they are ever started. With organised burns, keepers are also able to choose days where the weather and conditions are right; when the wind is blowing in the right direction so it affects the minimum number of people, and when the foliage and ground below is still damp.

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