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Wildfire on RSPB managed Peak District moor

In 2018, Saddleworth Moor burned for three weeks, in one of the most serious UK wildfires in recent history. The fire destroyed the habitats of mammals, insects and ground-nesting bids, as well as releasing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. (One report estimated that the fires could have released as much as half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; equivalent to the yearly CO2 emissions from over 100,000 cars.) A study released just last week estimated that around 4.5million people were affected by the microparticles that the Saddleworth fire released; that around 9 fatalities were “brought forward” by the fires, and that they cost the UK economy £21.1m.

At this exact moment that we are writing, the moor next door to Saddleworth, Crowden, is on fire. A helicopter has been deployed, and locals including gamekeepers are helping the fire services to get this large moorland fire under control, running out fire hoses and cutting back vegetation.

Both of these areas are owned by United Utilities, and managed by the RSPB. Does this matter? Well yes, if only because of the way that the RSPB choose to manage their moorland. At the time of the Saddleworth Moor, the RSPB’s moorland management policy – which does not include controlled burning of heather and scrub – was questioned. As now, it was in the middle of a dry spell, and warnings had been put out about the risks of moorland fires, and the dangers of campfires, barbecues, and even discarded cigarettes.

The ignition of a fire is one thing. Putting it out is another, and back in 2018 the long, dry heather of the RSPB moors was accused of creating “the perfect conditions for the fire to spread”. Professor Rob Marrs, professor of applied biology at the University of Liverpool, explained then that: “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”. Referring to the likelihood of a large fire happening on these moors, he added: “It wasn't a matter of if, but when.”

The peat that lies below the heather of these moors has taken tens of thousands of years to develop, and when these hot, hard, wildfires such as these occur, it’s often the case that the peat burns below the surface; destroying and drying out the peat, but also allowing the fire to spread and burn for months.

The situation on Crowden Moor is as yet unknown. We hope and pray that the emergency services and the locals are able to get it under control, and prevent a repeat of what happened just two years ago. But the most disappointing part is that the scenario has been allowed to repeat itself. If the RSPB didn’t learn from their previous mistakes, will they sit up and listen now?


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