Friday, 19 April 2019

SGA BLOG: PLANNED MUIRBURN AND WILDFIRES ARE NOT THE SAME

Wildfire at Loch Doon, Ayrshire- black grouse viewing points close by.
With warnings of tinderbox conditions this Easter holiday, it is everyone’s duty to respect the countryside, ensuring our activities, whatever they are, do not become tragedies.

Gamekeepers almost exclusively have the finger of blame pointed at them when it comes to fires getting out of control in Scotland and, yes, it is true, muirburn fires do sometimes ‘get away’. Everyone who has lit a fire over the years will tell you that conditions can change unexpectedly. Thankfully, with today’s muirburn practice, better warning systems and collaboration, greater industry awareness, training and more equipment, being caught out is becoming less and less prevalent when it comes to strip muirburn practised by gamekeepers on grouse moors.

That said, assess the comment threads on many social media posts (even in the last few days), and it is clear there remains a lack of understanding regarding the controlled use of fire in grouse moor areas and in the wider countryside.

Indeed, public opinion, it would seem, starts from the premise that all out of control fires must be those’ bloody gamekeepers’, quite often followed by a call to ban something. For those investing much time and energy into doing things properly, following Scotland’s Muirburn Code, this is undeniably a source of frustration and The SGA receives many such messages and emails.

This is, however, the modern world of social media, a world where misinformation can spread as fast as a Spring fire on dry ground. That aside, there is a need for the grouse industry itself to communicate better about muirburn, its benefits, why it is done and its role in preventing devastating wildfires. 

We can all do better when it comes to challenging misinformation, educating where appropriate or helping to inform a more rounded understanding.

Statistics have emerged within the past few years, for example, where recorded fire ‘incidents’, which gave an impression -by the way they were recorded on a computer system- that the majority of these happen as a result of muirburn, whether on grouse moors or farmland. 

There is a big difference, however, between actual fires which required action by services and fires simply reported by the general public. This recording system is to be re-evaluated and qualified better and more news on this is likely to emerge soon.

As the climate warms and fuel loads increase, the need to use fire in a planned way in the countryside increases. Skills, knowledge, equipment and training are of huge value to Scotland’s hard-pushed services and you only need to look to other countries to see the devastation caused by wildfires. Interestingly, the mitigation response in these countries has been to look to places, like Scotland, where there remains active fire use or a fire culture and to adopt techniques such as creating fire-breaks by burning selected areas of accumulating vegetation before wildfires can take hold.

Most of the big UK fires we have seen over the past few weeks, where conditions have unfortunately been ripe, have not involved gamekeepers burning heather. There have been big fires on grassland and gorse, crofting land, on nature reserves and land run by NGOs and environmental charities and partnerships. Domestic supplies have been cut, roads closed for public safety in Harris and people have had to temporarily leave homes, reminding us all of the power of fire.

Sadly, knowledge of this has not stopped some from manufacturing issues around grouse moors while fire service workers have barely had the chance to look up, trying to tackle blazes ripping over kilometres of parched hillside.

One tweet from an individual last week, for example, showed a picture of a distant fire within the Cairngorms National Park, accompanied with allegations that gull colonies had been burnt out - a wildlife crime (see image below).
The tweet proved to be a gathering storm, shared by groups with known agendas against grouse moors and grouse shooting. It didn’t matter one bit that it was factually wrong.


The fire in the photo was a muirburn fire on a grouse moor. However, it was a controlled, planned fire. Never at any stage was it out of control. It was managed by the gamekeepers on-site, using their own knowledge and manpower. No gull colony exists where the muirburn took place although those in the area do remember a historic black headed gull colony which moved on many, many years ago. Several years ago, a wildfire which started from this very ground, burnt out thousands of acres of the nearby estate and, with it, valuable breeding habitat for wildlife. With the un-managed heather again creating similar conditions for another big fire, putting in a number of fires to break up dense vegetation would be regarded as a sensible buffer against the potential for a much more devastating blaze.

Furthermore, the same people implicitly blamed for the fire in the picture had actually put out a fire which did burn into gull nesting grounds just days before - a fire caused by a cigarette carelessly discarded by a member of the public. Indeed, had one of them not spotted it on the side of a single track road whilst driving and alerted colleagues, who put it out themselves with their own equipment, that gull nesting area would now have been decimated. 

Fortunately, it is too early for gulls to nest in that area. Regardless, it is easy to see how misinformation can be circulated and can spread. 

Contrast this with the fire event at Loch Doon in Ayrshire where kilometres of un-managed heather (heather where no muirburn or cutting/swiping has taken place, enabling fuel build-up) were scorched. Endangered black grouse lekking ground will have been lost. Protected pine marten breeding areas are monitored in nearby woods. Fires in these areas are now becoming, sadly, a regular occurrence. 

It is everyone’s responsibility to take care when accessing the countryside but not all fires are the same. Controlled, cool burns by gamekeepers, which create a mosaic of habitats for grouse, other ground-nesting wildlife, deer, sheep and hares are not the same as wildfires and not every out of control fire in Scotland is caused by ‘those bloody gamekeepers’. 

A little more light rather than heat over this issue will benefit everyone, whether you are accessing the countryside for recreation, trying to establish woodland, to rewild or are involved in economic activity with conservation spin-offs.

Stay safe this Easter.


For facts on muirburn, what it is, why it is undertaken and what its impacts are, see: https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/land-and-sea-management/managing-land/upland-and-moorland/muirburn-code