Monday, 2 December 2019

CHAIRMAN'S BLOG: THE TRUTH ABOUT MUIRBURN AND WILDFIRE


When it comes to land issues today, it seems a true story is not the one that gets the most coverage. Why let truth get in the way? Everyone can buy into the need to take action on climate change, for example, but some of the criticism of UK farming practices recently has been off the scale. I feel truly sorry for the farming bodies having to correct the many lies. The SGA has direct experience of this, too, as opinions stretch science and reality and campaigns become more and more extreme.

In recent times, some of the criticisms of muirburn have been similarly extreme. It is the case, now, that if people see wildfires in Scotland, the instant reaction is to point the finger at the land manager. "It must be those bloody gamekeepers burning the countryside again." It is then up to bodies like ourselves to try to get to the truth and correct the tidal wave of misinformation. 

We even saw it with elected representatives last year, jumping to conclusions and writing to newspapers before knowing anything about the situation on the ground. This doesn't help anyone though I dare say they maybe felt it personally helped their anti grouse campaign. That is the politics of today, less about fostering understanding. More about getting noticed. No wonder some people switch off. Fortunately, there are still some politicians left who will seek the views of the working practitioners instead of just allying themselves with the next campaign dreamt up in an Edinburgh lobbying office.

With the assistance of the fire service, which we are very grateful for, the SGA asked for an analysis of the service's own data to try to get to the bottom of the main causes of wildfire in our landscape today. That analysis covered 10 years of data.

Was it the case that these fires were all down to 'bloody gamekeepers and crofters scorching the land?'.

Well, actually, no. In fact, 90 + percent of major wildfires, like the ones we saw in Moray and the Flow Country this year, were caused by other factors not related to land management. You can see the information for yourself below.

Is it not the case, though, that a muirburn fire can get away and cause a blaze in our uplands? Of course. As it is with anything that humans are involved in, there will always be a margin of error. However, as the findings show, those carrying out muirburn today are increasingly aware of how fire behaves in our habitats, the knowledge and skills are better, the warning systems are better, the co-ordination with the fire service improves all the time- and so does the equipment estates use and can deploy in times of need.

Scotland benefits from men and women who have knowledge of how fire affects habitats and, as we consider all the tools in the box to protect against the types of wildfires like the Flow Country, which produced more carbon than Scotland did, we will need this knowledge more, not less.

The move to rewilding could be a nightmare in the making if those in charge of it are not making detailed plans to create firebreaks and manage high fuel loads. We have warned people. Only time will tell if anyone is listening.

MUIRBURN NOT A MAIN CAUSE OF WILDFIRE
Nearly 90 percent from ‘other causes’ in last decade.


Managed muirburn has not been a major contributor to wildfires in Scotland in the last decade, according to analysis of the fire service’s own data.
Burning moorland strips to regenerate heather and grass for grouse and sheep is an ancient activity undertaken by gamekeepers and crofters but critics cite it as a potential cause of wildfire.
Although muirburn is governed by strict seasons, controlled fires can sometimes spread, leading to deployment of fire crews.
However, analysis of raw data from 2009 to 2019 has attributed less than 10 percent of Scotland’s large wildfires to controlled muirburn, with the actual figure certain to be lower still.
Nearly 90 percent of large wildfires now stem from other causes which could be anything from campfires to discarded cigarettes and barbecues.
The data runs counter to a 2018 National Trust for Scotland paper, ‘The Relationship Between Prescribed Burning and Wildfires’ which ascribed 60 percent of wildfires to potential muirburn.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) asked the fire service for an evaluation of that report’s main dataset, which was taken from the service’s Incident Reporting System (IRS).
What was discovered was that figures had been skewed by the way data had been accessed from the database and by the way fires themselves are recorded on IRS.
Using additional notes from actual fires, it was found that only 9.3 percent of large wildfires could reasonably be attributed to muirburn since 2009.
Actual figures would be less, though, as ‘potential muirburn’ also contained entries such as bonfires, campsite fires and other controlled fires not related to land management.
SGA Vice Chairman Peter Fraser said: “We asked for the data to be analysed because we thought the 60 percent figure very surprising.
“We also wanted to understand how wildfires were classified under IRS.
“Obviously it has brought clarity. There is a marked difference between 9.3 percent of large wildfires potentially being caused by muirburn and 60 percent. There is a tendency, when people see big fires, to point instantly to muirburn. This data shows the extent of other factors.
“All land holdings have a role in managing fire in our landscape, whether conservation bodies, nature reserves, croft lands, recreation groups or estates.
“It is important the public get reliable information about muirburn, particularly as it has an increasingly important role in reducing fuel loads. High fuel loads can contribute to the types of extensive fires like Moray and the Flow Country this year, which were not caused by muirburn.”
In 2010/2011, 33 of 52 primary wildfires were classified on the IRS database as potentially caused by muirburn, using certain search parameters.
Further investigation, however, found that only 2 appeared to be caused by muirburn.
A fire service spokesman said: “I think where the discrepancies have come in is in the way the data has been recovered from the system. We have been able to further analyse the data and use the notes added by the officer completing the IRS to provide a fuller and more accurate picture of the causes of the wildfires we have attended.”
Earlier this year, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service stated that they are exploring the use of prescribed burning as a tool in the prevention and control of wildfires, through the creation of strategic fire breaks, and fuel management.
Dozens of gamekeepers assisted fire crews at the blazes in Moray and the Flow Country, with specialist equipment and manpower.


  • The wildfire which ravaged the Flow Country peat bogs in May doubled Scotland’s entire CO2 emissions in the 6 days it burned, covering 22 sq miles of protected blanket bog. Over £13m worth of public money has been invested at the site in the last 18 years to restore the Flows.
  • The Moray wildfire (see pic below) started in an area where controlled muirburn had not been permitted for 3 years and had been severely restricted for 10 years, leading to high fuel load.

For more on Muirburn and its impact on peat and the environment, see: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0266-6