Heather burning - how torching the landscape ensures its future

PUBLISHED: 20:43 13 March 2013 | UPDATED: 21:09 05 April 2013

Heather burning in the North East<br/>Photo: Moorland Association

Heather burning in the North East<br/>Photo: Moorland Association

Members of the Moorland Association annually set fire to the landscape of the North East. David Stocker finds out why

The idea that fire in the countryside serves as a regenerative force isnt easy to get your head around. The destructive power of wild fire is obvious, but the idea that setting fire to the land can actually deliver benefits like improving biodiversity and increasing carbon storage, seems odd.

But this is exactly what happens with the heather moorlands of the North East, parts of which are set ablaze on a small number of selected dates in a rotational cycle, between early-October and mid-April every year.

Theres nothing remotely random about this fire starting, however. Its primary purpose is to rejuvenate ageing heather for the benefit of young grouse, which depend on young heather shoots to eat as the shrub starts to re-grow. Red grouse are truly wild birds, unique to the UK, which respond well to the proactive and holistic management of their favourite environment, peaty uplands with abundant heather.

In global terms, this heather moorland is a rare environment and some 75 per cent of it is found in the UK. The upland moors on which heather grows are agriculturally poor, offering only limited grazing for livestock, and so are managed by their owners for game shooters.

The aim is to produce a sufficient population of grouse to allow a surplus to be harvested by the guns during a season lasting from the Glorious 12th of August until mid-December. Sufficient healthy birds must, of course, be left to re-populate the moors the following season. Much of the income derived from shooting is then fed back into moorland management in a season-upon-season cycle. The region is home to a number of world-famous moors, like Bowes, Wemmergill, Whitfield, Allenheads and Raby.

But heather moorlands managed for grouse also benefit other species of birds. In particular, wading birds that have become rare in the lowlands in the breeding season, thrive in the resulting patchwork quilt or mosaic environment achieved by rotational burning.

The mosaic appearance is created by adjacent areas of heather which have grown to different heights. Indeed, such are benefits to conservation, that a majority of grouse moors in England have been awarded Site of Special Scientific Interest status, and with many moors also being designated as Special Protection Areas for rare birds, and Special Areas of Conservation for rare vegetation under European wildlife directives.

With such protection its no surprise whythat in order to burn heather a license has to be obtained from Natural England. And, once licensed, strict DEFRA guidelines the Heather and Grass Burning Code have to be followed by land managers and gamekeepers involved in the process.

According to Stuart Maughan, the head keeper on the Whitfield Estate: Theres a real craft to this. All moorland management is about achieving balance, be that the balance between heather and other vegetation like grasses and bracken, the balance between predator and prey populations, the balance between grouse populations and shooting effort

And the same goes for burning. Heather grows on peat which is flammable when dry, so a fine judgment has to be made when and whether it is safe to burn. The wetness of the ground, the wind direction and strength, and proximity to wet flushes and areas of active blanket bog which are often avoided are all factors that have to be taken into account.

We also have to consider the impact of smoke on nearby residents, but hope they tolerate the fires to benefit from the explosion of purple and pink that typifies the moors in late summer when the heather is in flower.
Burning is a skilled activity, and experience counts.

Stuart added: We aim for what we call a cool burn that is intended to leave the stick of the heather, and the mattress of dead vegetation and mosses around it, intact. This helps prevent erosion which would lead to an undesirable release of carbon locked up in the peat. Heather seed is located within the mattress, so deep burning would defeat the object of the exercise.

Someone seeing extensive smoke on the moors might assume not unreasonably that were adding to CO2 levels. But what actually happens is that any CO2 produced by burning can be considered to be offset against the increased uptake of carbon by the new heather that grows back vigorously following burning. Science shows the process to be essentially carbon-neutral.

Maintaining heather-clad moors in itself locks up huge amount of carbon dioxide, and, hard to believe though it is, there is more carbon stored in UK peat than in the combined forests of Britain and France.

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