Given the fact that a fire has been raging over Saddleworth moor this week, I thought it would be good to host a guest blog from my colleague Pat Thompson (the RSPB's senior upland policy officer) to offer our perspective on what has happened and what our local team has been doing to help.

You will have seen on the news over recent days, catastrophic images of fire sweeping across the hills near Saddleworth moor. Whilst the worst appears to be over it will be some time before we know the full extent of the damage. 

Our dedicated site team have been busy assisting with the logistics of getting equipment to the fire crews. As you can imagine, the moorland terrain and habitat here, coupled with the wind and the unusually prolonged dry spell we have had over the past few months, makes this a challenging situation. Along with multiple partners from throughout the Peak District National Park, we have also been helping to fight fires on the ground.

It is not yet possible for us to fully know the extent of the damage from the wildfire at our Dove Stone reserve, until we can properly assess the site. Whilst the fire likely started some distance from Dove Stone, the unusually dry conditions we have had over the past few months, mean it spread quickly and over a large area, and it has reached land managed by the RSPB.

We are concerned about damage to the blanket bog that we have been restoring in partnership with land owners United Utilities, which looks to be severely damaged, but the size of this area is not something we know at this stage.

Many of you will be familiar with some of our recent restoration work thanks to a feature on the latest series of BBC Autumnwatch. Thankfully the fire has not hit this bog area with the most breeding wading birds such as dunlin, curlew and golden plover, but the area hit will undoubtedly have affected a variety of wildlife that lives on the moor such as red grouse, mountain hares, voles, insects and nesting birds like skylarks and meadow pipits.

Blanket bog is a globally scarce habitat, which plays an important role in storing carbon, improving water quality and giving wildlife a home. Healthy bogs can tackle climate change by locking up harmful carbon and improve water quality by acting as a natural filtration system.

The upland areas of the Peak District used to boast thriving blanket bogs but a combination of industrial pollution, moorland fires and heavy grazing, left them seriously damaged with large areas of exposed bare peat.

Since 2010, the RSPB and United Utilities have been restoring blanket bog at Dove Stone in partnership with tenant farmers. This has involved establishing vegetation on large areas of bare peat, placing dams in eroded gullies to slow water flow and planting sphagnum moss in recovering areas to kick-start the process of bog recovery.

Volunteers working to restore blanket bog at Dove Stones RSPB reserve (Ben Hall;

This restoration work has already helped threatened moorland birds with Dove Stone recording a rise in dunlins, golden plovers, curlews and red grouse.

The fire could put a lot of this good work at risk.

There are some out there trying to level blame at the RSPB for not carrying out regular burning of the moorland we manage, suggesting that this may be responsible for the fire or the intensity and speed of the spread. This is patently untrue and seeks to utilise a disastrous situation for their own agenda.

Allow me to lay out some facts:

  • In the sort of weather the country has been experiencing in recent weeks. Fires will burn whatever the management of the land.

  • The fire did not start on our land but on land managed by others. Whilst we don’t know the extent of the burning yet, it’s possible that our restoration work at Dove Stone may have actually stopped the fire spreading further. We'll have to wait and see.
  • We need to restore our blanket bogs. They lock up climate change-causing carbon from the atmosphere, improve water quality and slow the rate of water running off the bog.  In contrast, water runs off burnt bog more rapidly during storm events making local places further down the hills more vulnerable to flooding. 
  • Scientific evidence (including from Natural England and Defra) clearly shows that burning damages blanket bog function and sets back restoration at least 10 years.
    Repeat burning is not the solution – it may have made things worse.

Once we better understand what the true impact of the fires has been we think it should be time for all parties with an interest in these special places to sit down and better understand what needs to happen to stop fires such as these from starting.

  • Although you'll never eliminate surface fires burning down into the peat, I'm sure redkite - and RSPB - are right over wetness - and the great work that got such good exposure on springwatch. What surprised me when we were restoring the Kielder Mires is just how fast sphagnum regrows given the right conditions - lots and lots of water. The 'it takes centuries for a bog to develop' message, true as it is, is perhaps misleading and shouldn't detract from the immediate value of restoration.

  • Good stuff Martin, clearly more investigation is need as to the nature and cause of the very extensive fire and its effect on the peat and general habitat. Without anticipating the answers to these questions I would not be surprised  if the demise of sphagnum moss through poor management and deliberate burning for grouse shooting  has assisted the fire since sphagnum  holds so much water, up to ten times its own weight. With so much water in the sphagnum more sphagnum, if it had been present, might have slowed or prevented the fire! I emphasise this is not an accusation but might be a possibly and hence perhaps one of the lines the investigation should consider.