With temperatures pushing the mercury to previously unthinkable heights, moorland fires are once again in the news. With climate change giving rise to increasingly frequent extremes it’s vital to consider ways in which these iconic landscapes can be made more resilient to fire.
RSPB East Midlands Area Manager Martin Randall looks at Dove Stone in the Peak District - how the RSPB site team deal with fires and how they are preparing the nature reserve for the future …
Dove Stone, in the Peak District National Park, is one of our premiere uplands, owned by United Utilities and managed by RSPB. It’s best known for its dramatic landscape, but the open moors, brooding skies and distant horizons hold a great treasure – blanket bog! The UK has almost 15% of the world total of this precious habitat, which plays a crucial role not only for its unique wildlife, but in storing carbon and improving water quality.
Healthy bogs tackle climate change by locking up harmful carbon in the peat and preventing its release into the atmosphere. More carbon is stored in our blanket bogs than in all our forests. They have been forming for at least 5000 years but in the last 200 years many have been much degraded by pollution and intensive grazing. And it’s this degradation that the RSPB and United Utilities are reversing at Dove Stone, as part of many similar efforts the length and breadth of the UK.
As well as helping tackle climate change, healthy bogs also help reduce fires – for the very obvious reason that a healthy bog is wet, and fire and water don’t mix!
Given this supremely obvious fact, it’s surprising that the topic of upland management and fire management are such hotly contested topics. But let’s do a quick “moorland fire 101”
Fires start in only a relatively small number of ways. They can start naturally with lightening but that’s vanishingly rare in the UK. All the other causes are human.
First, there’s accidental fire – a disposable barbecue (aka “small incendiary device”), a campfire, a cigarette. To tackle this staff and volunteers on sites such as Dove Stone spend time both speaking to visitors about fire risk (with a security team as a back-up for those that refuse to listen), and to spot potential trouble early.
Second, there’s arson. It’s a sad fact that many fires are started deliberately, and all the recent fires at Dove Stone are being investigated by the police. Let’s hope they catch the culprits.
Then there’s so called “controlled burns” that get out of control. These burns are used by the grouse shooting estates, and in some places by farmers, in autumn and late winter to encourage new heather growth. They frequently get out of control. In a paper published by Natural England in 2020, 68% of upland fires with an assigned cause in the study were started this way. There are many reasons for wanting to see an end to this practice – reducing the risk of fire is one of them.
The RSPB employs a fire ranger at Dove Stone, who works on site with a team of volunteers to both to educate the public about the dangers of BBQs and campfires and to look out for fires - an "early warning system".
Once a fire is spotted the team spring into action quickly. The RSPB land management staff and the United Utilities catchment officers work under the direction of the Fire and Rescue Service incident commander.
Specialist equipment is deployed as the scale of the fire demands. Like something out of Thunderbirds, the team use amphibious argocats – all terrain vehicles, each equipped with a fire-fogging unit that can spray water either directly on to the flames or on to the advancing fire front to dampen the area and prevent fire spreading. RSPB staff are trained argocat and fogging unit operators, who have over a decade of experience driving over rough terrain and in putting out moorland fires.
Combined with the use of fire breaks, specially cut and maintained by the RSPB at Dove Stone, the aim is to contain the fire in a manageable area and either extinguish it or let it burn out safely without spreading further.
It’s tough work, especially in summer temperatures and both the fire service, UU and RSPB teams do an amazing job.
However, all concerned would rather not have to deal with fires in the first place. And here the long-term solution lies in the land itself.
As stated above and as taught in primary schools – fire and water don’t mix. So, a healthy bog is naturally fire resistant. This has been proven time and time again. In the now famous 2018 Saddleworth Moor fire, which started on a grouse shooting estate, the burn was only brought under control when it reached healthy peatland restored by the RSPB.
The trouble is - many thousands of hectares of our upland peat is in a poor and eroded condition. Where wet peatland should be thriving, the land is dry, and dominated by a heather monoculture provided to feed grouse for shooting.
Essentially, it’s a supremely flammable landscape. And every time there’s a burn, either a fire or an out of control “controlled burn”, the peat erodes due to exposure to the atmosphere and rain. And of course, it’s not just about flammability, eroding peat is loading more C02 into the atmosphere – and in a climate emergency this cannot be allowed to continue.
Which is why on Dove Stone we are working hard to deal with the fundamental problem that leads to fires. Great work is being done on the reserve to block erosion gullies to hold back the water, and to plant the mosses so vital to peat formation. The team are turning a flammable landscape into a fire-resistant one.
And they are not alone, there are many other such projects, from Dartmoor to the Northern Pennines where the peat is being rewetted. Each led by communities of people who are true climate and nature heroes.
Of course, it’s far from just being about fire. Once rewetted, these peatlands will support a unique and precious community of plants and animals – each individually adapted to thrive in the extreme conditions that characterise peat bogs.
Its often said these peat bogs are our “rainforests”. Which is perhaps a little odd, because we do have our own actual rainforests in the western oak woods that often fringe our uplands. Its more perhaps that they are “rainforests” in terms of their value to both nature and to us. In good condition, they give so many things freely – free carbon storage, free clean water, free flood control and of course, free nature.
Let’s get on an restore them and leave a truly amazing legacy for future generations.The RSPB thanks Derbyshire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services, Greater Manchester Police, United Utilities and Eastern Moors Partnership, for all their hard work tackling fires.
(Image - Argocats in action, July 2022)
Inspirational work from the RSPB and associated agencies involved. I like I the Saddleworth area and see the devastation fires cause first hand.
When the fires abated, I didn’t walk the moors for over a year because it looked like a lunar landscape and was a depressing site to behold.