Last Thursday's work group found us out in Hoy with a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers. Hoy is home to the most northerly native woodland in Britain, Berriedale, which is a precious remnant of the woodland that once covered most of Orkney. Considering the generally treeless landscape that Orkney is now famous for, this is something we’re very proud of. The woodland can be found off the post road, sheltered in between the hills of Hoy and surrounded by vast expanses of open moorland. This was very nearly its downfall.

There have been two major accidental wildfires on the reserve since we purchased it in 1983. In 2010, a wildfire of such intensity started in Rackwick, that at times, all our warden and the firefighters could do was watch as the flames raged closer and closer to Berriedale. The woodland has a special hold on many Hoy hearts, and firefighting teams from the island and Mainland worked tirelessly with local volunteers for two days to prevent the fire from reaching it. Although the flames came within metres of the woodland that has grown on this spot for the last 10,000 years, thankfully it was left unharmed. Below you can see some images of how close to disaster Berriedale came. 

Firefighters and volunteers ready to approach the last line of flames across the Hill as the blaze approaches Berriedale - Lee Shields, April 2010

The damage from 2010 remains visible: above the brushcutter handle you cans see the change in vegetation colour marking the point where the fire was extinguished - Becky Austin, Feb 2019

Firefighters visible in the smoke on the lower right of this image shows the frightening scale of the flames as the wildfire approached Berriedale - Lee Shields, 2010

In Autumn 2010, cutting of firefighting zones was undertaken using specialised equipment. In order to maintain a zone of short vegetation around Berriedale, these areas have been re-cut with handheld brushcutters since 2017. This means that if another moorland fire should break out, we'll have a fighting chance of tackling it before it reaches the woodland. This is what our fab volunteers gave up their time to do on Thursday. The staff used brushcutters on the areas around Berriedale and the volunteers followed behind, raking up all the cuttings and moving them off the site. Our Hoy Warden, Lee, had been out the day before to ensure that we could work a safe distance from the brushcutters. Below, you can see volunteers and staff raking up the cuttings in the gorgeous weather.

RSPB staff and volunteers cutting the firefighting zones - Becky Austin, 2019

We also took some time to walk up and enjoy Berriedale itself. It’s a gorgeous woodland with a unique atmosphere and heritage appreciated by Orcadians and visitors alike: there is nothing else like it in Orkney and it was wonderful to be able to do our bit to look after this precious place.

Berriedale - Becky Austin, Feb 2019