Burning desire keeps heath life flourishing

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Anyone out for a stroll to walk off some of those post-festive calories should not be alarmed if they see plumes of smoke rising from the moors.

For, while the rest of us digest our Christmas extravagances, conservation teams may be out, putting the region’s landscape to the torch.

“People think they are pure wilderness, they are not,” said George Winn-Darley, vice-chairman of the Moorland Association. “The moors are only semi-natural.”

Three quarters of the world’s heather moorland is found in Britain, and it is home to entire populations of wildlife species such as red grouse.

Strangely, these animals and their habitat require the destruction of fire to survive.

George explained that without heather burning, red grouse could become extinct. Elsewhere in the UK, entire populations of grouse have been lost when the fires stopped.

If moor management was to cease, the landscape would, over decades, develop into dense deciduous woodland, the UK’s ‘climax habitat’. Burning and moorland management prevents this, instead forming the ideal habitat for ground-nesting birds - primarily red grouse.

Four-year-old heather is the most nutritious and grouse will actively seek out plants of that age. However, when they want to build a nest, it’s the older mature heather, measuring a foot tall, that they need. Eggs are incubated for 24 days and then chicks are raised in shorter heather, but not too short as to expose them to predators.

Other birds such as nesting merlin - the UK’s smallest bird of prey - curlew and golden plover also take advantage of the moorland, but red grouse are the only birds to live there all year round.

So the survival of these fussy birds relies upon constant housekeeping.

The practice of burning is an ancient one, said George. He added: “Shortly after we all came out of the caves we discovered you could burn vegetation and grass would grow and that would attract whatever it was you wanted to lampoon with your spear.”

But for it to be undertaken successfully and safely, and with the face of the fire heated to over 350°C, this ancient art is not to be taken lightly and has strict controls placed upon it.

The heather season runs from October to April - any other drier months would be just too dry and dangerous - and a poor season could give just 20 days when burning is possible.

A strategy known as ‘quick cool burn’ removes only the top layer of vegetation, preserving the underlying peat and any dormant heather seeds within the soil. A combination of ash and rainwater awakens these seeds, and new life grows from the soil.

‘Quick cool’ is a well-chosen name, as George said he has known fires to burn for just five minutes before they were doused.

“I think everybody is a little bit nervous before they light the fire,” he said. “But your average grouse moor keeper is probably lighting around 400 fires a year and I have known a well set-up team of four light 120 fires in a day.

“Grouse moor keepers all know that in order to get their heather burning done, they mustn’t miss an opportunity when the conditions are right.”

Burning is kept in strips a maximum of 35 metres wide, which makes it easier to control and maximises the amount of ‘border ground’.

Creating a mosaic across the landscape, this suits the wildlife just great. George said: “Species always like to be on the edge of a habitat, like people wanting to be on the edge of town. Every time you create the edge of that burn, you are maximising the biodiversity benefit that you can get.”

Burning largely takes place in strips parallel to the direction people will see them, minimising visual impact.

To contain the flames, heather at the edge of planned sites is trimmed and the fire is directed towards gaps in the vegetation such as tracks, streams or previous burning. But beyond that the wind decides which way the fire spreads, so the ranger in charge must be ever vigilant.

George said: “The decision as to exactly where you are going to light is a very big decision and you talk with somebody who has a lot of experience of doing it and getting it right.”

It’s a complicated task, but for the national park’s economy, it’s more than worth the effort. The income that comes from grouse shooting, much of it from overseas, pays for all the management that goes into the moors, and George said unlike arable or livestock farming, it is the only primary use of the UK’s uplands that doesn’t require subsidy to survive.

Gouse shooting brings investment to what would otherwise be fairly deprived rural areas. For example, there are 45 full-time moorland gamekeepers within the North York Moors national park.

“It’s really a combination of science and art and skill to get it right, but whatever way you look at it, the public benefits are at a superlative level. I think it’s a terrifically good success story.

“In my opinion it’s the most successful conservation story in the world,” said George.