Devastating fire brought moor new life

Fylingdales Moor Fire
Fylingdales Moor Fire

It began with a single spark.

Ten years ago Fylingdales moor was reduced to ash, as hundreds of fire fighters used 19 pumps and a water dumping helicopter to bring a raging wildfire under control.

For five days between September 17 and 21, the blaze would burn across 250 hectares of precious moorland, causing damage that would take generations to repair.

Millions of litres of water were used and firefighters dug a firebreak in a disused railway cutting and built a dam on the moor to supply water for the helicopter.

Due to the nature of the moor, once the flames were put out the peat underneath continued to smoulder for some time afterwards.

Yet in the intervening decade, precious relics began to spring from the devastation.

The area burnt contained 30 Scheduled Ancient Monuments and thousands of unknown archaeological features were discovered, including Mesolithic flints and 185 carved rocks.

Field boundaries and evidence of habitation gave an insight into the lives of our Stone Age ancestors, while unusual rock art gave a unique insight into their culture and traditions.

Grass and heather have reclaimed the moor, yet beneath the surface the damage is far from repaired. The burnt layer of peat will take many years to recover and it is impossible to calculate the loss of life to plant and animal life.

“While it was a disaster at the time,” said Hawk and Owl Trust Ranger Chris Hansell, “it revealed the need for a plan to monitor and manage the moor.

w071910d Fire Exhibition DJ'Whitby Museum host exhibition on the 2003 morrland fire and the subsequent archeology discovered

w071910d Fire Exhibition DJ'Whitby Museum host exhibition on the 2003 morrland fire and the subsequent archeology discovered

“This is now in place and as a result the flora and fauna have recovered and are benefitting greatly.”

To mark the anniversary of the fire, the Staintondale and Ravenscar Local History Group, along with the wild bird of prey conservation charity, the Hawk and Owl Trust, who manage the moor on behalf of owner Sir Fred Strickland-Constable, are holding a series of events this weekend at Ravenscar Village Hall and in the first car park past the Ravenscar Mast.

Fylingdales Moor is now better mapped archaeologically than anywhere else on the North York Moors. The total of 150 sites and features known before the fire has been increased to over 2,000.

Many of these ancient features had first been excavated during Victorian archaeological digs, but inadequate recording of locations meant they were subsequently reclaimed by the moor.

Formerly part if the land holding of Whitby Abbey, the land would have been farmed to supply the community and supplement its income. Yet evidence of agriculture on the moor suggests the land was exploited from the Bronze Age.

With the heather burnt away it was possible to see traces of ancient field boundaries, usually invisible beneath vegetation.

One particularly decorated stone found in an early Bronze Age ring cairn is more intricately carved than the others, but the rock’s 4,000-year-old sculptor remains as much of a mystery as the moor’s other ancient artists. Referred to as the Map Stone or the Fire Stone, a cast of the flat stone can be found at Whitby Museum.

Patterns on the carved stone hint at an ancient map, but the purpose of the stone - which is believed to have been a broken piece of a larger slab - is unknown.

The thinking at the time was that the stone was a map of the area showing tribal settlements, mountains and other features, but archaeologists now believe it to be a funerary grave-cover with depictions of the after-life.

Following the fire, the restoration plan for the moor began in the spring of 2004 and involved sowing Highland Bent as a nurse grass, plus Wavy Hair-grass and Perrenial Rye-grass.

Small heather bales were used to block gullies and prevent any more of the fragile soil being washed away.

In the autumn heather seed and brash was spread, followed in 2005 by further chopped brash and grass seed to areas previously unseeded,

After three years it was found that the nurse grass was steadily being replaced by native grasses, sedges, rushes and dwarf shrubs with ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath recovering.

Life was returning to the moor.

Since that time there has been a steady improvement in the flora and fauna on the affected area.

Areas of heather have grown to the point where they need to be managed again as habitat and food for grouse.

The ponds which were dug in response to the fire have developed and now contain a variety of plants and insects.

Ground nesting birds such as grouse, curlew, skylark and meadow pipit have seen their numbers increase over the years, while deer and hares can also now be found in good numbers on the recovered land.

It began with a single spark, but from the flames sprang a greater understanding of our landscape - timeless, pragmatic and fragile.

This article was produced with the assistance of the North York Moors National Park and the Hawk and Owl Trust.