Heated debate

Heated debate

Fire through the heather

Judging by the news, most of the north of Scotland is currently on fire. Hyperbole and exaggeration aside, there have been some big fires in the north and the perennial issue of muirburn has reared its head conspicuously on cue yet again. It is interesting how issues relating to wildfire and muirburn are relayed by the media, and there is a good example of wildfire coverage on Radio Scotland’s drive time programme on Tuesday (coverage starts at 37:29), when a variety of opinions were sought on the subject of wildfire, and Simon Thorp of the Heather Trust was included as part of a tie-in to the fact that the muirburn code is due to be reviewed over the coming months.

What struck me most of all during this piece was the level of general misinformation surrounding muirburn. The Radio Scotland reporter Ian McDonald explained that muirburn was an attempt by landowners to burn off moss and weeds which grow up during the winter, and the fireman’s expression “muirburn (as they call it)” spoke volumes about public perceptions of fire as a management tool. (The “us and them” implication here being “Well we do tell them not to do it, but the stubborn bastards just won’t see sense”). When I was involved in a wildfire last year, a fireman asked me why on earth I had lit it. I explained that it was “muirburn” which had got out of control and he simply said “what’s muirburn?”

As I found while trying to publicise the link between conserving black grouse and shooting them, radio interviews are an appallingly brief and ambiguous way of trying to tackle complex issues, and they can hang on a turn of phrase or a throw-away comment which skews the entire balance of the discussion. In two or three days, something more interesting will happen and the eyes of the nation will be diverted elsewhere, but in the meantime, it’s interesting to see the idea of muirburn being used as a political point scoring exercise, here and elsewhere.

You don’t have to look hard online to see any attempt at burning heather branded as the work of ugly, leering gamekeepers who want nothing more from the world than an opportunity to pull the head off a goshawk. Possible damage done to sensitive blanket bogs as a result of burning becomes re-interpreted as burners gouging out the lifeblood of Carbon loaded peatland. And the most agonising injustice of it all is that the Government appears to be subsidising this crooked, right-wing agenda that ultimately aims to kill every upland bird and replace spring water with claret (or crude oil, or champagne, or whatever it is that rich people supposedly drink. The sweat of the working class).

It is hardly the responsibility of everyone involved in shooting to rally round and defend the worst excesses of the few. My interest in grouse shooting does not require me to stand up for people who, out of their own cussed stupidity, start massive blazes after the fire brigade specifically advised them not to, but I do know enough about wildfire to understand that the issue is a great deal more complicated than simply “naughty people doing silly things”. As much as you can plan a fire so that losing control is extremely unlikely, there is always a possibility that things will not go according to plan. The manner in which you deal with a fire that is deviating from the script is what divides responsible people from careless people. As long as muirburn is a management tool, there will always be danger – it is part of the nature of dealing with fire. But good planning, careful work and the right equipment will ensure that when a fire gets out of hand, it can be brought to heel again with a minimum of fuss.

There is no doubt that some burners are careless and unprepared for the task in hand. Their negligence causes silly accidents, but to cynically denounce muirburn entirely because it is associated with grouse shooting is total madness. To read the words of some commentators over the past twenty four hours, you could be forgiven for thinking that landowners have concocted some strange new weapon in their bid to destroy the uplands. In some areas, it is currently too dry to burn heather safely. People should not be burning heather where it is too dry, and there’s no doubt that in these cases (particularly after warnings have been issued), blame can be apportioned where it is relevant. There are careless or over-intensive elements to grouse moor management, but to deride it at every opportunity is to deliberately turn a blind eye to all the unquestionable good that managed moors provide.

In fact, the area where most of the fires have been raging out of control have been in the North West of Scotland, where grouse moor management is more or less non-existent as a land use. Although we don’t currently know the details, it seems far more likely that the fires were lit by shepherds in order to improve the grazing. But with upland farmers coming through tough times after the snow, it would be a brave critic who pointed the finger in that direction. Wildfires caused by cigarettes, vandals and camp fires have all been described as “muirburn” and blamed on grouse shooters over the past few days. It is so much more palateable to blame the evil spectre of grouse moor management. Muirburn (along with wildfire and indeed anything in the countryside which happens to be smoking) is tossed in to a fulminating pot of raptor persecution, private land ownership and the apparently maddening idea that, in order to shoot grouse in any quantity, you need to be extremely wealthy.

If I had enough heather to burn, I would be burning it because I understand how useful fresh heather is to black grouse. Heather evolved to be burnt. Chemicals in heather smoke vernalise the seed and create lush, vigorous growth in subsequent years. Scotland is proud of its heather, but the plant is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t look after heather properly, you lose it. There is no doubt that burning is part of looking after heather. The sarcastic commentators who now so glibly deride burning as the outdated management tool of pyromaniac gamekeepers should see through the smoke and grasp the value of fire. Ironically, it is the very existence of muirburn which often saves us from monstrous fires which would even make Australians gasp. Do away with muirburn and in the short term you create the possibility for larger, less controllable wildfires. In the long term, you raise serious questions about the future of heather in Scotland.

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