Cutting and Burning in the Peak District

Cuts on Peak Naze
Small cuts on Peak Naze, where burning is restricted

As part of the Heather Trust’s ongoing project to monitor heather beetle treatments on two moors in the Peak District, I headed back down to an area of England which is fast becoming quite familiar. Having looked over the plots near Buxton, I headed over to Peak Naze with the United Utilities tenant Richard May. Peak Naze stands almost due North of Glossop and is about as close to Manchester as it is possible to be without standing on tarmac. The Peak District is amazing for its ability to squeeze itself between some of the biggest cities in the country and yet still retain a unique element of wild upland character.

Like so many areas of the Peak District, Peak Naze is owned by United Utilities, which has gradually been picking up property over the past few decades so that it now owns vast blocks of countryside. Owing to the fact that United Utilities manages water catchments, they are not keen on heather burning, which was traditionally associated with discolouration in water supplies and, in some areas, damage to mosses and peat forming vegetation. United Utilities currently places serious restrictions on what can be burnt and when, making life rather more complicated for their sporting tenants, but from this complexity, innovation is starting to show through. Unable to manage their moorland using traditional techniques, many moorland managers in the Peak District are now cutting heather using lightweight machinery which not only satisfies the landlord but also complies with the various regulations set down by Natural England, which holds the purse strings on grant payments. This innovation is uniquely suited to come from the Peak District, where the ground is firm and free of boulders and machinery has a free reign across thousands of acres.

Peak Naze was burnt out by a wildfire four years ago, removing all but a few dozen acres of mature heather. When Richard May became the tenant, a huge extent of moorland was slowly regenerating back into heather after the fire. It was not in anyone’s interests to allow such a large area of moorland to come back without management of any kind, so Richard began to cut into the regeneration using a small power flail towed by a quad bike, satisfying representatives from Natural England that using machinery on the hill was not causing damage to the moorland. Such is the nature of the heather on Peak Naze that the regeneration was extremely dramatic. The cut sticks sprouted out four or five inches of fresh growth in their first summer alone, creating great feeding for the grouse and helping to vary an area of moorland which was looking worryingly bare without a major firebreak.

Over the past few months, Richard has managed to cut an array of small plots on the open hillside at Peak Naze, and the overall effect is not displeasing (aesthetics do matter, if not in terms of management then certainly to the eyes of the general public). Peak Naze carries the various cuts off quite well, unlike the ugly grid-work which has been put onto the hill opposite Peak Naze (picture below).

There has been a vague disagreement between proponents of cutting and burning over the past few years. Managers who burn argue that cutting is not suitable on rough ground where access is difficult, and they also point to the improved germination rate of heather seed which has been tainted by smoke. They also argue that cutting can be slow and expensive, but there is no doubt that there is a growing school of thought which regards cutting as a real, practical tool for the future. Not only can heather be cut in the rain when burning is out of the question, but it also satisfies all kinds of environmental concerns (whether real or imagined) which are annually highlighted by the spate of Easter wildfires.

Looking at the cuts on Peak Naze, it is quite easy to be convinced that cutting is a great deal more useful and accessible than it ever was, and it is a great alternative to traditional burning where legislation or regulation does not allow it. However, it is quite possible that in the aftermath of a wildfire where heather is all at the same age, even the most determined keeper will struggle to cut enough each year to cover the ground he needs to manage. Lightweight machinery can lead to slow progress, so while it has its obvious advantages, it clearly does not need to be so straightforward as choosing between cutting and burning. Some of the best burns are controlled by firebreaks which have been cut, and the aim of creating a good mixture of old and young heather allows for the use of both cutting and burning together. Moors vary from region to region, and it is unlikely that any reasonably sized area of heather can be managed to its full advantage without the use of both management techniques.

Where cutting really does raise some fascinating new questions is in the idea of “micro-management”, which allows the keeper to design grouse territories to a pre-established formula. Richard showed me small areas of around 6 metres x 4 metres which he has cut alongside burns and adjacent to other cuts which he claims will allow young grouse to get out of the taller heather during periods of wet weather so that they can dry off and keep warm. The shape of these mini-cuts is like a lay-by off the main drag of a burn or cut, giving shelter from the wind while allowing grouse to duck in and out of cover as and when they need to. Such a small area is more or less impractical to burn, yet with a small cutter, they can be put in at pre-ordained intervals with just a few moments’ work.

This idea of designing and creating territories for grouse is something that perhaps needs to be revised now that cutting is such a viable means of heather management. If we can get in and design customised habitat for moorland birds using a combination of burns and small cuts, it is certainly worth pursuing as an idea. What form this design will take is very much up for discussion, but now that technology has allowed cutting to become such a useful tool, the next step is surely to work out how best we can use it.

An ugly business - cutting a grid of breaks above Glossop
An ugly business – when cutting goes bad

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