Having spent the past forty eight hours in the Galloway Forest, one of the most striking things has been the fantastic weather. Walking the Awful Hand yesterday (of which more to come), the bright sunlight stripped the skin off my nose and left my forearms glowing angrily. The sky was clear from Arran to the Lake District, and most crucially of all, the heather and white grass was tinder dry. It was quite alarming then to head back to the bothy and see a gathering number of caravans, campervans and tents being set up for Easter weekend, each one with its own camp fire and barbecue tossing streams of sparks and cinders into the hot air. In fact, it was rare to see a single gathering of cars and people without a fire in their midst, and I had a great opportunity on the way home this morning to see a group of kids ripping down a live rowan tree and setting it on fire next to a gathering of tents. There was an audible and active black grouse lek within sixty yards, but as I got closer, I heard that they were playing dance music so loudly on their mobile phones that they would never have been able to hear it.
The general public often feels an inherent need to light fires in such situations, but with the heather and blow grass literally crackling with the desire to burn, it seemed like a matter of time before something was going to go wrong. As I doubled back around the top of Loch Doon, I watched a load of people getting out of a minibus and running down to the loch side. A quarter of an hour later as the same layby came into view again from the Carsphairn road a few miles away, a large fire was already out of control. I pulled over and watched from the roadside as it burnt off the best part of ten acres of heather and myrtle, gathering momentum and fanned by a Southerly wind. It had been inevitable, and there was some irony in the fact that I had been talking with friends about previous wildfires just a few minutes before.
The Forestry Commission actively encourages visitors to this area, and laybys and campsites are engorged with tourists who are set upon burning things. There may well be restrictions or guidelines on fires in place, but I was there for two days and never saw anything stand out in terms of signage. There were no visible Foresters driving round supervising the situation, and the impression was rather like a free for all. A patronising sign by the side of the road read: “This is your Forest Park – what are you going to do today?” The unwritten follow up was “why not light a fire while you think about it”.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, when a fire gets away, you can hardly blame the people who set it. The responsibility has to lie with the management of a massive area of moorland and forest which has next to no consideration of fire. Some of the heather in the Forest Park is the rankest I have ever seen anywhere, and with the exception of a few fiddly stabs here and there with a tractor flail, it is uniform in its mismanagement. Well maintained fire breaks and internal infrastructure would limit the damage that Easter wildfires could cause, but these are either totally absent or neglected so far as to be useless. Fortunately, the population of the park is so small and the buildings so sparse that a fire will rarely have an opportunity to harm human beings, so to an outsider like me, the attitude towards wildfire seems strangely inviting.
The concentrations of black grouse are gathered around previous wildfires, and the leks move around in the aftermath of the blazes as the new growth creates a honey-pot of fresh heather. Not only does this demonstrate the value of doing something with the undergrowth, but it hints at the possibilities for biodiversity in the area. If the hills were properly managed, there would be more blue hares and grouse, meaning more keynote species like peregrines, eagles and harriers which the public has every right to expect to see on ground that is managed in their name. Even the easy, accessible areas are not managed, and I even struggled to find breaks around the specific hotspots where fires must be lit every night of the summer.
As I headed back down the road to Carsphairn, the wind carried the fire further and further over the hill. I don’t know what has become of it, but I would assume that it was broken by the road after a good run for an hour or two, toasting out the birds’ nests and maybe singeing some wool here and there. No doubt someone will be blaming gamekeepers.