Scotland wildfires: Rewilding chief says rewilded Highland estates 'fundamentally unprepared' for wildfires

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service issued “very high risk” wildfire warnings this week

The head of one of Scotland’s leading rewilding charities has said rewilded estates are “fundamentally unprepared” for wildfire risk with their increased vegetation.

Nigel Fraser, chairman of Trees for Life, made the comments in the newly-released documentary The Last Keeper, which premiered in Edinburgh this week.

The film, directed by Tom Opre, documents competing interests between rural communities, ‘rewilding’ groups and politicians over what is best for the land, wildlife and people in the Highlands.

The documentary features Mr Fraser standing beside land managed by Trees for Life that was ravaged by the Cannich wildfire in June last year, which burned through 11 square km in the Scottish Highlands. Smoke from the flames could be detected by NASA satellites.

The fire also caused extensive damage to an RSPB’s Corrimony nature reserve, with the charity saying many ground-nesting birds, including black grouse, had lost chicks or eggs in the blaze just south of Inverness. Hundreds of native trees planted to regenerate habitats the reserve were also destroyed.

Mr Fraser warned areas where rewilding initiatives are taking place were “fundamentally unprepared” for future wildfires, which were likely to increase in number.

He said: “We are a non-sporting estate, so we don’t burn. The temptation for people who are opposed to conservation, rewilding, whatever you want to call it, is to say that we made life worse for ourselves by having all this ground cover. And there’s no getting away from it, we’re increasing the fuel burden on the ground.

“There’s no way to get away from that, that’s what’s happening. There’s more to burn on a rewilding landscape than there is on the opposite. I think it’s a fact we’re going to have more fires.

“We are fundamentally unprepared at the moment; unless you’re on a sporting estate, which manages a mosaic of burnt habitat for different purposes.

“To me, it’s bringing in an expert, someone like the gamekeepers who were here fighting this fire [Cannich], saying ‘what I can do to limit my chances of experiencing this again?’”

Last month, the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill was passed, which includes more restrictions on the practice of muirburn - controlled burning - which will require a licence all year round.

This week, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service issued “very high risk” warnings for parts of the south and west of Scotland. Firefighters tackled an average of one wildfire every day across Scotland during spring and early summer last year.

Figures show 133 incidents were reported between March and June 2023, which has been graded as the busiest time of the year for fires to occur across the country.

Trees for Life was set up with a mission to rewild the Highlands. In response to the damage caused by the Cannich wildfire, the charity has a scheme where volunteers pay about £500 for a week to take part in a “larger-scale” tree planting project to plant native trees in the affected areas.

The Last Keeper features interviews with people who have worked the land for, in some cases, centuries, including gamekeepers, crofters, landowners and farmers. Their views are shared alongside interviews with land campaigners, including former MSP Andy Wightman, and the heads of groups associated with ‘rewilding’ initiatives, including Peter Cairns of Scotland The Big Picture, and David Balharry, chief executive of the John Muir Trust.

The film was premiered at the Cameo Picturehouse in Edinburgh on Thursday.



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