Muirburn is the managed burning of heather, gorse and grassland that happens annually between October and April.
Simon Thorp, former director of The Heather Trust and who currently runs his own upland management consultancy firm, said muirburn is an essential practice to prevent wildfires posing a risk to human life and wildlife – if done properly.
He issued a warning in the wake of devastating “out-of-control” fires that have swept across the Western Isles, which included at least nine fire service callouts on Skye on 13 February.
He said most of them were caused by people attempting to carry out muirburn, but who “don’t know what they’re doing” – a problem, he said, that is far too familiar in Scotland.
The moorland expert said the root of the issue lies in the lack of education surrounding controlled burning.
“It’s going to take a human to die in a wildfire before action is taken,” said Mr Thorp, who referenced several wildfires on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh in recent years, highlighting it is not an isolated issue in Scotland’s highlands.
“We need to encourage more education about muirburn – it creates firebreaks and limits fuel load, which prevents wildfires from spreading, and it also encourages biodiversity.
"Some people think moorland groups and gamekeepers are burning peat, which is a terrible misunderstanding. Muirburn is needed to protect peat, to stop the wildfires spreading and burning at a serious heat.
“There’s a misconception that muirburn leads to wildfires. What instead leads to wildfires is people attempting to muirburn with limited knowledge, which can result in fires destroying valuable landscape. Other causes are, of course, issues with visitors to the countryside and deliberate fires.”
Mr Thorp, who was commissioned by the Scottish Government to lead the Muirburn Code, said many crofters working on land that was recently seen ablaze did not have the manpower, tools or time required to carry out a successful controlled burn.
This, coupled with arid land after a spell of dry weather, could be lethal, he said.
Gamekeepers, according to Mr Thorp are the best teachers for muirburn.
“Education has to come from the people on the ground – from the gamekeepers who have done this for generations,” he said.
“They are good at it and they need to be at the heart of the discussion when policies are being made about protecting land from wildfires.
“We need to harness their knowledge, develop their guidance and get them to work together with farmers, crofters and other land users who want to muirburn and who are all important land managers.”
Mr Thorp added: “We also need to remember wildfires come as no surprise each year, so it’s important to plan ahead, look at what might burn and do a wildfire risk assessment for areas likely to be impacted.
"There needs to be a joined-up approach of planning ahead where there is vegetation.
"Wildfires can impact urban areas just as badly and can kill people, and we don’t want someone to have to die before there is a wake-up call.”
Scotland’s wildfire season is expanding and, in 50 years’ time, the country will face the same level of wildfire risk as Portugal, according to Bruce Farquharson, from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
The area commander echoed Mr Thorp’s call for education, saying public awareness of muirburn is “imperative” to protecting Scotland’s landscape and people.
“The fires we have seen in the last few weeks, and over the last few decades, just show how little the public is educated on muirburn,” he said.
“The most effective way to protect land from wildfires is to burn it, in small areas, that are well-managed.
“Australia, parts of Europe and California, where they experience much bigger, hotter fires, are all doing it – it helps.”
Mr Farquharson spoke about the Moray fire in 2019, one of the biggest wildfires seen in the UK which, according to a local gamekeeper, spread across land that had been left unmanaged for years, destroying about 60sqkm of vegetation in its path.
“There’s a clear geographical line between areas that have been managed by muirburn and unmanaged land that is at a high risk of damage by wildfires,” Mr Farquharson said.
The area commander said Wildfire Groups – partnerships between local fire services, estates and land operators – should be widely established across the country’s regions to further educate the public and develop a better understanding of wildfire risks.
There are only two that are active, which Mr Farquharson said he is “baffled” by given their importance in providing operational guidance on wildfires.
“We need to see more of these groups, they put the code into practice,” he said.
“What worries me is some people see muirburn, and the gamekeepers who manage it, as the root of all evil, which is a concern.
“They are passionate about protecting the land, their livelihoods depend on it.
“They need to be driving the discussions and education rather than being told what to do.”
A Scottish Government spokesman responded by highlighting the importance of following the ‘“countryside code” – different to the Muirburn Code.
He added: “SFRS produced its Wildfire Strategy in June 2020, which sets out how it will develop and enhance its wildfire capability and take into account the growing threat of climate change.
“In November 2020 we announced that muirburn will also only be permitted under licence regardless of the time of year it is undertaken and whether or not it is for grouse moor management or improving grazing.”
The spokesman said the Scottish Government was looking at introducing a licensing regime to enhance the monitoring and regulation of muirburn, following a public consultation.