Skye gamekeeper says 'out of control' muir burning was factor in spread of island wildfires

A Skye gamekeeper says a number of wildfires wreaking havoc on the island in recent days were caused by a combination of muir burning spreading out of control and dry conditions.
Firefighters on Skye battled several wildfires over the weekend. Pic: SFRS/Dunvegan Fire StationFirefighters on Skye battled several wildfires over the weekend. Pic: SFRS/Dunvegan Fire Station
Firefighters on Skye battled several wildfires over the weekend. Pic: SFRS/Dunvegan Fire Station

On Saturday night, Dunvegan Fire Station tweeted that they had been called to “nine wildfire shouts in three days,” including a blaze at the iconic Quiraing landslip.

Police in Skye have also appealed to the public for information about a large hill fire which started in the Moll area on Friday, causing damage to fencing and resulting in “dangerous road conditions” and the closure of the A87 road.

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Firefighters last week also battled a large wildfire in Benbecula which extended across 1km at its height, while residents in Lewis were urged to shut their doors and windows on Saturday as crews dealt with a major fire on the island.

Scott Mackenzie, a Skye gamekeeper who has witnessed several fires on the island in the last week, said: “These fires have started from the annual muirburn (burning of heather, gorse or grasslands).

“Some of them have been under control, but others have unfortunately spread away from those who are trying to manage them.

“We have had some fantastic dry weather lately which has left the land tinder dry.

“Crofters on Skye have been making the most of this to carry out their annual muirburn, but some of the fires have spread. It’s that time of year where this is likely to happen.”

Scott, who claims to be the last-remaining gamekeeper on Skye, said fewer people working on the hill is another reason why the fires have spread.

“Crofting is less of a full-time job compared to 50 years ago,” he said, “so there’s less management on the hill which can be why these fires end up getting out of hand.

“We need better, long-term management of this land to prevent muirburns getting out of control.”

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He confirmed muirburns currently happening on Skye are to encourage regrowth for livestock.

“These aren’t intentional fires, sometimes the fire can just get out of control,” he added.

A fire service spokesperson confirmed crews were checking for remaining hotspots on Sunday morning following two wildfires - at Flodigarry Hill near Portree in Skye and at Loch Coille in Keose on Lewis. As of Sunday evening, there were no more fires to report in the Hebrides.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) area commander, Bruce Farquharson, warned last week that some parts of Scotland’s countryside were still vulnerable to fire despite the freezing temperatures and snow in eastern and central parts of the country.

He said that, at this time of year, it is typical to have a large volume of dead, bone-dry vegetation left over which essentially acts as a fuel for fire.

He said the weather pattern has been very similar to what was witnessed two years ago during the ‘Beast from the east,’ which saw a number of challenging wildfire incidents on Barra and Skye.

Wildfires have the potential to burn for days and devastate vast areas of land and wildlife, and threaten nearby communities.

A spate of wildfires can also place unnecessary pressure on emergency services.

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Firefighters in island communities are retained, meaning they have other jobs and respond to incidents on call rather than working in a fire station full time.

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