What Scotland's grouse moor managers can teach the world about wildfires - Ross Ewing
Scorched wildlife. Displaced people. Broken habitats. Decimated landscapes.
This is the destructive reality of the wildfires that are gripping the world. And it’s getting worse.
I have winced with horror as fire after fire has made the news this year. The latest harrowing example comes from Turkey, where the town of Marmaris – a resort I visited as a child – succumbed to the flames.
The scale of destruction is devastating.
And it’s particularly bad when it hits close to home. Recent fires in Caithness, Dumfries and Galloway, Easter Ross and Moray prove that this is a global issue – not simply a problem for our Australian or American cousins who have endured loss beyond contemplation in recent years.
Because on Scottish grouse moors, there is some outstanding wildfire mitigation in action.
Prescribed burning – or muirburn as it’s known – is a practice synonymous with grouse moor management.
Undertaken during the wetter months between October and April, this controlled technique quickly burns through the upper-most layers of wind-dried vegetation. Crucially, the carbon-rich peat below remains untouched.
It is often referred to as a ‘cool burn’ – a seemingly contradictory turn of phrase. But there have been various, highly effective demonstrations in recent years in which iPhones and Marsbars nestled at the heather-peat interface have emerged perfectly serviceable and un-melted after a burn.
By stark contrast, wildfires decimate peatlands: the critical habitat that accounts for 53% of our carbon store.
Grouse moor managers employ muirburn primarily because it promotes a mosaic of heather – a patchwork of sorts – that provides grouse with optimum nourishment and cover.
Of course, this does not just benefit the grouse. There is a litany of other species – including curlew, golden plover, dunlin, merlin, lesser redpoll and whinchat – that relish the diversity that rotational burning brings to the heather.
But that is just half the story, because muirburn is playing an increasingly pivotal role in wildfire mitigation.
By creating natural fire breaks and reducing fuel loads, muirburn is on the frontline against the impacts of global temperature rise: the foremost challenge facing contemporary society.
The net result is that if an uncontrolled fire were to start, the breaks and reduced fuel load would make it easier to contain, and perhaps curb its progress altogether.
These benefits cannot be underestimated. Indeed, it is telling that the majority of Scotland’s upland wildfires tend to correlate with areas where moorland management has ceased.
Now I am not for a moment suggesting that we should turn all of our uplands into grouse moors. I know that shooting a brace of grouse is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But what I am saying is that the moorland management associated with grouse shooting is providing an exceedingly valuable public service in the face of an unprecedented global challenge.
We ought to at least acknowledge that – and also take note of the fact that it is free, paid for by landowners. Good on them.
But muirburn is under threat. There are some quite extreme individuals and organisations who would genuinely like to see one of our principal tools for wildfire mitigation banned.
The reasons behind this hell bent campaign are pretty inconclusive, and I have to say that any campaign seeking to ban something on the premise of dubious, contested information is highly irresponsible. Reprehensible even, if one considers the potential stakes involved for wildfire mitigation and biodiversity.
But they campaign nonetheless, and it is becoming increasingly clear that this is about much more than the just controlled burning.
This is a class war: a campaign against the perceived landed gentry and their recreational pursuits.
Shooting, and anything remotely associated with it, is fair game. Sod the repercussions for our carbon sequestering, internationally rare moorlands.
But let us not forget that when a fire does break out, it is not these folks on the front line. It is not them standing between the flames, our treasured wildlife and unprecedented carbon loss.
It is our gamekeepers and hill farmers that are standing shoulder to shoulder with firefighters – putting themselves in harm’s way to bring the fire under control.
All too often these brave custodians will fight fire on land that they do not even manage: driven by a sense of community; an allegiance to wildlife.
I for one am glad they are there to protect our uplands. And it is important to acknowledge the strengthened resolve of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who this week pledged to double the number of fire stations with personnel specially trained in tackling wildfires.
This Thursday would ordinarily mark the start of the grouse shooting season – ‘the glorious twelfth’ as it is known.
This year, however, a combination of cold and wet weather in spring has taken its toll on grouse numbers. The start of the season for many will be delayed, and for others it will be somewhat curtailed.
But the management does not stop. It prevails and endures, providing a multitude of public benefits free of charge.
So while we might not be celebrating prospects for the season, we absolutely should celebrate the role that considered moorland management can play in confronting the climate emergency.
It goes without saying - our precious moorlands are better protected as a result.
-Ross Ewing is the public affairs manager for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) in Scotland.