Plenty more environmentally-costly fires would have ravaged a large moorland estate in West Yorkshire had it not been for dedicated “re-wetting” efforts over recent years.
Speaking from the scene of this week’s fire on Marsden Moor, which raged across an area similar in size to 280 football pitches, Craig Best, the region’s countryside manager at the National Trust, which owns the moorlands, said pre-emptive action elsewhere on the estate had prevented other incidents.
Nesting birds are expected to have been the biggest casualty of the fire which began on Tuesday night and has damaged an area designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area and a Special Area of Conservation.
Mr Best said the National Trust would be plotting where to introduce more effective fire breaks on its moors following the blaze and longer term, climate change made it important for neighbouring landowners to work together.
“The property as a whole (Marsden Moor) covers 230 hectares and there’s no doubt that if we hadn’t undertaken rewetting we would have seen more incidences of these fires happening across the estate,” Mr Best said.
The National Trust has worked with Yorkshire Water and the Moors for the Future group to create dams in gullies, re-establish vegetation in bare peatlands and plant mositure-retaining mosses to re-wet the landscape.
Re-wetting also reduces downstream flooding and acts as a carbon store.
“We firmly believe that doing these restoration measures reduces the risk of moorland fires, despite what we have seen recently,” Mr Best said.
“Most of the area affected by this week’s fire, we haven’t done any of those measures because they haven’t been needed - there has been enough vegetation there.”
Citing climate change as a major concern, Mr Best added: “We are seeing increasingly extreme weather events and it is important for moorland owners to really consider moorland fire plans and that’s something we are going to put in action this year.
“We will make an assessment about where fire breaks should be implemented. It won’t stop a fire happening, but it will reduce the extend of fires.”
Marsden Moor remains at risk of re-igniting after this week’s fire and National Trust personnel have remained on-site alongside firefighters to ensure no sections of peatland are still burning beneath vegetation.
Once that work is completed the impact of the fire’s devastation will be assessed.
Mr Best said: “Marsden Moor is a special place for upland birds, including merlin, which nest on the ground. It’s likely that the biggest loss of wildlife will be nesting birds such as curlew and mountain hares that inhabit this area of the moorland.
“We will be working closely with our partners including Moors for the Future to make a plan to restore the landscape which will include bare peat restoration by spreading heather brash and planting sphagnum.”
He also urged visitors to the countryside to play their part in safeguarding against wildfires, by taking home any litter, making sure cigarettes disposed of responsibly and to only use barbecues in authorised areas.
About 40 firefighters were called to the fire near the A62, east of Marsden village at 7pm on Tuesday. The cause of the blaze is not yet known.