Smoke signals of the changing face of autumn

Gamekeeper Simon Brooks burns heather on Blubberhouses Moor. Picture: SWNS
Gamekeeper Simon Brooks burns heather on Blubberhouses Moor. Picture: SWNS
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The smoke from the burning heather on Blubberhouses Moor yesterday was a signal of the wind of change blowing across Yorkshire’s moorland.

Gamekeeper Simon Brooks, working in the Washburn Valley below Harrogate, was one of many to keep alive the autumn tradition of burning heather on controlled patches of grouse moors to stimulate new growth for wildlife.

But the old practice of rotational burning, in which different areas are renewed on a ten-year cycle, is giving way to new methods that encourage the restoration of the region’s upland peat resources.

The Moorland Association, which represents grouse moor owners responsible for more than 1m acres of land, brokered deals earlier this year with Natural England to strike a balance between increasing bird populations and protecting peat bogs.

Yorkshire has nearly 70,000 hectares of upland peat soil, which is a valuable habitat for plant and animal species and is rich in carbon. Around 70 per cent of the UK’s drinking water comes from the uplands.

Three years ago, a report by Leeds University warned that managed heather burning had “a profound impact on the life support systems of the peatlands”, harmed aquatic life and released large quantities of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association, said yesterday: “We need to be encouraging plant species in blanket bogs, and the burning you are seeing now is a way of getting the bogs back into a good condition.

“It’s a new shift.”

In August, on the eve of the grouse shooting season, the Wemmergill Estate near Barnard Castle became the first to sign a 25-year agreement with Natural England to preserve deep peat resources, with upland catchments in Swaledale, Arkengarthdale and Wensleydale set to follow.

Ms Anderson said: “There are all sorts of reasons to understand what’s beneath our feet and to get it working properly like it used to.”