Marsden Moor blaze exposes risks facing peatlands – Michael Innerdale

THE huge blaze that engulfed Marsden Moor last month should shock us all.

A helicopter drops water, taken from a nearby reservoir, onto the flames after a resurgence of the moor fire on Marsden Moor, near Huddersfield last week.

In 60 hours, an area usually alive with birdsong and the hubbub of visitors had been reduced to ash.

Extreme wildfires used to seem like a far-off threat. Nowadays, they feel much closer to home.

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Volunteers and staff at Marsden know the devastation wildfires can reap. They are still painstakingly repairing the landscape after a huge fire in 2019, only to see their work go up in smoke once more.

A firefighter monitors any resurgence of a moor fire on Marsden Moor, near Huddersfield.

Images of smouldering moorland lay bare the scale of these incidents – but there’s damage beneath the ground too.

Peat soils are one of our greatest weapons in the fight against climate change, with the ability to store great amounts of carbon and act as a defence against fires.

But if burned or exposed, peat shifts from being a natural ally to an emitter of carbon. That’s why we don’t manage the land at Marsden by controlled burning as some others suggest.

Instead, we focus on working with nature to create wetter, boggier moors that are rich in wildlife and resistant to future threats.

Sheep graze on the hillside as smoke is seen after a resurgence of the moor fire on Marsden Moor, near Huddersfield.

Places like Marsden Moor aren’t only special for nature, they are part of the fabric of our communities and bring joy to thousands of people who visit and live nearby.

The local people rallying to provide food and water for firefighters, helping treat animals and raising funds in the wake of last week’s fires underscore just how loved these sites are.

The pandemic has shown that people want and need access to green space. We’ve seen a massive increase in people connecting with the wildlife on their doorstep and rediscovering the joy of walking this past year. Nature and the outdoors lift our spirits and give us space to breathe.

It’s especially upsetting that fires like these are so often caused by people. That teams 
of emergency services, landowners and land managers, and rangers have to work around the clock, putting themselves 
at risk, for something so avoidable. These places belong to us all.

It’s critical we each take responsibility by leaving barbecues and fireworks at home, picking up litter and treating our countryside with the care it deserves.

Climate change is only going 
to exacerbate the problem. A recent University of Reading study found that once-in-a-century extreme conditions that pose the highest threat of wildfire could happen every other year by 2080.

With hotter temperatures and less rain, the typical danger season is also likely to expand, leaving even wetter regions at risk of severe fires for several weeks a year.

UK wildfires aren’t on the same catastrophic scale as 
those in California and Australia today, but they still pose a threat to nature, health and the economy.

Two days before the blaze in West Yorkshire, another fire wreaked havoc, this time in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Five hundred acres of heathland were turned into a lunar landscape during three days of flames, wiping out swathes of wildlife habitat that supports skylarks and Irish hares.

Governments must play their part too – starting with peatlands.

They are the world’s biggest carbon store and in Europe, peatlands hold five times as much carbon as trees. Healthy, wet peat is a crucial tool for tackling climate change and a barrier against fires.

But it is no use if it is not in the ground. Voluntary phaseouts of horticultural peat aren’t enough – we need legislation to properly protect and restore this vital habitat.

As for the National Trust and many other individuals and organisations, we won’t sit 
back.

We will repair our places and keep adapting for the future. From creating wetter, boggier moorlands to restoring rivers, we’ll invest in solutions that make our landscapes more resilient and that benefit 
society.

These latest fires were devastating, and sadly, they won’t be the last.

We must use this opportunity to focus our thinking. It’s time we all redoubled our efforts to protect the places we hold 
dear.

The National Trust has launched fundraising appeals to help repair the damage caused by the recent fires. Donations can be made at nationaltrust.org.uk/appeals.

Michael Innerdale is the National Trust’s regional director for the North of England.

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