Adrian Blackmore: Give gamekeepers credit for vital work saving fire-hit moorland

THE wildfires that have been raging on moorland in the North of England are a stark reminder of the force of nature.

Firefighters tackle a blaze on Saddleworth Moor.

The fire on Saddleworth Moor took 10 days to bring under control, involving firefighters from seven counties to fight the blaze, assisted by gamekeepers, wardens from the Peak District National Park, National Trust and RSPB, as well as soldiers, farmers and other volunteers.

Much like managing moorland, fighting a wildfire can be extremely complex. It can also be very dangerous, and those gamekeepers, who came from nine shooting estates from across the Peak District, were able to provide much-needed experience and specialist fighting equipment.

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Yet, whilst they were doing everything they could to battle the blaze, putting their lives at risk to help reduce the considerable environmental damage, there were campaigners and columnists far removed from the action who were only too happy to spread false truths in order to further their own agendas.

Until a full investigation into these wildfires has been carried out, it cannot be known for certain their cause, but at least one environmentalist has already tried to place the blame on management practices carried out on grouse moors.

Their sadly predictable claim was that grouse moor management often involves draining boggy ground, and cutting and burning vegetation to maintain a monoculture of low heather, which creates an artificial habitat that is highly susceptible to wildfires, and that the evidence would suggest that this
was the cause. Anyone who has 
stepped foot on a grouse moor will have identified this as a prime example of 
‘fake news’.

So, what are the facts? Heather moorland is a habitat of international importance, with 75 per cent of that remaining worldwide being found in upland Britain. It is therefore our duty to protect it. Some of the largest expanses are in Yorkshire, with the North York Moors alone covering some 554 square miles. Whilst the habitat may look
wild, it is in fact very carefully managed, and it is thanks to its management, especially on grouse moors, that this unique landscape has been maintained and restored, where elsewhere it has been lost.

Part of that management involves the controlled rotational burns of small areas of old heather during the winter months, when the roots are at their wettest, as this prevents the burning of peat beneath the vegetation.

The resultant patchwork of different height heather benefits not just red grouse, a species that is unique to the United Kingdom, and one that is only found on heather dominant moorland, but also those other ground nesting birds that share the habitat to breed, including the curlew which has recently been described by the RSPB as the UK’s highest conservation priority.

The controlled burning of rank and woody heather with its significant
build-up of fuel loads is a practice that can help reduce the devastating effect of wildfires, removing as it does this potential fire source, as well as creating natural firebreaks to help prevent their spread.

The drainage of peatland to increase agricultural activity, not grouse numbers, was once widespread in the uplands, but it is a practice that has subsequently been discredited. Grouse moor managers, working in conjunction with the Government and other organisations, are working on projects to restore damaged peatland.

This has included the blocking 
of 4,000km of drains, the intention being to have wetter peat – not drier, 
and the introduction of blanket bog species such as sphagnum moss which not only absorb and filter water, but 
also have a vital role in the creation of peat.

These, along with burning, are essential tools in the restoration toolbox, and it is thanks to this action that some 44,500 acres of moorland have been repaired and revegetated across the North of England, all on land managed for grouse shooting.

This is a conservation success story at the heart of which are gamekeepers like those that have been battling the recent wildfires. Fires that they did not cause, but which they were desperate to help extinguish to help protect our treasured heather moorland so that they, and the wildlife they support, can be enjoyed by everyone.

Adrian Blackmore is Director of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance.