To the uninitiated, heather burning seems a bizarre and rather environmentally unfriendly practice. However, it is essential for Moorland Management purposes, not only because heather is the staple diet of the Red Grouse and therefore these birds need a plentiful supply of high quality feed (which is in the main provided by young and intermediate heather rather than when the heather plant gets old and “leggy”), but also because heather burning plays a vital role in providing a good feed source for hill sheep. It is also important because at certain times of the year when ground conditions are very dry (surprisingly at its worst in the spring and early summer), Moorland can be very susceptible to wildfires and so organised heather burning creates very necessary firebreaks which helps reduce the risk of wild fires burning out large parts of a Moor and damaging both the habitat itself and the wild life which lives on the Moor.
Heather burning has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years, much of it propagated by the RSPB and its allies including Dr. Mark Avery. Some of their criticism is in part justified as over-intensive heather burning can be destructive of the habitat and equally, poor burning practices can cause damage to the peat layer. However, high quality heather burning is an essential Moorland management tool and the alternative, thousands of acres of long, leggy heather with a very high calorific content which means it is incredibly combustible if it accidentally catches fire, neither provides any of the feed necessary for sheep and grouse, but also is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. It was very good news to hear a representative from Natural England say this on last week’s Countryfile programme.
The heather burning season in England (which includes Wales!) is from October 1st through to April 15th. It is therefore split into autumn and spring burning, but given that most heather Moors are in the North of England and very often are situated in the western part of the country where the rainfall is high, the actual number of days when heather burning can occur (because the heather is sufficiently dry but not too dry to burn so there is little risk of the fire getting into the peat), are few. In the very wettest Moorland areas such as Southwest of Scotland or the Trough of Bowland in Lancashire, there are because of bad weather, years when no heather burning can occur. This may be very different to the number of days available in drier Moorland areas such as the North Yorks Moors or in County Durham. Whilst it is occasionally possible to get a Licence to burn heather out of the normal burning season, these are seldom used.
Heather burning has not changed that much over the years, except that now keepers are better equipped not only to light the fires, but also much more importantly, to control them and put them out. Water bowsers which are tanks of water with high pressure hoses fitted into the back of argocats or other four-wheel drive all-terrain vehicles are in widespread use and many Moors freshly cut round areas of heather to be burnt, which also provides a firebreak. The key to good heather burning is to have lots of small areas of burnt heather spread throughout the Moor, so that the Moorland habitat includes recently burnt heather, new heather emerging within one or two years from when the area was previously burnt – this provides excellent feed, then intermediate heather which provides both food and cover and also small areas of long heather which are well interspersed throughout the Moor, which provides shelter and are also very good for other birds including merlins, (a small falcon), often found on well-managed Moors to live in.
Heather can take quite different periods of time to re-grow after a previous crop is burnt. In part this will depend on the age of the heather that was burnt as the older it is, the longer it takes to re-grow. Also, heather tends to take longer to re-grow at high altitude or where ground conditions are not conducive to vigorous growth. As a result, heather usually takes much longer to re-grow in the North of Scotland at high altitude than it does for instance in the Peak District of Derbyshire or on the North York Moors, which is lower lying and hence a kinder growing environment.
Well-managed Moorland needs heather to be burnt, carefully and in a sensible rotation; not too much, nor too little. Hill Gamekeeepers are experts at this and undertake this arduous task in all Moorland areas. The end result in August are the purple clad heather hills, we all like to see and on which many birds and animals depend.